Minecraft Baltic Heritage Project: Playing History and Co-Creating Community with Youth in the Baltic Sea Region

Our project is a collaboration with the Swedish National Naval Museum (Marinmuseum) in Karlskrona, Sweden, The University of Skövde, Division of Game Development in Skövde, Sweden and The University of Vidzemes in Valmeira, Latvia. Financial support was provided by the Swedish Institute and additional technical support from Geoboxers in Denmark.  This project was funded as a seed project by the Swedish Institute (2017-2019) to test the possibilities of this form of ‘cultural gaming’ with heritage in the Baltic Sea Region and to build a network for future participation among other Baltic Countries. In 2019, the project was further funded by the EU Baltic Sea Region Interreg fund for continuation through 2022, with 14 International Baltic Partners, as a part of the Cultural Planning as a Method of Social Innovation Project. In this second phase, gamification will play a significant part to unite citizens in the co-creation of their historical communities through play and exploration.

 

The primary aim of the initial seed project, however, was to develop cross-cultural connections among youth through gaming, gamification, and game-based learning with heritage in communities across the Baltic Sea. In this pilot version, we focused on Karlskrona, Sweden (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and Cesis, Latvia (a medieval city with many historical features) situated on opposite sides of the Baltic Sea. Our goal was to support citizen-driven explorations of heritage with youth and culture across the Baltic and to find common interests and histories through forms of learning through interactive play within the virtual worlds of Minecraft, a popular commercial game customized for our project. Ultimately both Swedish and Latvian youth were connected through their common Minecraft experiences exploring and co-creating heritage in the virtual worlds we designed. And our pilot workshops now serve as a foundation for future collaborations with museums and other cultural stakeholders to support interactive game-based learning for heritage.

 

We began technical and infrastructure planning in late 2017, and our project was open for public participation in the Spring and Fall of 2019 within a series of workshops with youth hosted at our partner museum, the Swedish National Naval Museum in Karlskrona, and at the Virtual Gaming Lab at Vidzemes University in Valmeira Latvia—very close to Cesis where our Latvian Minecraft map was set. Lead partners were from the University of Skövde, Division of Game Development in Sweden where mobile game labs and other kinds of technical infrastructure were created to support the strategic play activities. More than 300 players participated on site in the labs, and others participated remotely on virtual maps hosted online to create transnational cooperation.

 

In brief, our project engaged citizens, primarily youth and their families, to share stories and experiences connected to their local communities through play and shared activities in Minecraft where they virtually rebuilt their familiar neighborhood environments. In our series of community game workshops (hosted at the Naval Museum in Karlskrona and at the Game Lab in Valmeira, young players were prompted, with the aid of experts in a range of fields (city planners, architects, museum pedagogues, historians, game researchers, and community planners) to reveal their connections to local heritage and to other social issues and community challenges by reconstructing their worlds in virtual form. The Minecraft environments were custom built with geo-spatial data we gathered from local mapping authorities and via open source data channels. Our Minecraft worlds were meant to closely resemble the communities of their players, but they were created with enough ‘blank spaces’ to invite youth to construct them more realistically and to show the ‘heritage experts’ too what they knew about history. They did make faithful reconstructions of municipal buildings, monuments, churches, and castles, drawn from source material in photographs and on the Internet, but they also revealed how they the saw their place in the (imaginative) present and possible future. As such, in many instances we found that what the formal data could not represent (playgrounds, cafes, fast food restaurants, soccer fields, and the cozy interiors at the bookstore and the library), the children were quick to add and build to make the world familiar and relevant to them. In other cases, they used the playfulness of Minecraft to add fantasy elements and non-existent buildings to reveal what inspired and engaged them in their worlds—or future worlds, giving insight into what was meaningful to them.

 

A primary purpose of this project, particularly with the gaming components, is to facilitate discourse around cultural heritage by allowing children to express their own cultural values, and to describe andperform, through active reconstruction, what parts of their own cities they feel have cultural value. We believe that one primary challenge of traditional city planning and developing sustainable cultural heritage experiences is that often the voices who decide how ‘culture’ and ‘history’ are defined, and thus what assets are worth preserving, tend to be held by persons with a high degree of social influence and cultural capital. In this project, we experimented instead with using virtual environments heavily based on children’s own active building vocabularies(that is as expressed through the playful, performative reconstruction of their communities). In curated Minecraft play, we are able to to see if the cultural values they shared become less adherent to traditional (i.e., adult) definitions of culture and were instead more personally expressive and creative. In this way, we hope our playful learning activities move toward building a more sustainable and inclusive concept of history and heritage for all.

 

Video Links for Quick Tours of Minecraft Worlds Built by Children in Workshops:

Minecraft Baltic Heritage Project: An Overview

Minecraft Baltic Heritage : Town Square and Clock

Minecraft Baltic Heritage: Football and Crane

Minecraft Baltic Heritage: Central Park

Minecraft Baltic Heritage: Historic Buildings

Minecraft Baltic Heritage: Inside the Library

https://youtu.be/-9ZiSCvtEto