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May 26 2016

Why Design Matters: Minecraft & Architecture with Chicago Middle School Students


Why Minecraft matters to kids

Have you ever wondered why so many youth are driven to the game of Minecraft? For adults and parents the appeal for Minecraft isn’t always understood especially when you consider that the graphics resembles those of early 80s and 90s video games and has no official user guide, manual or rules. However, in Minecraft youth get to create their own rules. They can build, fly, collaborate as a team in creative mode; or fight zombies, skeletons and spiders in survival mode. Whatever the adventure youth ultimately invoke creativity and imagination when playing in Minecraft. They persist and accomplish really complicated tasks from computational thinking to problem-based learning. Many times all this learning is happening unbeknownst to youth who just see their activities as play.

Why Minecraft matters to Educators

Minecraft is a game that allows players to build, design and be creative. Research has shown that playing in Minecraft and other game-based learning tools builds reading and math skills, critical thinking, problem solving and life skills. These underlying skills in development can also include coding, project management, and design thinking skills to name a few.

When players get stuck or need to acquire new skills they seek advice from fellow players in-game or go online to research how to build or design what’s needed to solve a problem.

Minecraft is a dynamic vehicle for Chicago Architecture Foundation’s (CAF’s) work to inspire people to discover why design matters. Not only does it support our department’s Education Design Principles for Teaching and Learning, it is allowing us to explore and discover how to best create “hybrid” experiences- experiences that take place “out” in the world and online.

CAF’s Education team reinforces our guiding principles and method through The Design Process. What follows is an account of how CAF is leveraging student interest in Minecraft to share and educate on what is worth knowing and experiencing about the built environment both real and virtual.

What we did

Summer 2015: A new model for CAF Camps

CAF hosted its inaugural Summer Camp series for youth ages 7-18. A total of 6 camps were offered – 4 of the camps were Minecraft themed. With support from Chicago Hive network and generous funding from Chicago Hive Fund for Connected Learning, CAF co-developed CAF Minecraft Design JamFREE week-long summer camp for 30 middle school youth to use design thinking to solve a real-world problem in a virtual environment. Youth worked with Minecraft experts, architects and professional game developers to solve challenges, produce artifacts and earn digital badges.

CAF partnered with Civic ArtWorks (CAW) to develop an urban planning workshop focused on community redevelopment. CAW is a company dedicated to empowering citizens and providing them with tools to engage in the processes that shape the future of their neighborhood.  Middle school campers worked with landscape architects, formed design firms and rendered site plans before using MinecraftEdu to finally create their real-world park redesigns. The inspiration for the community redesigns were taken from real campaigns on the Civic ArtWork platform authored by youth from Quest High School that participated in the Regenerate Chicago Neighborhoods project.

Content development

With great enthusiasm and excitement we began developing Minecraft themed challenges and activities. We contracted with a professional game designer and educator, Grant Tumen who worked with youth in MinecraftEdu. Together, we decided to build a world that would challenge youth to think about sustainability in the built environment. The Minecraft world was created in such a manner that youth would be forced to confront real world problems – in this case limited resources and increase population. The challenge was to survive an inhospitable environment for several days and nights and protect your villagers. The youth were given time to explore the world, develop a plan and tasked with building during creative mode and during survival mode that needed to protect themselves and villagers from attacks during the night.

We introduced youth to Minecraft Role Cards: Defender, Explorer, Farmer, Builder, Architect & Planner that contained different roles that they would need in our game and set them free to play. To our surprise and dismay youth buried the villagers in the ground and confined them to single cell prisons.  Youth felt this was perfectly acceptable solution since they met the specified challenge of keeping the villagers alive. Meanwhile, youth chose to build homes with beds for themselves but not the villagers. The youth taught us how important it is for us to be extremely intentional about our design challenges. In future event we adjusted the design challenge that called for a home or shelter that safely and humanely protects villagers in an inhospitable environment.

What happened

In CAF Minecraft Design Jam youth worked with a professional game designer Joshua Engel, 6:8 Studios, who worked with youth in MinecraftEdu. Youth got to think about neighborhoods, good park design, and their own communities and ways in which they could affect and impact change, access, and agency. We encourage youth to think about the civic process and then apply that to the world of Minecraft. I learned that playing Minecraft provides enough intrinsic motivation for continuous engagement & play. Youth love free play and player versus player (PVP) that they’ll engage in a task or missions that they might not typically find interesting.

As previously indicated, Minecraft is a tool that allows CAF educators to leverage our teaching and learning principles, knowledge and experience. Youth build vocabulary, learn architectural knowledge, develop Minecraft skills, and strengthen their Chicago history. We leverage rich content via CAF tours – during camps youth step away from Minecraft (some begrudgingly) and go outside into the built environment each day to look, sketch and see, and then come back and replicate some of those significant architectural features in Minecraft. We introduce youth to experts and mentors that help them brainstorm and analyze, develop solutions, test ideas and provide feedback to improve on the design.

Often youth prototype designs with Legos© and create site plans of their designs before transferring their ideas to digital models in Minecraft. We use the Chicago Model in our building atrium to help orient youth in the built environment and understand building in scale. Each youth becomes familiar with the building materials and dimensions in Minecraft where each block is 1 cubic meter. We measure 1-meter height and width, on each person so they begin to make correlations between the physical and virtual world.

What we learned

This experience taught us that Minecraft could be used to deal with issues of social justice and civic engagement. However, we needed to improve the directions, modify the challenge and ensure the Minecraft world was constructed in such a way that players have to deal with real world ramifications in the virtual world of Minecraft.

We’ve realized that Minecraft allows youth to approach a real world scenario and complex/complicated issues such as self-efficacy, social justice, access, and equity via a video game. After making slight modifications to the instruction and Minecraft world we’ve been able to achieve the desired learning outcome or learning objective and badge youth for their achievements. Minecraft allows us to introduce youth to architecture in a way that is very comfortable real and relevant to them.

What are we doing nowMinecraft-5-dayChallenge-web07

CAF Education continues using Minecraft to introduce youth to Architecture, urban planning, digital storytelling, and design thinking. Simultaneously we are developing our practice and pedagogy around “hybrid” learning experiences. We are increasingly focused on incorporating youth voice into the design process and co-creating design challenges with youth. Secondly, we are more fully integrating place-based and authentic curriculum from CAF resources such as Skyline Stories, The Architecture Handbook and Schoolyard to Skylines. Additionally, we incorporate CAF tours and online resources to provide a first hand experience for looking and seeing which proved inspirational for new Minecraft design challenges. Lastly, we are developing challenges for Minecraft as open source projects available for free online via

In November of 2015 CAF shared our approach to Minecraft at MozFest London. We were able to facilitate a session in the Youth Zone, “Calling all Minecraft Builders! Using Minecraft to Foster Civic Engagement, Self-efficacy & Agency”. This opportunity would not be possible without support form Mozilla and financial assistance from Chicago Hive.

Moving forward, CAF with partner Civic Artworks has received Hive funding for Minecraft + Design Process + Civic Issues in the Built Environment. This project will convene community partners to inform the development of an educator framework for using Minecraft as a teaching tool for applying the design process to explore civic issues in the built environment.

Special Thanks: Chicago Hive Fund for generous funding to support the CAF Minecraft Design Jam; Hive Chicago for leading an incredibly connected community that facilitated our introduction to our partner Civic ArtWorks, Dorine Flies (Youth Zone Wranglers) Edgar Quintanilla and Gabrielle Lyon (Chicago Architecture Chicago).

For more information, and to find out how to join the Minecraft + Design Process + Civic Issues in the Built Environment, contact

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