Schoolchildren in Carlisle are to take over the running of their home city inside the virtual world of Minecraft, in an innovative project encouraging young people to engage with local democracy and public services.
"Blockanomics", a partnership between a digital entrepreneur and Carlisle City Council, combines video gaming techniques with real world politics and engagement.
Minecraft is an open-ended "sandbox" game allowing its more than 100 million players worldwide to enter or create shared worlds using virtual building blocks. Its openness, popularity and ability to link with real-world digital tools such as maps have inspired many creative education projects.
The Carlisle initiative is the brainchild of educational computing consultant David Kinsella, a former secondary school ICT teacher, who successfully applied for seed funding from social innovation charity Nominet Trust. Kinsella is now putting the finishing touches to a Minecraft modification or "mod" allowing players to join an "executive council" to run the virtual model of Carlisle. Discussion forums, meetings and voting systems will allow players to work their way up through eight game levels, taking tough decisions about spending and public services.
Crucially, the real-world city council is an active and enthusiastic partner in the project: Kinsella's team has held discussions with senior managers up to and including the chief executive, have been invited to local strategic partnership meetings, have spoken to the council's planning department about using maps and housing data to make the virtual world more realistic; and are working with other local authorities including Cumbria County Council.
"We want to give young people the experience to see what it is like to run a city but more importantly to act as a bridge between young people and the council", Kinsella told UKAuthority.com this week.
The real-world links will extend to running consultations in Minecraft on issues of current council concern, with local authority officers writing in-game responses, Kinsella said. "We are looking for issues that young people may have an interest in - a vote or decision that is being made within three months, which the council can explain as they go along.
"One of the issues we are looking at is rural transport, because 16-18 year olds are no longer getting free transport. So we are running a scenario where if young people want a service to continue in one area, they will have to find the funding."
Kinsella said the intention is to launch the first live game by the end of the year in partnership with a few local schools, but the resource will be open for all to use. As play develops, the project's effectiveness will also be the subject of research by academics at the University of Cumbria's Centre for Regional Economic Development, he says. The game also has the potential to be expanded to other towns and cities.
"We are all aware we are going through an age where young people are getting more and more disengaged with the whole idea of democracy", he said. "They feel they are not listened to: often they come up with an idea and are told 'No', but they don't understand why. Politicians think they can use social media and it will all work, but young people think 'you're just doing that to be trendy'. Engagement has got to be built up slowly at the grassroots level.
"It is really important they understand what happens locally - understand how choices are made, how they can influence them, and get their voices heard - before they move on to the national issues."
Pictured: A still from the prototype digital model of Carlisle built by Blockanomics.