Gaming their way into urban planning
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Winnipeg teachers want to turn pupils into urban planners with a new educational video game that will task users with exploring digital replicas of local landmarks and inserting infrastructure to better the downtown core.
A team made up of leaders from 10 school divisions, Microsoft and Winnipeg city hall are collaborating on Level Up: Winnipeg — the creation of a digital model of Manitoba’s capital in Minecraft, a hugely popular computer game in which users construct online worlds.
“Kids are using technology more than ever. The pandemic really heightened those online communities; lots of parents, myself included, were all owing our young ones to get on and to use those technologies to connect with peers and so, kids are coming to school with this wealth of (Minecraft) knowledge,” said Manny Skead, a teacher in the Louis Riel School Division.
“That access point really helps kids who are both struggling in school and succeeding in school find common ground.”
The block-building and adventure game has become an increasingly common educational tool in classrooms across the province, as educators engage tech-savvy students and find innovative ways to offer authentic learning experiences.
In early 2021, Louis Riel and Microsoft, which owns the immersive gaming platform, launched an educational Minecraft universe that resembles The Forks before settlers arrived and colonized the area.
The Manito Ahbee Aki (“the place where the Creator sits”) game was designed to complement Manitoba’s Grade 4-6 social studies curriculum. Users learn about Anishinaabe culture, community and teachings while they explore, trade and hunt on pixelated grounds.
The successful collaboration prompted Microsoft to contact the division about the latest project. Winnipeg, Pembina Trails, Seven Oaks, River East Transcona, St. James-Assiniboia, Lord Selkirk and the francophone division, the Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education, and Manitoba Catholic Schools have since been recruited to take part.
The technology giant has already built Minecraft cities to mirror New York City, Stockholm and Calgary.
A spokeswoman for Microsoft Canada touted the Level Up: Winnipeg project as one that will connect youth to their city and help them learn to code and problem solve creatively.
“Canadian students have had a difficult few years; creating learning moments and fostering civic engagement through gaming will help them re-connect with their classroom and create excitement for the future they envision for Winnipeg,” said Elka Walsh, national education and skills lead for Microsoft Canada, in a recent news release.
The local edition will showcase the Exchange District, Manitoba Legislative Building and Circle of Life Thunderbird House.
Chris Heidebrecht, a member of LRSD’s school and classroom support team, said developers are using satellite imagery and photos to make sure their creations are to scale and host characters — non-playable characters or NPCs, in Minecraft lingo — will be digital representations of recognizable Winnipeggers.
“Minecraft is something familiar (to students) and so, they are coming in with a position of confidence and excitement. And when you can show them something that they’ve never seen before in the game, they’re immediately engaged and interested,” Heidebrecht said.
As with Manito Ahbee Aki, which the Winnipeg teacher helped design, the goal of the new Level Up: Winnipeg universe will be to teach students about both the historical and contemporary states of their city.
Once they have toured downtown, their challenge will be to use their newfound knowledge to build — be it affordable housing, bike lanes or anything else they think is lacking in the urban centre — in an empty plot depicting Winnipeg’s skyline in the background.
“It’s really prompting the students to think about where we’ve been as a city, and where we want to go,” Heidebrecht said, noting the final assignment is a short video of students showcasing their creation and explaining how it will contribute to the future of Winnipeg.
The prompt that will be posed to students is: “How can we envision a connected, equitable and sustainable downtown that moves Winnipeg forward without leaving anyone behind?”
Educators anticipate there will be cross-curricular lessons and rich discussion on the subjects of public space, transportation, urban sprawl, gentrification, sustainability, equity, and belonging. A teacher guide with ideas on how to embed the game into the classroom will be distributed provincewide.
LRSD students generally spend little time in the city’s core — separated from it by natural barriers: the Red and Assiniboine rivers — unless they are visiting for a Jets game, said Skead, an Indigenous education support teacher.
The educator said his hope is teachers will organize field trips to the inner-city so students can experience these iconic Winnipeg monuments online and on foot.
“We’re encouraging people to look at the broader sense of community… We also want to acknowledge and talk about the people that are in those spaces as human beings,” Skead added.
A draft version of the Minecraft world will go into beta testing in the new year. The official launch of Level Up: Winnipeg is scheduled for spring 2023.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.