Winnipeg in pixels Educators use Minecraft to build better downtown
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The newest replica of Winnipeg isn’t “made from what’s real.” It’s made from pixels.
Metro school divisions, city hall and Microsoft Canada have launched a new educational videogame that takes place in a Minecraft world custom-built to be an immersive model of downtown.
The objective is straightforward: learn about the city’s past, present and potential, and use that knowledge to build onto existing infrastructure with a goal of bettering life for residents, visitors and workers of all ages.
Caricatures of recognizable figures — among them, Mayor Scott Gillingham, whose likeness is portrayed with a pixelated buzz-cut, tailored suit and thick-rimmed glasses — guide users as they play against the backdrop of local landmarks, from the Manitoba Legislative Building to Thunderbird House.
“Downtown is the heartbeat of our city. It’s the heartbeat of our province,” urban planner Karin Kliewer said.
“We need to put time and we need to put energy and effort into what the future of downtown is like. If (students) can take that away and if they can see that downtown is an interesting place to be that has a lot to offer and they can be part of that, I think that would be amazing.”
Level Up: Winnipeg officially came online Monday. Minecraft Education subscribers anywhere in the world can access the so-called build challenge, although programmers designed it with local classroom teachers in mind.
“You do not have to be a Minecraft expert to take part. If you’re a teacher and you see value in this process, the kids will lead the way.”–Chris Heidebrecht
Given Minecraft is one of the world’s most popular online games, educators behind the initiative say it only makes sense to leverage student familiarity with the platform and empower them — especially those who don’t typically take on leadership roles in class — through play-based learning.
It’s no easy feat to get students to buy in to learning experiences, be they teacher-directed or rooted in self-discovery, in 2023, said David Gamble, a technology education consultant who has collaborated on the project.
“This is purposeful screen time… Like graphic calculators and (other technologies) that everyone pooh-poohed when they first came out, this is a tool for teaching. We use things like Minecraft and different computer-based systems now — this is how we engage with our kids,” Gamble said.
In 2017, a Canadian research team’s exploratory study of 118 elementary-aged students from Montreal found integrating Minecraft into their classrooms boosted motivation and self-esteem, and improved participants’ communication, organizational and problem-solving skills.
Chris Heidebrecht is one of the Winnipeg teachers who prepared a guide for classroom colleagues to encourage them to take advantage of all the educational opportunities tied to the new game.
“You do not have to be a Minecraft expert to take part,” he said. “If you’re a teacher and you see value in this process, the kids will lead the way.”
Kindergarten to Grade 12 students are being challenged to create a virtual city that answers the prompt: “How can we envision a connected, equitable, and sustainable downtown that moves Winnipeg forward without leaving anyone behind?”
Leading up to the game’s final design element, users meet knowledge keeper Leslie Spillett, radio host Ace Burpee and other local leaders who share their perceptions of Winnipeg.
Louis Riel and the Golden Boy also have cameos. The former is a historian in the game while the latter weighs in on the city’s current status, from his high vantage-point view.
“The subtleties of representation have farther-reaching ripples than we imagine in spaces, especially for kids that feel underrepresented within their community,” said Manny Skead, an Indigenous education teacher.
Skead said there has been significant collaboration to ensure purposeful and thoughtful Indigenous representation throughout the game.
Belonging, transportation, sustainability, urban sprawl and development, food security, environment, equity, water and gentrification are listed as “areas to consider” in the teacher’s guide on Level Up: Winnipeg.
Heidebrecht, who works on a classroom support team, indicated gaming is a jumping-off point for students to ask questions, conduct research and participate in discussions off-screen.
Division and independent school leaders will collect video submissions of students explaining their completed blueprints for a futuristic Winnipeg.
The winning designs will be played for the mayor and city councillors at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
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.