Scotland's largest National Park has been rendered on Minecraft. The popular building game, whose blocky graphics will be familiar to anyone with kids, was used to create a representation of the topography of the entire Cairngorms, as part of an educational project to encourage young people to learn about how National Parks are run.
We've asked them not to kill each other or destroy each other's stuff – we don't want it to go all Lord of the Flies!
The landscape has been recreated, but all the buildings left out, giving members of the Cairngorms Youth Action Team a blank canvas onto which to build their own settlements. The idea is to encourage young people to think about planning and the role of the National Park.
Ellie Moore, who is a member of the Cairngorms Youth Action Team, said: "This has been a really great project to be involved with, finding out more about how planners work and the process that they go through. We've been able to learn and experience these things in an interactive, first-hand kind of way. By playing a game, it has really kept me engaged, made me want to spend time on it, and learn more.
"It's also been really fun wandering around the Park map in Minecraft and recognising real life landmarks. Of course, Minecraft brings the added challenge of mobs like creepers and zombies which thankfully we don't usually have to deal with but I've liked the additional layer of planning that this has demanded. Overall, it's been a brilliant experience and I've learned a lot, both about the planning process in the Cairngorms National Park and how to work as a team."
The Minecraft Cairngorms is the brainchild of Dan Harris, Planning Manager at the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), who built the virtual world in his spare time using open data from Ordnance Survey and Forest and Land Scotland. It took Dan – whose hobby is creating massive, detailed and meticulously researched historically themed LEGO models – three months to create the online Cairngorms Minecraft map.
Dan, already a Minecraft fan, was well aware of the game's popularity with young people.
"The project, which we've dubbed Cairncraft, forms part of the Cairngorms National Park Authority's planning service priority to develop and deliver a youth engagement / involvement programme" he told us.
"I came up with the idea after an event we planned in March 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19 and there was a need to come up with an alternative method of engagement. Initially, the idea of using Minecraft was a reaction to this, as it enabled the engagement to take place remotely, however it has developed into something that clearly has wider practicalities."
His virtual Cairngorms covers the whole National Park.
"But it's not at a one-to-one scale" he says "since Minecraft limits the height of the map to 365 1m x 1m blocks and the Cairngorms are a lot higher than that! The scale of the map is therefore based on the movement range of a player on foot within the day/night cycle of the game: ten minutes for day and seven minutes for night, with both dusk and dawn lasting about 90 seconds. In effect, the player should be able to cover roughly the same ground in the game as they would in real life over the course of a day. This scaling down brings everything closer together, making the map easier to explore and geographical features, such as the Cairngorm Plateau or Lairig Ghru much more recognisable."
Dan built his model using a range of open source GIS and game editing software.
"I was able to use Ordnance Survey data and Forest and Land Scotland data to recreate an accurate representation of the National Park's landsdape" he says "including its topography, woodlands, rivers and lochs.
"I was also able to set 'biomes' which means that the weather, plant and animal life spawns appropriately for the correct type of environment, whether that be in the mountains or in the lower lying woodlands. This does mean that some unusual animals have been introduced to the area though, like lamas, wolves and polar bears!"
Since his job description does not encompass the creation of Minecraft maps, Dan did the work in the evenings and weekends.
"I didn't mind this" he told us "as I really wanted the project to kick off, and also I just really like to create things in my spare time, including maps. It got to a point where I just had to stop, because if I'm honest I could probably tinker with it for another six months if I gave myself the time!
"I think it's fair to say that planning can be a pretty dry subject a lot of the time, so finding interesting ways of engaging young people, and for that matter, older people too, can be challenging. Minecraft is already used as a learning platform and it offers educators a transformative way to engage students and ignite their passion for learning. We therefore saw it as a really good way of creating a more engaging way of learning about the planning system, in which [young people] could actively try out some of the things we have to think about as planners.
"We have invited members of the Cairngorms Youth Action Team to take part in the engagement. They have been 'dropped' into the Cairngorms National Park and given the mission to collaboratively create a community that represents the sort of place they would like to live in."
Players of the game have been asked to build their community in accordance with the aims of the National Park, which crucially means they need to consider how to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area and how they sustainably use the natural resources.
"Building on this we will soon be asking them to come up with their own policies" says Dan. "This means they have to start thinking about what policy making means and they will be able to see within the game what effect those policies will have.
"The exercise also brings in ideas about how different people or organisations operate within the planning system, bringing in the chance of conflict, and offering them a window into how planners often have to act as mediators between lots of competing interests.
"We've also asked them not to kill each other or destroy each other's stuff – we don't want it to go all Lord of the Flies, after all. It will be very interesting to see what they come up with!"
The young people are helping to road test the map, ensuring that it all works properly and can be used for a proper gaming experience. Cairncraft is not yet openly available, but the intention is to release it to education bodies and the general public in due course.