The Danish government has recreated all of Denmark in Minecraft, which even people who have no interest in one of the most popular video games of all time can acknowledge is pretty cool. It’s also curious. Why would the Danes bother? The short answer: to use the appeal of gaming to draw the public’s attention to geographical data.
Minecraft has sold more than 45 million copies on various platforms. That’s quite an achievement for a game that is neither slick nor beautiful and is about creation—players build structures from blocks in a 3D-rendered world—rather than destruction. It is what’s known as a sandbox game, one in which players roam around at will, rather than passing through levels in sequence. That also makes it a perfect platform for showcasing the topographical data that the Danish Geodata Agency has amassed on everything from buildings and roads to statues and lampposts.
Minecraft has been lauded as an educational tool—it fosters creativity and helps kids develop visuospatial reasoning skills through manipulating objects in space. That’s the Danes’ aim as well. The terabyte-size model could be used by kids at home or school to explore places around the country they might not otherwise be able to visit. The agency has even provided some suggested class lessons, including measuring distance and area, or determining the construction costs of buildings based on their dimensions and materials.
The project is the work of agency employees Thorbjørn Nielsen and Simon Kokkendorf, who realized they could reach a far broader (and younger) audience than they could through traditional media by translating their data into the lo-fi, 8-bit landscape of Minecraft. The effort extends an initiative launched last year to make maps of Denmark (current and historical) available to the public for free. Rather than building the landscape block by block, Nielsen and Kokkendorf used algorithms to convert existing geodata to the Minecraft platform. The process took about two months.
The rendering is highly detailed and includes such features as fences, signposts, and wind turbines. Not everything is pictured. “At this point,” says Suzanne Dael, a government spokesperson, “it’s not possible to determine what material or color the individual buildings are, so these are displayed in random colors.” Geological details are also omitted, though, Dael says, “users can still find gold and diamonds under the surface.”
The incompleteness is part of the model’s appeal because it leaves the space open to others to modify and build out the landscape. One has already constructed a full model of Kronborg Castle (also known as Hamlet’s Castle) that includes views out the windows to the surrounding sea. (Tour the castle here.) Not all users have been so respectful: Some areas have been vandalized or destroyed, but the Danish government says those are minor and it remains unperturbed. “We consider that as a nature of playing Minecraft—elements are broken down and new are being created,” Chris Hammeken, chief press officer at the Danish GeoData Agency, told The Register.
The Minecraft project has been downloaded more than 200,000 times (it’s available here). It’s also a testament to what can be done when governments think creatively about how to communicate information. Just imagine if the same playful ingenuity had been used with the Obamacare’s troubled healthcare.gov site.