Meeting Halfway with Minecraft

Jeff Sanders, Dig It! Project Manager with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, tells us about the process of bringing Archaeology and Minecraft together, following the recent inspiring Edinburgh Science Festival event.

If you ask a roomful of people if anyone wanted to be an archaeologist when they grew up, chances are you’ll see a good few raised hands. And why wouldn’t you? It’s all about discovering and telling stories, meeting like-minded people and finding new things.

At Dig It!, we’re striving for a Scotland where everyone enjoys – and can engage with – archaeology. However, many people who would like to get involved think that archaeology is not “for them”: a challenge that likely resonates with the wider heritage sector.

We’ve found that the best way of getting people involved is to meet them halfway – find a hook within their own interests. One of our most successful hooks has been Minecraft, the ubiquitous video game which could be described as “digital LEGO”.

We recently launched the Crafting the Past website with nine maps packed with stories, and games that can be downloaded  for free (as long as Minecraft is already on the user’s device).Each Crafting the Past map features a real Scottish site which has been meticulously recreated, including a restored (and burned down) mansion, an entire abandoned island, a buried Pictish hillfort and reimagined museums. We’ve showcased them on high streets, at international gaming festivals, and at the very sites that we’ve reconstructed. All in all, it’s a fun game and it’s a nice excuse to have it on my work computer.

If Minecraft doesn’t sound right for you, there are lots of other games-based and non-games-based way to get people involved, and I wanted to share three lessons we’ve learned along the way that might be of broader interest:

  1. WORK WITH A NEW (NON-HERITAGE) PARTNER: We knew nothing about Minecraft or games-based learning approaches until we met Immersive Minds, who have employees in the centre of the Venn diagram of understanding the technology, the learning potential, and how to communicate it. Working with a partner outside of the heritage sector also brought unexpended benefits. For example, showcasing Crafting the Past at a games festival that attracts more than 70,000 people wasn’t out of the ordinary for them. The tricky part was getting used to a different sector and way of working – that required building a partnership-based approach rather than a straightforward client-provider relationship.
  2. CONCISE STORYTELLING: Our builds feature topographically accurate landscapes, painstakingly decorated buildings, and accurate archaeological sites. But this wasn’t enough for us. We needed these downloadable maps to be story-driven in order to be engaging, which gives us a conduit for years of archaeological data gathered from excavations, archives, museums and labs. While working with Immersive Minds, I realised that there I was in danger of focusing too closely on the data; fetishizing the “stuff” as opposed to telling the story.  If we want to make an impactful and lasting connection with a new audience, we need to be canny and concise in our storytelling – not all-encompassing, and not overly hung-up on specific details.
  3. POWER TO THE PEOPLE: I quickly learned that you can’t teach a young person much about Minecraft, but you can use Minecraft to spark their interest in archaeology. Minecraft has the advantage of being “off the shelf”, with a dedicated community of over 90 million users playing each month. I’ve enjoyed seeing people explore Scotland’s past on their own terms through an environment that they can happily navigate. Reaching out and putting archaeology outside of our own comfort zone has been an important lesson (with the added benefit of not having to reinvent the wheel).

There are lots of ways to engage people. And games are just one conduit. In recent years, archaeologists have teamed up with artists, musicians, brewers and weavers to name but a few. However you decide to “meet people halfway” it’s the enthusiasm and stories that need to shine through. Happy gaming!


Thanks to Edinburgh International Science Festival and Baillie Gifford for supporting the launch of Crafting the Past and Historic Environment Scotland for supporting the Dig It! project

For further online reading, The Interactive Past has some great international examples, including both bespoke games and pre-existing examples which have been repurposed.

Jeff Sanders, Dig It! Project Manager with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.