Minecraft 1, Censorship 0

Right now, around the world, there are probably a million or so people around the world playing Minecraft. The video game, which debuted in November of 2011, is one of the most popular games ever created — depending on what source you go by, more than 100 million people play it at least monthly, and at any given point in time, 1% or so of them are active. With more than 230 million copies sold, Minecraft tops Wikipedia’s list of “best-selling video games.”

Minecraft, though, is different than most other video games. There are no princesses to save, police to run away from, ghosts to avoid, or even root beer to serve. It’s what’s called a “sandbox” game — in most versions, players just connect to a server and explore their surroundings, building what they want and maybe lightly interacting with other players.

And, if you have the time, Minecraft can help you beat real-life governments in their efforts to censor the news.

It should be no surprise that, in some places, freedom of the press doesn’t exist, and reporters and their work is subject to the whims of the government. That’s nothing new. In 1985, a group of French politicians formed an organization called Reporters Without Borders (“RSF,” because it’s “Reporters sans frontières” in French) to “act for the freedom, pluralism, and independence of journalism and defend those who embody these ideals,” per its website. Most of RSF’s work is around awareness — again, in their own words, they “inform about the press freedom situation throughout the world by communicating, every day and in 5 languages, on abuses committed against journalists and on all forms of censorship” But in 2020, they found a way to bypass censorship using the Minecraft universe.

The idea came from Tobi Natterer, a creative director at Berlin DDB, a marketing agency that often partners with RSF. As the Verge reported, “while watching television at home, Natterer noticed that the people on-screen were using a video game in an ostensibly unconventional way. They weren’t actually playing, but were using the in-game chat to speak to each other.” Natterer leaned into his curiosity and did some research, discovering that “countries with press censorship often [have] huge gaming communities.” And in many of those countries, the big gaming platforms are, effectively, ungated. If a journalist tried to publish a controversial story on their media outlet’s website, that may get axed by the government, but if the same story were published in Minecraft, there was no easy way to stop it.

So RSF and DDB partnered with some digital design and Minecraft experts and got to work. Ultimately, they created what they called “The Uncensored Library,” a virtual location on a Minecraft server they host, as seen above. At launch, the Library had six wings — one about RSF itself, and then one each for five nations (Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Egypt) featuring previously censored stories published for those audiences. The stories are displayed in Minecraft-styled books, as seen here; it’s not the easiest way to read, but it’s better than nothing.– and the project has been a success regardless. In the years since the LIbrary launched, RSF has added wings for reporting from Brazil, Eritrea, Belarus, and Iran, and significantly updated the Russian wing as well.

Of course, the countries that censor journalists can also ban the Minecraft server, a problem that RSF noted at the Library’s launch. But, per Engadget, the organization “believes the Uncensored Library should be relatively resilient. Anyone can download the necessary map, and Minecraft’s nature makes it easy to host another server if an oppressive country tries to take one down.” Unless the country regulates Internet traffic to an extraordinary degree, new Libraries can pop up as quickly as the government can shut down old ones. 

Bonus fact: In 2014, the Danish government built a scale model of Denmark in Minecraft, hoping to use it as a teaching tool. It barely lasted a few days. As Gamespot reported, while the government disabled the use of in-game dynamite, they forgot to disable the “minecart with the dynamite option.” Once “players discovered this, [some] set off explosives in several Danish towns, and built American tanks and flags on top of the ruins.” The government decided not to reboot the server, telling the press that they considered the destruction as part of the “nature of playing Minecraft – elements are broken down and new are being created.” 

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