This past weekend, over fifty teens joined mentors, sponsors, and judges for the first ever SPARK Hackathon at St. Anne’s-Belfield School (STAB) in Charlottesville, VA. Participants came from six different area high schools and formed teams to tackle real-world problems posed by sponsors, including Mozilla. Every team did amazing work and the consensus among the judges and mentors seemed to be that the quality of work produced by hackathon attendees rivaled that of undergraduate students working in areas like computer science and biomedical engineering.
We challenged students to create a “Fight for the Open Web” adventure, map, or mod inside the insanely popular, open-world, sandbox game, Minecraft. With over 70 million copies sold, Minecraft is both a cultural and educational phenomenon. Players can progress from simple, “vanilla” gameplay to run their own servers, build their own maps, and code their own mods for the game that add new assets and functionality. Players share their creations online, so we’re deeply curious about how we can use Minecraft to educate – and activate – its community around issues of freedom, privacy, and web literacy.
Our problem had three parts.
- What is the Open Web?
- What challenges does it face?
- How can those challenges be built as gameplay and story in Minecraft?
Before students split into problem-based teams, they had a chance to meet with each sponsor, ask questions about each problem, and share their ideas for solutions. I heard so many sharp ideas during this round-robin briefing that I knew we would have fantastic work to share coming out of the hackathon. Students suggested:
- Using the Minecraft UI to represent the player’s information security, so that higher levels make a character more difficult to track or hit.
- Making a character become increasingly transparent as his or her privacy and security stats rise.
- Using dynamic signs to ‘publish’ information about characters’ inventories, locations, and stats inside the game, and then letting players craft items and gain levels that hide their information from the signs.
- Building persistent cookies that players receive for accepting free items inside the game and making it so that each cookie permanently occupies inventory space, limiting players’ resource management.
- Using portals to other zones – like “the Ender Zone” and “the Nether” – as ISP gateways and hubs.
- Using ‘mobs’ – or monsters from the game – as cookies that surround and follow the player instead of attacking him or her, making it difficult to fit through small passages.
- Using foot races along parallel paths to illustrate throttling by filling one path with blocks that slow character movement (such as webs or “Soul Sand”) and by using command blocks to apply the “Swiftness” effect to characters who pay diamonds, emeralds, or gold nuggets to use the faster path.
- Creating a map with more freedom, but fewer resources, the further you travel away from a highly regulated central zone full of pay-to-play mini-games and surveillance measures.
Out of those brainstorming and Q&A sessions, two groups of six formed around our problem.
Both groups characterized the Open Web as a place where people came together to work and share without losing their sense of privacy or being watched by companies or governments. Without any help from mentors, our students identified the major challenges facing the Open Web as:
- Threats to Net Neutrality and zero-rating.
- Pay-to-play schemes.
- Censorship and walled gardens.
Then each group began to build. As one student put it, they had to make an experience about the Open Web “without being terrible like educational games.” The big idea, again, coming from one of our participants, was to create a game that made one thing clear: “Open world, open web.”
Despite the pressures you’d expect to feel at a 2-day hackathon ending with 3-minute presentations, both teams delivered short demos of gameplay. Using Minecraft’s creative mode, cheats, and command blocks (think of chains of JSON-powered processors), our team members built their own in-game development environments and opened their adventure-maps to the local network for testing.
Our first team to present, team Open World, created a 50-second trailer showing off four areas of their game.
- In Level One, players have 120 seconds to do whatever they want in a fully-featured Minecraft world.
- Then a command block triggers and transports players to an all-clay version of the same world. This is the pay-to-play level. Players can move around, but they can only harvest colored clay; none of the blocks are made of the game’s other necessary resources such as wood or stone.
Players have to complete tasks in this level to earn enough credits to get to a desert level with better resources. Once the credits have been collected, another command block triggers sending players to the desert level.
- The desert level has sand and cacti and a few other resources, but players still lack the tools needed to harvest most blocks. Those tools are hidden – or “censored,” as the group put it – in temples scattered around the map. Players have to find the temples and then use their platforming skills to jump from block to block across seas of lava to get to the tools they can use to harvest the materials they need to get to the next level. The blocks shift and move thanks to pistons hidden beneath them, representing the terms of service that limit user access to the Web.
- Finally, after players collect enough resources from the desert level, a command block transports them to a snow level in which floating eyes coded into the sky follow them wherever they go.
This is the surveillance level. Players have to find the surveillance command center and shut it down. When they do, they’re transported back to a platform in the sky of the the fully-featured Minecraft world from which they can see that each level was right next to the other, but built inside a dome – or walled garden – that made it easier to limit their movement. From here, players can break the other domes and restore the connections between all the parts of the game world.
It was awesome. So was Team AddressB00kxd’s presentation, a live demo of game-play inside the group’s map. In AddressB00kxd’s game
- Players begin outside a home surrounded by an insurmountable firewall – a wall of wool blocks set alight that isolates their home from the rest of the map.
- Players enter the house and approach a computer. A trap door drops them into a stylized version of the Internet along a tube uses command blocks to shoot sparks.
- The tube leads to the Minecraft Surveillance Agency, in which players have to navigate a labyrinth to reach the King of Surveillance, defeat him, and receive an key (a lever, in the game) that lets players shut down the command blocks powering part of the firewall.
- Activating a key extinguishes one side of the firewall and reveals the path to the next challenge or level that players have to defeat to take down another part of the wall.
The prototypes our groups presented delivered everything I hoped for from the event. With minimal big picture coaching on the Open Web and targeted technical help from a few mentors, our teams captured their ideas about online freedom, openness, and privacy. They left me certain that with more time – and by participating in more events like this – we can develop a compelling, fun, and fascinating “Fight for the Open Web” experience on platforms like Minecraft that reach millions of young people worldwide. Look for a lesson plan (of sorts) soon.
By the end of the SPARK Hackathon, I felt inspired and humbled by the work of everyone involved. I can’t wait to do more work like this again – let me know if I can help you and yours hack on Minecraft and the Open Web!