Posted By Smple Staff

How to Combat Censorship with a Video Game

Source: Blockworks YouTube thumbnail
In the courtyard, there is a giant statue of a fist grasping a pen. It is defiant, empowering and apt. The library’s grounds are decorated with hundreds of perfectly lined trees, gardens weaved into the architecture, and stairways of bright, white stone. The building itself is breath-taking in scale, modelled after a neoclassical design and capped with a vast dome. Emblazoned on a pediment supported by thick pillars are the words, ‘The Uncensored Library,’ and above them is a small, book-shaped relief, identifying this place as a refuge for the written word. Where is this majestic place? Not in any country, for sure; because If it were, that would defeat the object of what it was built to achieve. The one and only place you can find it is in Minecraft, which means the best-selling video game of all time is now also home to a project with a noble purpose.

The library’s custom-made map contains over 200 different books and is constructed of six “wings”, each dedicated to works banned in a particular country. The articles therein are each available in their mother tongue as well as in English, and in order to read them, the player simply has to approach the relevant digital lectern, which will enable the player to read the contents in-game to their heart’s content, most of which critiques the government of the country in question. The added touch in the way the wings were built is that the interior design of each country’s room reflects the unique challenges they face. Saudi Arabia, for example, doesn’t allow independent journalism, so its wing features a singular cage at the centre, emblematic of the journalists who have been arrested, tortured (or as is almost certainly the case of Jamal Khashoggi, killed) for their criticism of the Saudi Crown and government. In an attempt to bring further light to press restrictions still prevalent around the globe, the library also houses a central room which lists the Press Freedom Index and current state of that freedom in each wing’s country.

Consider now this project’s immense scale. I don’t mean the people involved or the works it upholds in the preservation of free speech, but the literal blocks used to construct this digital sanctuary. Minecraft looks blocky by nature because every square unit of space is taken up by an element, such as wood, stone, water, what have you. From the first-person perspective in-game, Each block is roughly around 3 feet wide. With that in mind, the library uses over 12.5 million blocks in its construction. Considering that your player avatar can walk at a speed of around 5m/s, if all the blocks were laid out in a straight line it would take almost 29 straight days to span it from one end to the other. Put simply, this virtual environment is enormous.

Blockworks Ltd, the boots-on-the-virtual-ground builders, worked in conjunction with Reporters Without Borders to build this place. RWB is the client who commissioned the build, but rather than simply train our spotlight on the project itself, we should also consider the people we make these works happen. Blockworks’s client list is surely enough to raise The Rock’s signature brow, including Disney, Warner Brothers, Microsoft, Kellogg’s, The Guardian, Dell and PepsiCo to name merely a handful. One project it undertook for Microsoft was to build an interactive model of the company’s new global headquarters in Redmond, Washington, with which employees could access on a 1:1 scale all 18 new buildings Microsoft are planning for the campus. Blockworks is being commissioned not only to create interactive models of planned architectural projects, but works as a means for preserving history, too. For example, the Museum of London commissioned a set of 3 maps to mark the 350th anniversary of the most devastating fire in London’s history, which infamously torched much of the city in 1666. The maps recreate London before, during and after the fire, with the first allowing players to explore London prior, the second showcasing the efforts that were made to limit the damage, and the third allowing players to design their own version of the city after hearing from proposals by contemporary architects.

The Hedgeland Map is another great example, which Blockworks constructed for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Caleb Hedgeland’s model of Exeter is believed to be the earliest surviving model of any town in Britain, finished in 1824. Each house is carved by hand out of wood, and Hedgeland even carved out each individual window to give the project a greater sensation of depth. The model has buildings of which there are no visual representations that exist anywhere else on any record, and so for posterity, the model was transposed from its physical form into a build in Minecraft, allowing not only a scaled, virtual exploration of the model, but a version that will always exist somewhere, should the original ever succumb to destruction or degradation. These Blockworks projects evidence that Minecraft is so versatile a tool that the limit really is its own blocky-clouded sky.

Of course, on the subject of censorship, to not mention Ukraine would not simply be an oversight, but a glaring omission. Now, more than ever, the world needs uncensored, accurate accounts of the truth, whatever the vehicle. Tricycle, clown car or map in Minecraft, it doesn’t matter as long as the people who need it, get it. Reporters Without Borders, which commissioned the build of the Uncensored Library, also recently called on Russian authorities to repeal a law adopted on 4th March which makes the publication of “false” or “mendacious” information about Russian armed forces punishable by up to 15 years in prison. If all continues to unravel as it has of late, it would be little wonder that RWB and Blockworks will need to add texts yet to be written to the library. Russia, of course, has its own wing – a testament to the degree with which the voices of its people are silenced by Putin’s authoritarian government. Ironically, Microsoft, which bought Minecraft back in 2014, recently blocked sales of Minecraft in Russia, or at the very least, the mobile versions on the App Store and Google Play store. What this means is that in order to pressure Russia with sanctions during this abhorrent invasion, Microsoft is restricting the sale of a platform which, incidentally, is being inventively used to promote free speech. As the old idiom goes, this is the type of shit you really can’t make up.

Stunning as the build is, we must remember that the Uncensored Library houses only around 200 books. It is by no means an exhaustive project, or even one that might ever be considered complete. It is, by its inherent nature, a work forever in progress. The library is not going to win Blockworks or RWB a Nobel Peace Prize, but the project is nonetheless one hell of a statement. The internet has been used as a tool against censorship since before even the days of dial-up, but this project feels like a step beyond, something bold and innovative. It is too rare in this life to find people who come together and labour over something that they as individuals have no need for, but which others do. The Uncensored Library is then not simply a selfless refuge, but an olive branch, pixelated in its construction from the building blocks of the world’s most popular video game, and extended through the ethereal web to whoever may themselves reach out to take it. Long may the library help and harbour people, but more importantly, let’s hope that it serves as inspiration for humanitarian works that are just as innovative, but ever bigger in scope.

Ross lives, works and writes in Manchester, England. When not losing himself in American literary or fantasy fiction, he writes regular tech and culture articles for SMPLE as well as long and short fiction.
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