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Nashville: Building Blocks

March 24, 2016

Ty Hollett (Vanderbilt University, Peabody College)

Nashville: Building Blocks (NBB) enables youth participants to engage with local, spatial issues in the Nashville, Tennessee community. Housed at the Nashville Public Library, yet available via server from others settings, the program employs the video game Minecraft (Mojang 2010) to immerse youth in collaborative, deliberative gameplay as they imagine, develop, and build a digital version of an idealized Nashville cityscape. Using local non-profit Nashville Civic Design Center’s “Plan for Nashville” as guide for in-game activity and development (Nashville Civic Design Center 2014), the program emphasizes authentic issues facing Nashville’s community and its planners. As such, in-game activity draws attention to, for instance, planning and design with “respect for the natural and built environment,” “reestablishing the streets as the principle public space of community and connectivity,” and “strengthening the unique identity of neighborhoods.” In turn, the program enables youth to build, create, and play together in a city they craft over time.

vimeo: vimeo Participants build a park space that contains a more realistic sandcastle in which kids could play. As participants generate ideas, they consider the possibilities of a small moat surrounding the sand castle. This idea leads them to use a form of circuitry available in Minecraft, called red stone, to create a working drawbridge.

NBB leverages the production-centered peer culture surrounding Minecraft to immerse youth in spatially charged activities. Minecraft is a game about breaking and placing blocks — like a digital version of Legos. Gameplay, both single and multiplayer, is open and player-directed: players build anything they imagine, from castles and tree houses, to replicas of the Starship Enterprise and forms of pixel art (e.g. a giant Mega Man). Multiplayer servers come in a variety of themes ranging from those centered on building and playing within fictional worlds (novels like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games), to those that emphasize mini-games (e.g. escaping from prison, fending off zombie hordes).

Gameplay on NBB’s server takes the Nashville community as its theme and emphasizes collaboration among players as they continually develop their city. NBB participants operate in “Creative Mode,” which provides instant access to all building materials. As opposed to castles and Mega Men, NBB participants build neighborhoods, parks, transport systems, urban farms, and more (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1: Examples of various builds by members of Nashville: Building Blocks

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As participants discuss, plan, and build, both in the game world and face-to-face, they take part in what is called augmented deliberation. Gordon and Manosevitch (2010) have put forth augmented deliberation as a form of participatory urban planning that simultaneously unites neighborhood residents in a physical and digital space. NBB is modeled off of this activity (Figure 1.2). Augmented deliberation enables participants to visualize and experience space, thus alleviating difficulties participants confront in understanding abstract spatial concepts. As a form of augmented deliberation, NBB seeks to place participants in “both places at once,” integrating interactions, collaboration, and idea-exchange that cut across digital and physical spaces. Additionally, augmented deliberation facilitates various forms of “perspective-taking,” or empathetically inhabiting another resident’s perspective via an avatar (Gordon et al. 2011). All face-to-face components of augmented deliberation take place in the Nashville Public Library’s digital media learning lab, which teens named The Studio.

Figure 1.2: Augmented collaboration and deliberation across digital and physical spaces.

The Studio provides local teens access to activities like music production, tinkering, and gaming, as well as informal hangout spaces after-school. While the world in which participants build is openly accessible via the server, formal NBB meetings take place twice each week, thus providing youth with regular opportunities to consider the needs of their community. For instance, participants recently focused their attention on the re-development of a Nashville neighborhood named Cayce Place. Using documents provided by the Metro Development and Housing Agency (2014, Figure 1.3) — the organization heading re-development — participants imagined the possibilities for Cayce Place, expanding on previous stakeholder meetings in which residents voiced their concerns about displacement; their desires to build a culture of respect, safety and community; as well as the need for access to healthy foods. In response, participants plotted out and built urban gardens and community centers; they considered the importance of parks in providing opportunities for residents to come together, creating sites for inter-generational activity; they deliberated the role of transportation, its role in providing residents access to other areas in the city, and set the groundwork for a rail system.

Re-envisioning Cayce Place. Documents provided by Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.

NBB seeks to re-imagine participatory civics across space, time, and scale. This entails a shift from thinking in terms of youth civic engagement to thinking in terms of “geographies of responsibility” (Massey 2004), or civic geographies.

> > An emphasis on civic geographies opens up individual sites of civic engagement to reveal a nexus — the ways in which civic engagement travels and connects to other sites and experiences, how it occurs over various temporalities, and how it operates at multiple scales.

The civic geography of NBB, for instance, traverses digital and physical settings, each space augmenting the other; it travels to participants’ homes, enabling them to participate and contribute from afar. Moreover, the program does not constrain engagement to a specific amount of time. As one participant said, unlike settings like school “there’s no time limit.” He was most proud of his work when it “took its time,” when he could continue to think and work over days, and even weeks. Furthermore, engagement occurs at various scales; shuttling, for instance, from the scale of the city (e.g. “How can we identify and fix problems in our community?”) to the scale of the Studio (e.g. “How can we work together efficiently and collaboratively?”). While the typical discourse surrounding school and education urges students to be college and career ready, NBB provides an opportunity for youth to be community ready — to question, to analyze, to re-imagine their community. Rather than promoting civic engagement, NBB positions youth within a civic geography, one that provides continuous opportunities for engagement with their community across overlapping spaces, temporalities, and scales.


Gordon, Eric and Edith Manosevitch. 2010. “Augmented deliberation: Merging physical and virtual interaction to engage communities in urban planning.” New Media & Society 13(1) (June): 75–95.

Gordon, Eric, Steven Schirra, and Justin Hollander. 2011. “Immersive planning: a conceptual model for designing public participation with new technologies.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38(3): 505–518

Massey, Doreen. 2004. “Geographies of responsibility.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86: 5–18

Metro Development and Housing Agency. 2014. “Envision Cayce.”

Mojang. 2010. Minecraft. Stockholm: Mojang LLC.

Nashville Civic Design Center. 2014. “Ten Principles of the Plan of Nashville.”

If you like what you just read, please click the green ‘Recommend’ button below to spread the word! More case studies and calls for submissions are on the Civic Media Project. To learn more about civic media, check out the book Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

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