Outschool, a supplemental class service for ambitious kids from k-12, is offering a course called Metrocraft. In it, students collectively design and build (in Minecraft) a city that they then govern. The class combines architecture, public administration, and politics.

Although the designers of the course likely didn’t intentionally make this connection, the class is similar to Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy project, which attempts to re-think opinion polling and fold it into the deliberative process. Respondents are first given questions to answer, but then go through a deliberative process of discussing the issues and listening to different points of view. Then they’re polled again.

The Metrocraft class is different from the CDD project in its level of sophistication.  It is nominally training people to think of themselves as “leaders” rather than just deliberative citizens (though the two are obviously complimentary). Still, they fall under a common umbrella: the idea that simulations, dialogues, debates, and involving people in deliberative processes are good things. They are educational, collectively pedagogical, and assume that people learn things and become better — collectively better, even. This is an optimistic course.

The use of technology and, in particular, gaming technology is also a significant attribute of the Outschool class. We’ve always used games to teach and learn, and this might be the best example yet. The Guardian called Minecraft the best videogame of the 21st century, and that’s merely one among many mountains of praise it has receivedTime ranks it the #6 video game of all time. With its simulations, walk-throughs, and parodies of other cultural artifacts, Minecraft is more a paradigm, a basic framework, than a game; and, it is premised on building. Combining construction and public administration, and teaching students to do so democratically and mindful of processes, might be Minecraft’s most socially useful application yet.

One of the myths that has driven the U.S. into a series of political dumpster fires, civil conflict, and political hostility has been the argument that government “doesn’t work.” Corporate donors have given hundreds of millions of dollars to think tanks over the past five decades to spread that myth and turn it into an axiom for half the country. It’s a curious conclusion, because “government” is nothing more than a collection of people working to achieve goals. If “government doesn’t work,” why do businesses work? Why does the military “work?” Is this an argument against all collective endeavors, or just public management?
Participatory simulations of government can teach us governance experientially — students learn about processes and rules, but also about what they should and should not do themselves. They also learn what their own limits are — the things they enjoy or which do not interest them, the things they excel at or which are their limitations. Although such simulations might be competitive games with competitive pressures, they are more often cooperative, where incentives to “win” are not at other players’ expense; rather, the goal is to win in conference with those players. My guess is that a virtual classroom full of 13 year-old Minecraft players will run a smoother society than the one we’ve experienced lately.