Kyrgyzstan: How Minecraft brought gaming to an abandoned urban community

Kyrgyzstan: How Minecraft brought gaming to an abandoned urban community

Bakai-Ata is full of children.

The sound of their laughter at play echoes through almost every street in this settlement on the outskirts of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.

Not that they had much to rejoice about. Bakai AtaHome to some 5,000 people, it has barely developed since it emerged in the 1980s when the mass exodus from the countryside to the cities began in earnest.

The one-story houses are dilapidated and only a few trees have been planted. There is no gas for cooking, no heating in the houses, and work to connect the district to the sewerage network has only recently begun.

The children, who make up about half of the district’s population, have very little space for themselves. There is only one kindergarten, one school and, until recently, only two dilapidated playgrounds.

However, there is now a hint of improvement. And in part thanks to a video game much loved by children (and adults) all over the world: Minecraft.

In 2019, Bakai-Ata residents turned to a nonprofit urban regeneration foundation called City Initiatives for help creating a new space for their children to play. The foundation then submitted a bid on behalf of the district for a grant from the United Nations Human Settlements Program, known as UN-Habitat for short. Bidders had to show how they would use Minecraft, a sandbox game that allows players to create terrain and structures in a 3D virtual world, to bring their project to life.

Once Bakai-Ata won the bid, 100 residents, ages seven to 60, enlisted to brainstorm what the new children’s play space might look like. Unsurprisingly, the youngest members of the 10 teams came up with some of the most colorful and wacky ideas: trampolines, mazes, vertical gardens, even complicated plumbing fixtures that spew lava from under benches.

“The most important thing here was not to rule out unrealistic ideas, but to try to get an idea of ​​what was being requested. We realized that children do not have enough interactive elements to climb and jump on,” said Saira Turdumambetova, project manager.

Bakai-Ata did not receive artificial lava, but ideas aimed at making their new playground as fun and useful as possible for children, teens and parents alike were accepted.

“When the children were designing, they were thinking like real architects,” Turdumambetova said. “When they installed a bench, they thought about the tree that would provide shade. If you are sitting outside at night, you need lighting. And if you’re going to be in there for a long time, you need a trash can.”

After some discussion it was agreed that the new playground would be located on the grounds of the local school. With a design draft in hand, City Initiatives went to the builders to finish the job.

The result of their work is modest: they were not operating on an extravagant budget. The children now clamber over a variety of brightly colored climbing structures, the older children sit at night, chatting and listening to music in the small covered bleachers next to the futsal pitch. Parents watch over their children under the shelter of canopied park benches.

However, the idea was not to create something luxurious, as Turdumambetova explained. To begin with, some at Bakai-Ata were stumped by the initiative, especially the part involving Minecraft. Over time, more were invested.

“Residents are used to the municipality or some NGOs just coming and building something, giving it to them without asking their opinion,” he said. “East [approach] it engages them in the design process and helps foster a sense of responsibility for the space.”

One project participant, Aigerim Syrgabayeva, 17, told Eurasianet that she was initially forced to participate by a teacher. She had 10 classmates on her team, though half of them lost interest and walked away from her. Her priority was to work on lighting. The lack of lighting in the leisure areas meant that Syrgabayeva and her companions were afraid to stay outside after dark, she said.

The project that Syrgabayeva was initially reluctant to get involved with now benefits her directly.

“I go to the park every day with my friends to chat and hang out. There is light there,” she said.

Minecraft Bishkek Playground

As Turdumambetova predicted, the collective nature of design work has fostered a sense of responsibility. Occasional litter is a seemingly ineradicable scourge in Kyrgyzstan, but Syrgabayeva, for example, is anxious that space not fall victim to this problem.

“There are some people who litter, but not many. And there are people who pick up the garbage after them. […] Older residents scold the children and tell them not to litter,” Syrgabayeva said. “I also react when [children litter]. I tell them not to do it.”

Syrgabayeva said the experience inspired her to study architecture after school. She has also given him more confidence to stand up for her and to realize that her ideas are no less important than those of the adults around her.

“I believe that citizens have an important role in improving the spaces that surround them. It is not only the mayor’s office, but also the citizens who are responsible for improving things. People should act on their own, not wait for the city council to do it,” Syrgabayeva said.

One of his teammates, Bakytbek Kubanych uulu, 16, an aspiring software programmer, said he was particularly drawn to the technology aspect of the project.

The idea behind using Minecraft, he explained, was to visualize things that even the community might not realize they wanted or needed.

“An idea from the Minecraft guys was to build bleachers. But that is quite an expensive thing to do,” Kubanych uulu told Eurasianet. “[To begin with], we put up some seating planks for a week to see if people would use them. They did, and then they even came and thanked us. Before, we had no place to sit and watch the games.”

Kubanych uulu only regrets that the playground does not have enough gardens, although he and his friends are working to remedy this. Together with other members of the team, they have now planted 10 apple, apricot and linden trees.

“If we take care of the space, we make it green, we don’t litter and we prevent it from being ruined, if we water the plants and pick up the garbage, then this place will be ideal,” he said. “All deficiencies begin with us. If we don’t take care of this place, all of our work will be lost.”

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