Mining for Talent – How Video Games can Bridge the Skills and Gender Gap
How Minecraft and Lego can help shepherd a new generation of engineers
There is a world of potential out there waiting to be tapped. Millions of young people are enthusiastically playing with Lego, Minecraft and city and theme park simulators, building their own utopias and developing their own design codes.
Leah Stuart, Director of our Leeds studio, believes that the passion young people have for Minecraft and other video games can help bring new talent into engineering and bridge the skills and gender gap in the sector.
She says: “Children spend a lot of time designing worlds on games like Minecraft and the sky’s the limit. But then when you think about what we do as engineers, it’s a very similar process. All kids like to design their worlds and Minecraft and Lego are the tools they use.
“There’s a missing piece that connects play to real spaces and buildings. As a career, engineering is a fantastic opportunity to have this influence on our world and create fantastic, functional places, which makes us all healthier and happier.”
While it’s been around since the 1940s, Lego can play a role in shepherding in a passion for building physics and engineering. By using basic interlocking blocks young people can learn by stealth. By experimenting with Lego, children grasp the basics of building engineering and understand which shapes are robust, which are easily adapted, and how to manage resources.
In the 13 years since its release, Minecraft has gone from being a curious oddity to one of the most popular video games of all time, with more than 238 million copies sold and nearly 140 million monthly active users as of 2021.
Players can create electrical circuits, underground systems and form beautiful and surreal places.
Leah says: “Even though I have an engineering degree, sometimes it helps to go back to toys to understand and explain how structures function. They can help bring clarity so that when you’re looking at a cantilever, for example, you can better understand stresses and strains to make things work.
“Having that physical and intuitive understanding of how buildings work, it can give young people and children a basis in engineering and demonstrating that if we have the ambition we can create new and exciting structures.”
Oscar White, a Structural Design Engineer based in our Manchester studio initially found his interest in engineering and planning piqued by games such as Sim City when he was only 6 or 7.
Even games like Halo presented opportunities to build fortresses and design collaboratively in real time with friends in much the same way as people now design in 3D model space through virtual collaborations.
Oscar says: “Meccano, Lego and Sim City first implanted the idea that I could design a city and its infrastructure. It demonstrates how important it can be to engage young people in the process of design. That you can focus that optimism and creativity on improving the environment around us.
“Minecraft in particular, offers that opportunity for young children to experience two of the main sources of satisfaction that I experience in my role as an engineer. Blue sky creativity and problem solving in constrained environments.”
There are two main modes for the game, survival and creative, each of which poses a different problem and gives you different tools to accomplish your goals.
In survival mode, players can use tools to harvest rudimentary pixellated blocks to build their own lands and areas to stay safe from destructive forces.
While creative mode allows players to create and destroy structures and mechanisms with infinite resources and the ability to fly through your world at ease, the only limiting factors being imagination.
Those two modes give different kinds of rewards for players. Those that like to overcome a constraint and solve a problem thrive in survival mode, while those that like unlimited freedom to make spaces in their own image use creative.
Oscar says: “I was fortunate in that I developed a passion for engineering design and creativity from a very young age which gave me a focus, even in the face of some quite demanding academics. The games I played, and the feeling they gave me, helped spark that passion that helped me to overcome the adversity I faced in exams or coursework.
“Getting kids excited and passionate early is a great opportunity to keep them passionate, inspired and engaged in their later years.”
Here at Civic Engineers we’ve been working with developers TOWN who have replicated neighbourhoods in Minecraft and given the models over to young people to see how they would change the space. While the results can often be outlandish, they can reveal an inherent truth about what’s going on.
As part of a project at Wolverton, 90 students were given a specially-built Minecraft version of the town to explore detailed themes including how to make good streets, green spaces, shops and community uses. The project yielded some novel results and highlighted that young people didn’t really have a place to hang out.
Leah adds: “This example at Wolverton shows how we can use Minecraft to open up the conversation about what kids need from a place. While we might not be able to put ziplines between buildings, we can create spaces that help young people feel like they belong and can be safe and welcomed in our towns and cities. Projects like this can help bring those issues into focus so we can design inclusive places.
“If we can make places work for younger people, our active and engaged communities of the future, then you can make it right for everyone.”