Minecraft for geoscience

  The Isle of Wight , complete with geology. ©Crown copyright. 

The Isle of Wight, complete with geology. ©Crown copyright. 

You might have heard of Minecraft. If you live with any children, then you definitely have. It's a computer game, but it's a little unusual — there isn't really a score, and the gameplay has no particular goal or narrative, leaving everything to the player or players. It's more like playing with Lego than, say, playing chess or tennis or paintball. The game was created by Swede Markus Persson and then marketed by his company Mojang. Microsoft bought Mojang in September last year for $2.5 billion. 

What does this have to do with geoscience?

Apart from being played by 100 million people, the game has attracted a lot of attention from geospatial nerds over the last 12–18 months. Or rather, the Minecraft environment has. The game chiefly consists of fabricating, placing and breaking 1-m-cubed blocks of various materials. Even in normal use, people create remarkable structures, and I don't just mean 'big' or 'cool', I mean truly remarkable. So the attention from the British Geological Survey and the Danish Geodata Agency. If you've spent any time building geocellular models, then the process of constructing elaborate digital models is familiar to you. And perhaps it's not too big a leap to see how the virtual world of Minecraft could be an interesting way to model the subsurface. 

Still I was surprised when, chatting to Thomas Rapstine at the Geophysics Hackathon in Denver, he mentioned Joe Capriotti and Yaoguo Li, fellow researchers at Colorado School of Mines. Faced with the problem of building 3D earth models for simulating geophysical experiments — a problem we've faced with modelr.io — they hit on the idea of adapting Minecraft models. This is not just a gimmick, because Minecraft is specifically designed for simulating and manipulating landscapes.

 The Minecraft model (left) and synthetic gravity data (right). Image ©2014 SEG and Capriotti & Li. Used in acordance with SEG's  permissions . 

The Minecraft model (left) and synthetic gravity data (right). Image ©2014 SEG and Capriotti & Li. Used in acordance with SEG's permissions

If you'd like to dabble in geospatial Minecraft yourself, the FME software from Safe now has a standardized way to get Minecraft data into and out of the environment. Essentially they treat the blocks as point clouds (e.g. as you might get from Lidar or a laser scan), so they can do conventional operations, such as differences or filtering, with the software. They recorded a webinar on the subject yesterday.

Minecraft is here to stay

There are two other important angles to Minecraft, both good reasons why it will probably be around for a while, and probably both something to do with why Microsoft bought Mojang...

  1. It is a programming gateway drug. Like web coding, and image processing, Minecraft might be another way to get people, especially young people, interested in computing. The tiny Linux machine Raspberry Pi comes with a version of the game with a full Python API, so you can control the game programmatically.  
  2. Its potential beyond programming as a STEM teaching aid and engagement tool. Here's another example. Indeed, the United Nations is involved in Block By Block, an effort around collaborative public space design echoing the Blockholm project, an early attempt to explore social city planning in the tool.

All of which is enough to make me more curious about the crazy-sounding world my kids have built, with its Houston-like city planning: house, school, house, Home Sense, house, rocket launch pad...

References

Capriotti, J and Yaoguo Li (2014) Gravity and gravity gradient data: Understanding their information content through joint inversions. SEG Technical Program Expanded Abstracts 2014: pp. 1329-1333. DOI 10.1190/segam2014-1581.1 

The thumbnail image is from an image by Terry Madeley.

UPDATE: Thank you to Andy for pointing out that Yaoguo Li is a prof, not a student.