Kyrgyzstan: How Minecraft brought gaming to a neglected urban community – Low Calorie Diets Tips

Bakai-Ata is full of children.

The sound of their playful laughter can be heard on almost every street in this settlement outside of Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.

Not that they had much reason to be happy. Bakai AtaHome to around 5,000 people, it has changed little since its creation in the 1980s, when the mass exodus from the countryside to the cities began in earnest.

The one-story houses are in a state of disrepair and few trees have been planted. There is no gas for cooking, no heating piped into the houses, and only recently has the neighborhood started to be connected to the sewage system.

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

However, there is now a small glimmer of improvement. And thanks in part to a video game loved by kids (and adults) around 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 applied on behalf of the district for a grant from the United Nations Human Settlements Program, or UN-Habitat for short. Bidders had to demonstrate how they would use Minecraft, a sandbox game that allows players to create terrains and structures in a 3D virtual world, to make their project a reality.

After Bakai-Ata won the bid, 100 residents between the ages of seven and 60 were recruited to brainstorm what the new children’s play area would look like. Unsurprisingly, younger members of the 10 teams came up with some of the most colorful and outlandish ideas: trampolines, mazes, vertical gardens, even intricate water features spouting lava from under benches.

“The important thing here was not to dismiss unrealistic ideas but to try and get a sense of what was being asked. We found that children don’t have enough interactive elements to climb and jump over,” said Saira Turdumambetova, the project manager.

Bakai-Ata did not receive artificial lava, but ideas aimed at making their new play zone as fun and useful as possible for children, teenagers and parents alike were welcomed.

“When the children designed, they thought like real architects,” says Turdumambetova. “When they installed a bench, they thought of the tree that would provide shade. If you sit outside in the evening, you need lighting. And if you’re going to be there long, you’ll need a trash can.”

After some discussion, it was agreed that the new playground should be built on the site of the local school. With a design draft in hand, City Initiatives went to the builders to complete the work.

The result of their work is modest – they did not work with an extravagant budget. Children now climb over a selection of colorful jungle gyms, while older children sit outside in the evenings, chatting and listening to music in the small covered stands by the five-a-side football pitch. Parents watch their children under the shelter of the covered park benches.

However, the idea was not to create something elaborate, as Turdumambetova explained. At first, some in Bakai-Ata were perplexed about the initiative, especially the Minecraft part. Over time, they became more invested.

“Residents are used to the community or some NGOs just coming and building something and giving it to them without asking their opinion,” she said. “This [approach] involves them in the design process and helps foster a sense of ownership of the space.”

One project participant, 17-year-old Aigerim Syrgabayeva, told Eurasianet that she was initially forced to participate by a teacher. She had 10 classmates on her team, although half of them lost interest and defected. Her priority was work on the lighting. The lack of lighting in recreational areas means Syrgabayeva and her colleagues were afraid to stay outside after dark, she said.

The project, which Syrgabayeva was initially reluctant to embark on, now benefits her directly.

“I go to the park with my friends every day to chat and spend time. It’s light there,’ she said.

As Turdumambetova predicted, the collective nature of design work encouraged a sense of responsibility. Littering is a seemingly ineradicable scourge in Kyrgyzstan, but Syrgabayeva, for example, craves space to avoid falling prey to the problem.

“There are some people who litter, but not many. And there are people behind them who pick up the rubbish. […] The elderly residents reprimand the children and tell them not to throw garbage,” 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 graduating from school. It has also made them more confident in defending their positions and realizing that their ideas are no less important than those of the adults around them.

“I believe that citizens play a huge role in improving the spaces around them. Not only the mayor’s office, but also the citizens are responsible for making things better. People must act on their own and not wait for the town hall to do it,” Syrgabayeva said.

One of their teammates, 16-year-old Bakytbek Kubanych Uulu, an aspiring software programmer, said he was particularly drawn to the technological aspect of the project.

The idea behind using Minecraft, he explained, is to visualize things that even the community might not know they want or need.

“One idea the Minecraft guys had was to build grandstands. But it’s quite expensive,” Kubanych uulu told Eurasianet. “[To begin with], we installed some boards as seats for a week to see if people would use them. They did, and then they even came and thanked us for it. Before, we didn’t have a place to sit down and watch games.”

Kubanych uulu’s only regret is that the playground doesn’t have enough landscaping, although he and his friends are working to fix it. Together with other team members, they have now planted 10 apple, apricot and linden trees.

“If we take care of the space, green it, don’t litter it, and keep it from being devastated, if we water the plants and collect trash, then this place is ideal,” he said. “All shortcomings start with us. If we don’t take care of this place, all our work will be lost.”

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