Planning When it’s Not the Point: Urban Design Fun in a Non-City-Building Videogame

By Evan King

Imagine, if you will, life as a pixelated farmer in a remote pixelated village. You live in a small hut with a bed and maybe a window but nothing else. You wake every morning to tend to your plot of wheat and head to bed as the sun sets. Similar sites are scattered over vast distances, but these villages are the only intelligent life occurring across your entire world. 

Innocent farmers 

A different kind of being arrives one day- an unfriendly menace. Accustomed to little else but violence in videogames and pretty much out of boredom, he sets about burning down the place. He rounds up you and your fellow villagers and throws you all into a pit of lava with an elaborate sacrificial temple altar that he’s managed to construct in a matter of minutes. Another visitor from beyond arrives moments later, yelling “God damnit, Dan!” This was about ten years ago- we were building an empire. I was trying to be Caesar, and my college buddy was acting more like Genghis Khan and really ruining the whole thing. I had scoped out a corridor to bring a rail line out to the village, built some housing, installed better lighting for the villagers, and started erecting a defensive town wall. Now, we didn’t have anything to work with. I stopped playing with him soon after – I take Minecraft way too seriously. 

A typical naturally occurring village you’ll come across.  As seen from a horse – they added horses to the game a few years ago, I have favored railways – you can’t start a new village without a railway or waterway to bring your colonists 

Trying to cooperatively build a city with some other friends later, I found myself trying to make rules. I suggested that they try to coordinate their buildings and monuments or that they try to build things reasonably close together so the AI villagers could navigate, live, and do their little activities on a genuine urban scale. Looking back now- ten years later- I should have known all along. “You’re acting like an urban planner,” my mother said over my shoulder during a college Christmas break, unwittingly changing my life. 

A friend of mine’s neighboring town, he’s struggling with scale but he’s getting there 

The function of these randomly generated villages and their inhabitants, as far as the game really has functions, is to give the player better access to rare materials and items through a currency-based trading system. The items serve the player in doing whatever else they want to do, which can be quite a few different things in Minecraft. People explore, build their dream castles, beat the crap out of each other, make artwork, follow some of the game’s treasure hunting plotlines, and even engineer computers with the game’s logic blocks. Most people, however, play the game as amateur architects, taking the landscape’s various raw materials and converting them into grand monuments – endless electronic legos. 

A cozy corner in my capital  

Most people play this game in a way that falls short for me. People build their spectacular creations in the middle of nowhere, not relating to anything like the surrounding world or its people. Players do build “cities,” but for the most part they consist of empty boxes. They are merely models that don’t actually function in the game and are entirely out of scale with everything else. Dubai or Hudson Yards come to mind as some of the few real-life examples of this. 

One can build at breathtaking scale and even realism in this game. Minecraft is about building, but even so I would argue that at this point you aren’t really playing the game, but using it as a CAD technique. No AI villagers will be able to navigate this (there are no working cars, nor do these ship sculptures do anything) or find it legible, and it doesn’t serve any gameplay use to you, the player – it is just a model. (Image: 

This is all well and good as it’s only a game after all, but for me, the mechanics of villages and villagers are a large part of the point. You can make villages that look good and function well in a hybrid city builder-architectural sandbox situation. The low-resolution block structure of everything ensures that you don’t focus too much on the purely artistic side. You can house residences (beds) and job locations (consisting of certain utility blocks) in any architecture or urban layout you see fit or can build. But basic  planning principles happen to dictate how well they end up working. Can the villagers get from their houses or apartments to their jobs? Can they meet at the center of the village to trade and mate? “Mating” consists of a dance with hearts in the air and the instant appearance of a baby, who proceeds to start running around. There is no gender, although they sound as much like Squidward as they look. Is the area well-lit and defended? Various monsters spawn in dark areas. It makes sense in some cases to build a medieval style wall around a town, which can encourage compact, visually pleasing design as in real life. You can breed villagers with (inhumane- if they were real) enclosure facilities and put them in cages so they are right where you need them when you want to trade, and many players do this, but I prefer letting them function as the game intended and not having my villages be prisons. 

Villagers enjoying well-defined urban space in the town square – they like posing for the camera 

At the center of the village is a bell, which is naturally generated in most cases, but also purchasable from certain villagers. This- along with two kidnapped villagers- can be used to start a new village from scratch. You can put the bell anywhere, but I like to make a central square or green with it as the centerpiece. Villagers all gather to it at the end of each day. The bell also functions as a safety alarm; when roving marauders called “pillagers” attack, you can ring it and the villagers will all rush inside their houses (fortifications are useful here too, though very rarely needed). Before they introduced bells you had to pay even more attention to urban design. You needed a central open area surrounded by intense use, precisely occupying the population barycenter to ensure this was the main congregating area. If you didn’t, the villagers would start to glitch and abandon the village or disappear, but there is more leeway for error here now. 

A waterfront I am attempting to make progress on in my principal town – we recently dug a canal to connect two river systems and give this previously landlocked area access to the ocean

But all the while, there is the entire rest of the game to be played- climbing mountains, slaying dragons, pranking your friends and the like. You can play the urban planner when everyone else is doing something else. In this way, I value it immensely over ‘city builders’ like Sim City, where you preside over people meant for no other purpose than to simulate city building and administration. You also actually experience what you build in this game, it is not top-down. 

A view across the central part of my principal city from a rooftop – “old town” area in the middle ground, where an ugly megastructure once stood, is still a work in progress. 

While the villagers in Minecraft may not exist for their own sake either, they exist for a purpose other than your urban design schemes. But you can design environments to improve their functionality. Any urban design you do is for other players’, AI’s, and even your own wider purposes in the game. You can build a city to slay a dragon – it all connects, just like in real life. Both function and form can be manipulated in Minecraft. 

Ocean exploration, for treasure, creature encounters, or new lands, is one of many activities you can get up to in this game – and village design can serve here too  

Even the game’s distance from explicit or formal city building is the very thing that seems to draw some players – absolute freedom in terms of land use. I’ve always said Americans need to play Minecraft to get their antisocial or libertarian impulses out; one mother on Twitter recently remarked that her eight-year-old child likes the game because there are “no zoning laws,” a child I hope grows up to liberate us all from single-family zoning and the automobile. But this is true in the sense that you can do whatever you want in general, and also in the sense that you can do what you want without America’s ugly, racist rules stopping you.  

The appeal of Minecraft on the left and the right 

That is why I play it. In a little over a month, I’ll be starting at a planning job. I may very well need a virtual escape, where I can be a dictator for life – then I can happily serve the wishes of a real suburban public in real life. On the other hand, Minecraft makes you accommodate people and their needs in your schemes as effectively as you can, which also makes it engrossing. Essentially the appeal is the satisfaction of all your hopeless democratic yearnings but also your despotic impulses – in one convenient place. Maybe there’s a tyrant, a public servant, an urbanite and a hermit in all of us. 

Large buildings are harder to keep safely lit, and shadows under these gratuitous freeway overpasses spawn more monsters – this is a view of my Corbusian zombie town, built out of materials from the game’s Hell. Diagonal designs are unpleasant or awkward in this grid and block-based game, while real life towers like these sit at angles that do not relate to streets or define space. 

This post is not intended as an endorsement of Minecraft; the creation of a notoriously sexist programmer and now a massive, over-merchandized monstrosity owned by Microsoft. But for me, it is a guilty pleasure that likely influenced my life and career (as far as it’s really started). And hey, check out what I made – these are mostly screenshots from my server. Join me! I promise I won’t make you fill out any permits.  

Author Bio: Evan King is a second-year master’s student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.

Featured images courtesy of Evan King