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This Minecraft library is making censored journalism accessible all over the world

A virtual space becomes a home to real-world texts

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Minecraft has established itself as a cultural phenomenon for many reasons: it’s creative, collaborative, and sufficiently facile as to be considered accessible to almost anybody. In isolation, these benefits seem relatively intriguing. In tandem, however, they form the perfect vehicle for Reporters Without Borders’ Uncensored Library, a virtual hub housing a collection of otherwise inaccessible journalism from all over the world, with specific sections devoted to Russia, Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

Originally conceived as a collaborative concept between German marketing agency DDB and the German branch of Reporters Without Borders, The Uncensored Library was delineated and constructed by UK design company Blockworks. James Delaney, managing director at Blockworks, tells me he studied architecture at university and has been playing Minecraft for roughly eight years. His passions naturally intertwined, to the extent that he conflated the pair during his degree, highlighting Minecraft as an alternative platform for participatory and collaborative 3D design. In fact, this is the exact service Blockworks offers: the creation of virtual models of architectural structures designed and subsumed in Minecraft.

When Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Paris, approached Blockworks, they were interested in using Minecraft as a means of reaching a totally new audience. “They looked for that rarest of things,” Delaney explains. “A professional company that specializes in Minecraft engagement.”

DDB senior creative Tobi Natterer explains that this isn’t the first Reporters Without Borders project to grapple with press censorship in recent years. “We did The Uncensored Playlist two years ago, to make censored information available through music because Spotify is available in each country in the world,” Natterer explains. Ever since, the DDB and Reporters Without Borders teams have been working on transforming the concept of “Uncensored” into an ongoing series of creative ideas intended to combat censorship all over the world.

The idea to use Minecraft as part of this movement has an unlikely origin. While watching television at home, Natterer noticed that the people on-screen were using a video game in an ostensibly unconventional way. They weren’t actually playing, but were using the in-game chat to speak to each other. “Computer games are partly about the game experience, but also about meeting in a virtual space,” Natterer says. “I did some research and found out that countries with press censorship often [have] huge gaming communities.” After another round of probing, Natterer discovered that Minecraft, as well as being almost unparalleled in popularity and accessibility, offers players the ability to write books in-game.

“The content you find in these rooms is illegal.”

Combined with the input from DDB’s research and outreach, Reporters Without Borders and Blockworks were able to analyze where Minecraft communities were particularly sizable, and subsequently match these results to countries suffering from a substantial degree of censorship. “For example, in Egypt there’s no free information,” Reporters Without Borders media and public relations officer Kristin Bässe tells me. Mexico is the country where journalists are most at risk, she adds, with governmental and cartel interference often culminating in the death of those voices deemed dissident. “It’s a different form of censorship,” Bässe explains. “People don’t want to publish because they’re scared they will be killed.” 

“In the Mexico room we built memorials to 12 Mexican journalists who have been murdered,” Delaney tells me. While giving me a virtual tour of the library on Discord, Delaney brings me to a pedestal holding journalism from Javier Valdez Cárdenas. The text in question was not censored by the Mexican government, but was subjected to self-censorship out of fear. “Because of the explicit danger to journalists in Mexico, there are a lot of issues they won’t talk about because it’s too dangerous.”

Delaney tells me that the forms of censorship in Egypt are more blatant. “The articles you see in this room are actually banned,” he explains. “If you live in Egypt you’re unable to access them unless you come to our Minecraft server.” Delaney notes that this is the case for the Russian, Vietnamese, and Saudi Arabian sections, too. “The content you find in these rooms is illegal, but we can see from the server logins that we’ve already had people from all five of these countries join and read up on this information,” he says. “It’s good to see it’s working.”

The Uncensored Library also hosts reports from the late Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “We wanted to include [Khashoggi’s] texts for The Washington Post,” Bässe says. “We chose texts about Saudi Arabia that would never be published there at the moment.” Delaney adds that Khashoggi’s readings are also available to listen to in Arabic, and the articles in each section are available in both English and the language in which they were originally penned. 

The criteria for inclusion is handled by Reporters Without Borders, which ensures the library’s content is accurate, truthful, and sensitive, according to Delaney. “We didn’t want this to be tokenistic or surface-level,” he explains. “This needed to be something that was meaningful beyond flashy Minecraft.”

The library itself boasts a remarkably impressive scale. Due to its size, teleports have been put in place so visitors can avoid tedium while exploring. The first thing you see as you approach it is a titanic statue of a fist holding a pen — the official Reporters Without Borders symbol for press freedom. “The style is Classical and formal, the kind of architecture you’d see in the British Museum and New York Public Library,” Delaney tells me. “That was deliberate, because this architectural style is usually used by governments to reinforce their own positions of authority. We wanted to take that and turn it on its head. Yes, we’re using this formalistic, authoritarian style, but instead it’s filled with free information.” At present, the library is home to over 200 censored books.

“The kind of architecture you’d see in the British Museum and New York Public Library.”

This thoughtfulness extends to its internal structure as well. A world map based on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index is built into the floor, and ranks 180 countries in terms of their current censorship status (you can read a detailed breakdown of the Index’s methodology here). Meanwhile, a dome built into the library’s ceiling houses the flags of these same countries. “Behind them, we’ve got information about the press freedom situation in that country,” Delaney says. “The first thing people do when they come onto the server is look at the map and go straight to their country. It’s a good way to introduce people. A lot of this is about starting a conversation. It’s aimed at young people who wouldn’t normally engage with this, but giving them the opportunity to read up on press freedom in their own country gives them an in.“

As far as digital repositories for sensitive information go, The Uncensored Library in Minecraft is the first of its ilk. “Definitely via a video game,” Bässe says. “And also via streaming services — this is an original idea that never came up before.” Delaney notes that Blockworks has been working on other progressive fronts, mentioning public benefit projects including a targeted look at climate change, a virtual realization of a green tech city, and a collaboration with universities and energy consumption companies intended to educate kids on the basics of renewable energy. “There’s a version of Minecraft called Education Edition which is designed for school use, so we designed a few lessons for that,” he tells me. “Kids in school can play this map and learn about renewable energy, how it works and why it’s important.”

Delaney is quick to clarify the degree of care that goes into these renderings. “We’re not gamifying climate change or press freedom, we’re bringing those into the game,” he says. “We’re climate change-ifying Minecraft rather than gamifying climate change. I think that has a very real consequence and difference in how it’s used and how kids perceive it. There’s so much gamification now that kids are skeptical and pretty good at sniffing it out. It’s quite obvious when the teacher tries to make something fun and doesn’t quite pull it off, but Minecraft genuinely is fun and, at the same time, can be a really good vehicle for learning and engagement.”

There has been some resistance to the library so far, though it has largely been fruitless. Natterer mentions that certain server hosts have expressed reluctance toward supporting the project because they don’t want to ruin business relationships with clients based in China. However, Delaney notes that any attempt to dismantle the server thus far clearly isn’t working. “It’s quite hard to do unless they ban Minecraft completely,” he says. “We’re running one version of this server, but because we’ve made the world downloadable, technically anyone can take it and reupload it.”

Delaney mentions that the team specifically chose Minecraft due to how difficult it is to legislate and enforce a server shutdown. The logic here is sound, as the sheer ubiquity of Minecraft in contemporary society helps to solidify its status as an entity that can’t be challenged lightly. 

“We want to reach young people.”

In terms of impact, Natterer tells me that as of March 16th, the website has reached every country in the world save 10. Meanwhile, the official server has reached 175 countries, including each of the project’s target regions. “We have huge audiences in Russia and Mexico,” Natterer says. The library has been so well-received, in fact, that the team suffered a small crash three days after launch after an unexpected deluge of visitors descended on the server. “They were actually queuing to get in,” Natterer tells me. “We did a server upgrade to handle the visitors, and also doubled the amount of censored books to provide more information.”

Of everyone who has visited The Uncensored Library so far, around 40 percent have returned at least once, suggesting that logins aren’t ephemeral one-time ventures. “It seems like a concept that actually works,” Natterer explains. “Long-term, we want to keep the server running. The library is spreading all over the world [and] people are rehosting it on their own servers.” 

According to the statistics Delaney provided me with on March 17th, The Uncensored Library map has already pulled an excess of 23,000 downloads globally, while the official server has been occasioned by 17,000 unique visitors across 30,000 sessions, implying that the 40 percent revisit rate has increased to approximately 57 percent over the course of 24 hours. Natterer and Bässe explain that they recently spoke about increasing the scale of the library yet again. “We are contacting new journalists, we want to add new countries, and we definitely want to add more content,” Natterer says. “I mean, adding books is easy, it takes a minute or two to upload a book.”

“We want to reach young people,” Bässe adds. “It’s really important that this is actually reaching the target group that we intended, that young people are getting in touch with the topic of press freedom and that we reach a different group than we usually do. That’s really important for Reporters Without Borders.” However, although Minecraft is populated by millions of young players who are experiencing the phenomenon of press freedom for the first time, other conversations are sparking, too.

“We experience a lot of interesting stories where people, for example, from America enter the library and they type in the chat, ‘well I’m from America, it’s the most free country in the world and we’re number one,’ and then they read the Press Freedom Index and are surprised that America is number 48,” Natterer says. “And then a discussion starts — ‘why is America not number one?’ Because they think they’re the most free country in the world.”

Natterer mentions other intriguing cases, too. He tells me about German YouTubers who have been filming their time in the library, and have since urged their followers to consider the presence of right-wing parties and press freedom the next time they vote. “Even outside the target countries, young people are realizing things and getting in touch with the topics of press freedom and freedom of speech, maybe for the first time,” he adds. “A guy from Canada said ‘I don’t understand why this is important for me, what should I do with this information?,’ and someone from Hong Kong explained what it feels like when freedom of speech is taken away from you. There’s some interesting learning [going on].”

Although Delaney concedes that Minecraft is a game played predominantly by young kids, he asserts that this doesn’t compromise its ability to be used as a riposte against censorship. “It’s an unlikely vehicle for this topic, but it’s working surprisingly well,” he explains.

Perhaps that’s why it’s working surprisingly well — it makes sense that the long-overdue foil to the propaganda machine was made possible by an innocuous children’s game.