Sometimes, our best ideas come from the unlikeliest of places.
For Kelsey MacCormack, director of mapping and modelling at the Alberta Geological Survey (AGS), a branch of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), her “eureka” moment came to her one evening at home. At the time, she was watching her kids feed their gaming habit.
One game left a lasting impression: Minecraft, a video game that encourages players to build, explore, and create their own virtual 3D world.
“I watched my kids explore and learn about this virtual environment, both on the surface and underground,” she explained. “I started connecting the dots between the way they interacted with the game and my work at the AGS.”
Gears started turning.
The AGS constructs highly detailed 3D models of Alberta’s geology, used for evidence-based decision making at the AER. These models have been recognized internationally for their accurate and reliable depictions of surface and subsurface regions across Alberta. As MacCormack watched her kids explore and learn through Minecraft, she began to wonder if AGS could transfer its existing 3D geological models into a Minecraft format.
If it was possible, MacCormack’s own kids—and others eager to learn about geology—could immerse themselves in Alberta’s underground.
“We were already sitting on this huge resource of geologic information,” MacCormack said. “Minecraft provided a way for anyone to learn and explore Alberta’s geology as if they were really out there. We just needed to make it work.”
Putting it into Action
MacCormack and her colleagues soon learned that they weren’t the first to make this connection. Organizations across the world, including the British Geological Survey, had developed Minecraft models of their own. All AGS needed was an existing 3D geological model, computer programming skills, and a team to bring the idea to life.
They had access to the first two. As for the third, the AGS turned to summer student Tyler MacCormack and geomodeller Elwyn Galloway to bring the project to life, with support from a few more subject-matter experts.
Next thing they knew, the team created a Minecraft model of the Peace River area by simplifying the original 3D geological model from 17 layers to six. With the model now available on the AGS website, users can travel through the Peace River surface and subsurface in a mine cart and explore features such as large surface waterbodies and oil sands deposits.
“Since its release, people have told us they are impressed by the interactive format and the fact that it’s fun and easy to use,” Kelsey MacCormack said. “The AGS now has another way to communicate how much geological information we gather and have on hand.”
And unless you have the knowledge background, that conversation is difficult to have with just words and data.
Whereas the Minecraft models are meant for public education, they make the mounds of data and findings that the AGS has much more accessible. The Peace River model has even been converted into a first-of-its-kind 360° narrated virtual reality tour. Now anyone can strap on a virtual reality headset and explore Alberta geology or tour the region on their phone, tablet, or computer.
Next in Line
While AGS has received expressions of interest from numerous science centres and teachers across the province, Alberta’s earth experts have their eyes set on the next Minecraft adventure. And as the series grows, users can expect to explore unique geological features for many different areas of Alberta. How does hopping in a boat to tour the Red Deer River sound? If you’re intrigued, an interactive model of Dinosaur Provincial Park is set for release this summer.
The Minecraft models are available for download on the AGS website.