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Behind the scenes at the British Library

13 July 2023

Building a Minecraft Gateway to the World of Books | User Stories

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Professor Sally Bushell drew on the British Library collections to create Litcraft, a project that builds worlds in Minecraft to inspire reluctant readers. Her most recent Litcraft game is called Steampunk Sherlock Holmes. Sally is a Professor of Romantic and Victorian Literature in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. 

My research specialism is in literary place and space. I’m very interested in how readers visualise and move through texts, and the act of reading as a form of mapping. My project Steampunk Sherlock Holmes uses two very different collections at the British Library. It doesn’t just use the texts; it also uses the maps. 

When my son was about eight, I watched him playing with Minecraft and it drew me into the game. Anyone who has a child aged between eight and 12 knows what Minecraft is. The user base is 141 million: it’s an international phenomenon. It’s sort of virtual Lego, in which the world is created around you as you move through it. It’s not like other computer games; you can play it in a goal-driven way, but you don’t have to. 

 

I built literary islands in Minecraft

I had the idea of building literary islands in Minecraft. With my former colleague Dr James Butler, I built the island from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Kensuke's Kingdom, by Michael Morpurgo, and Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. I was thinking about the connection between the map and imaginative engagement with the world. In Minecraft, we can build the world and play in it. 

Litcraft is for all kids, but its target is children for whom reading is a challenge. They might be dyslexic; they might have low ability; they might be reading in their second language. The main reason these children are reluctant readers is because they never achieve a state of visualisation. To enjoy reading, you have to achieve a flow state, when you’re lost in a book. 

 

The game world is like a different way of reading

We use Litcraft in schools. We always start with the whole class reading through a text. Then they go into the game, and do an activity that re-enacts what they’ve just read. For example, when we did Treasure Island, in the text, the young protagonist Jim Hawkins goes ashore with the pirates, and runs all over the island. For the first task in the game, you’ve got to go over the island and find stuff. You’re reading, then playing. 

It’s very blocky in appearance, so students can imagine the world for themselves. When you’re reading, you can only do what the narrative allows you to do, but the game world is like a different way of reading. I’d have absolutely loved it as a kid. 

 

We’ve mapped Sherlock Holmes’ adventures

My latest project is called Steampunk Sherlock Holmes. It’s my first time creating a Minecraft build for older kids – the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four is a GCSE text. We’re partnering with a Minecraft design company, Blockworks, to build the world of the text, giving them all the information about the literary side, and mapping the text onto a real-world map.

We’re taking philanthropist Charles Booth’s map of London poverty, which is held by the London School of Economics, as a base template on which to build the Minecraft world. It’s from exactly the same period, the 1890s. We’ve mapped Sherlock Holmes’ narratives onto that map; all of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Where are they actually set? Where does he actually go? 

We found two really useful items in the British Library maps collection: the Ordnance Survey London Sheets, and Charles E. Goad Ltd.’s Fire and Insurance Maps from 1885, which are unbelievably detailed. The level of detail on the London Sheets is probably higher than on modern maps. The highest level of detail is on the Goad maps – you can find bizarre things on them, like a chocolate factory in the middle of the slums. 

 

221B Baker Street doesn’t actually exist

We used the amazing quality of the mapping in 1890s London to find pockets of accurate detail. For example, 221B Baker Street, where Holmes is supposed to live, doesn’t actually exist. When you look at these early maps, you can see that there’s nothing there. 

In his Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle is choosing to write about areas of the city that are still being developed. He gives you real names, like Regent’s Park or Waterloo Bridge, and then nests his narrative within them. It’s so subtle that you don’t necessarily notice it. In his story The Man with the Twisted Lip, he writes, ‘there is a trapdoor at the back of that building, near the corner of Paul’s Wharf, which could tell some strange tales of what has passed through it on moonless nights.’ We found Paul’s Wharf on the map, but everything else in that narrative has a fictional name.

The stories will be accurately mapped, but then we’ve also got all this steampunk Victorian stuff. We’re only using things that were designed in the Victorian period, but they’re crazy contraptions, like airships. In the game, you can walk around in Victorian London and come across weird elements from stories, or you can go, right, I’m going to follow this story. I want it to be like a literary experience, in Minecraft. 

 

Libraries are the most important cultural spaces

With other games, people grow out of them, but Minecraft is really interesting. My son started playing it again last summer, when he was 14. Of course the advantage of using Minecraft in schools is that all the kids know how to play it, so you haven't got to teach them anything, and in fact their level is often much higher than the teachers’.

The first time I went to the British Library was long before my PhD; I didn’t even know what research meant. It was a very aspirational space for me. Libraries are the most important cultural spaces we have. If I had to pick a favourite room inside the Library, it would be the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. Also, I absolutely love the King’s Library; the glass tower of books. I think it’s fabulous. 

 

As told to Lucy Peters

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