Corfe Castle’s picturesque desolation and vine-encased walls have supplied inspiration to many artists, from 19th century Romantics to 20th century filmmakers. Thanks to a partnership between Xbox and the National Trust, its ruins are now the playthings of Minecraft creators.
In the first step of a new partnership aimed at engaging younger audiences with history, the National Trust have created a Minecraft version of the ruined Dorset fortress, and are asking players to reimagine and rebuild it.
Engaging younger audiences
Perhaps it’s a surprising partnership – Europe’s largest conservation charity and Microsoft’s global video gaming brand. But “why not?” asks Martin Papworth, archaeologist at the National Trust. “I think it’s a really good way of engaging younger audiences. It’s a way of reimagining the castle and seeing how they might be able to build it.”
Minecraft players are invited to download a virtual version of Corfe Castle’s ruins and redevelop them. Corfe Castle was demolished in 1646. The most recent drawing of it before its demolition is a 16th century plan. This gap in the record creates a negative space where players can “imagine how it once was and how it worked,” says Papworth.
Ruins are provocative places, prompting questions about what created them and what preceded them. Their presence in the virtual world similarly invites an act of imagination, and for that reason ruins have consistently made for compelling video game settings.
“Watching children walk around Corfe Castle and imagine them playing there, you can see that they really like to engage in what it would have been like to be there hundreds of years ago, to defend the castle,” says Papworth. “It’s very exciting to share a place we look after, conserve and open for public enjoyment with an audience in a different way.”
The creative rebuilding process that the partnership envisions is portrayed in a video featuring historian Alice Loxton, also of History Hit, and Minecraft YouTube creator Grian. which has them figuring out how to faithfully rebuild the fortification from its ruins in the blocky building game.
Papworth suggests that this interaction between expert and player may even yield useful insights. “It’s that kind of interaction between the creative child and the person who knows. You may even get the expert thinking. As an archaeologist working with artists on guidebooks and interpretation works, that’s the only time you actually realise how little you know.”
The National Trust have previously used a 3D digital scan of Corfe to virtually haul a 20-plus-tonne block, once part of a tower but since fallen down a hillside, back into its original position. “It’s another aspect of this reimagining,” Papworth says.
Shaping history in the classroom
There are longer term ambitions for the National Trust to use gaming and virtual worlds. “This is like a pilot for Minecraft,” says Papworth. He is open-minded about how it might develop, but he suggests other National Trust sites could be given the same treatment, such as Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire or Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, where there are “ruins which need to be imagined to understand.”
Certainly, there are plans to link the reimagining of sites like Corfe Castle to the classroom. The partnership with Xbox is intended to help shape history lessons in classrooms around the UK. A proposed teaching pack based on Minecraft would let students “talk about medieval life and the place of castles within that life, and Corfe Castle in particular.”
“Using gaming to enhance learning is something I never experienced at school but I’m so glad that some students today get to,” says YouTube creator Grian.
Minecraft has already found widespread use as an educational tool, teaching subjects from computer science to chemistry. Meanwhile, museums including the Museum of London have appreciated its versatility as a means of rendering historic landscapes on a large scale in an accessible environment.
The partnership follows the launch of Minecraft’s ‘The Wild Update’, which introduces ruinous structures to its procedurally generated landscapes.
Fuel for creative minds
For the last four hundred years, Corfe’s lofty ruins have sat jaunty and crumpled amidst Dorset downland. Where once loathed as an expression of power, the ruins took on new emotional aspects from the late 18th century that were fuel for creative minds.
The castle’s tranquil decay was depicted by J.M.W. Turner, Albert Goodwin and Arthur Streeton, while its eerie aspect lent inspiration for ‘Kirrin Castle’ in Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island (in whose film adaptation it also featured). And looming in the background in the opening of 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, it forms an impression of rural English life. In what direction will the castle’s Minecraft rebuilders take it next?