Video games and the environment don’t typically interact much, so I was excited when I saw the following video of folks pulling carbon emission data into the video game Minecraft.

If you’re not familiar with Minecraft, it’s an insanely popular game for computers (and now mobile devices like the iPhone) that lets you explore a virtual world, collecting and combining blocks (items) to make anything you can imagine. A simple example is combining a wood block and a metal block to create a tool, which you can then use to create more advanced things like the Millennium Falcon. And so on.

The hack pulls in carbon emissions data from the IPCC database for stationary fuel combustion (PDF) so that when you chop down a tree and burn it for warmth or heat in some industrial process, an onscreen counter tallies up the carbon you’re contributing to the atmosphere. The current hack is exaggerated with blackening skies and all that, but the point is clear: chop down trees (or cook meat!) and there is a carbon toll.

What I think is neat, and the reason I’m sharing this video, is the ability to use a fairly sophisticated modeling and rendering engine (Minecraft) to display useful information - in this case carbon emissions. While Minecraft may be only a game to millions of people, I don’t see why it couldn’t be used as an interactive tool for teaching or modeling real world problems. The architecture is there for those who want to build their own applications on top of it.

One could theoretically take static data like these climate change adaptation maps from the UT Climate Change and African Political Stability program and turn them into an immersive data set that someone could explore. Or, one could even try to model the carbon or water cycles by using the Minecraft engine, altering the number of trees and measure soil erosion.

My point is that there are fairly sophisticated computational resources readily available to folks who want them. Photographers have a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. I would also say that the same applies to research tools.