In countries where governments tightly control the media and ban hundreds of news sites, it might be hard to access The New York Times or the BBC, but it’s still possible to play Minecraft, a video game owned by Microsoft since 2014. So the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders created a backdoor within the game, building a virtual library stocked with censored articles that can be accessed by any player.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, visitors to the Uncensored Library—the winner of the education category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—can read reporting from the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi that otherwise can be difficult to find on the country’s internet. The library’s holdings also include articles from Javier Valdez, the Mexican journalist who covered crime and corruption until he was killed by gunmen, as well as stories from Nguyen Van Dai, an exiled Vietnamese human rights lawyer and democracy activist whose blog is blocked in his home country.
Reporters Without Borders worked with the creative agency DDB Germany and design studio BlockWorks, which spent three months building the collection from more than 12.5 million virtual blocks. “The whole library has a download link that is censorship protected, so you cannot destroy it,” says Tobias Natterer, senior copywriter at DDB Berlin. “Everybody who downloads the library can then upload it again.” Minecraft protects data about players, and the servers for the library are located in Europe, where EU law protects data from access by repressive regimes.
This year, the library added new virtual books with journalism from Brazil and Belarus to focus attention on the lack of press freedom in those countries. Some articles from Belarus come from Charter97, a website that has been blocked in the country since 2018. “Ever since mass, anti-government demonstrations started last August in Belarus, the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, has tried to suppress all reporting that he views as critical of the government or the situation in the country,” says Anna Nelson, the U.S. executive director of Reporters Without Borders. “Hundreds of journalists who reported on the protests were temporarily detained, while some have been sentenced to several years in prison.”
Since Minecraft players can be as young as 7, the project is a way for Reporters Without Borders to engage a new generation on the issue of press freedom. “Very quickly, game users come to understand that in the real world, there are very real consequences when information is censored or journalists are denied access to the truth,” Nelson says. Since it launched in March 2020, the project has reached more than 20 million gamers from 165 countries.