Interview with Douglas Dingwall

Douglas Dingwall dutifully set about creating Saint Lauretia for grandson Nelson*. He details the process here.

Nelson hasn’t been allowed round for Christmas since.

How did you get roped into this?

We were celebrating Christmas in 2014 when Nelson, our grandson, asked me to look at Minecraft as a tool for developing a virtual world that could possibly recreate Caribbean slavery plantations, the subject of his Glasgow University work. He hoped it could be used in an educational context and thought it might interest me as I had enjoyed many a Meccano set as a child and had built a number of plywood forts, dolls houses and farm buildings as a hobby throughout my adult life.

I found it strange to begin with but soon began to get the idea, although the thought of creating a large landscape block by block seemed daunting. Fortunately I was not long in discovering the merits of software called “WorldEdit” that provided me with a substantial range of tools to make a large scale project practical.

I soon realised it made sense to create a separate “building yard” world, where I could create and tinker with designs, and when I was happy with them, copy these into the Saint Lauretia world, and when, after several months, I discovered “World Painter”, my tool kit was complete. This software enabled me to produce a contoured island in the ocean, “paint” roads, paths, rivers and trees of appropriately selected varieties and export the result as a new Minecraft world.

We thought we had more or less finished the world in early summer 2017, when we realised that Microsoft’s new version of Minecraft Windows 10 Edition could not run the world we had spent over 2 years creating. This was a bit of a shock, especially as the Minecraft Edu edition, that Nelson had hoped to use to develop the project’s educational potential, was also incompatible. We tried a wide variety of changes with little success until we found that by using an app on Android tablet we could get our world converted to a form that would run on Windows 10 and Windows Pocket Edition. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds, and there were a fair few snags! But we got there.

It was particularly enlightening to be warned that many descriptions, paintings and drawings produced during the time of Caribbean slavery were often romanticised and that conditions in reality were much more primitive.

 

What was the research process like?

When Nelson first got me interested in exploring use of Minecraft for this purpose he suggested some relevant websites and that got me started.

Internet browsing provided information on Caribbean weather, vegetation, building styles in towns in the 17th to 19th centuries and some details of processes such as curing and stripping of tobacco leaves. More specific information, particularly on slave dwellings, was obtained from websites such as http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/search.html,   http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/,   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monticello ,   http://www.historyonthenet.com/

Browsing also yielded other images of slave houses, grand houses and process buildings on plantations. The internet was also used to find the real names of Caribbean rivers, towns, grand houses etc and then we would devise somewhat similar sounding fictional names with perhaps a Scottish/British flavour.

Plans of slave ships such as Brook (Brooke, or Brookes) were found on the internet and then used to devise representative Minecraft-built ships with appropriate features and dimensions and again we came up with vaguely similar fictional names.

As my ideas developed I would email him with summaries and a copy of the Minecraft world developed at that point, which he would discuss with his advisor, Professor Simon Newman at the University of Glasgow, and the feedback was extremely useful. In fact one of the most valuable sources of detailed information about all aspects of plantation life, crops, processes and hazards was Simon Newman’s book “A New World of Labor”.

It was particularly enlightening to be warned that many descriptions, paintings and drawings produced during the time of Caribbean slavery were often romanticised and that conditions in reality were much more primitive. Our discussions often dwelt on how best to use the limited components of Minecraft – in effect just neat blocks of material – to represent scruffy, dilapidated buildings as nearly as possible – quite difficult in fact.

So, with help from my wife who acted as a research assistant, armed with her iPad, and guidance from Nelson and Simon, I gained knowledge about slave ship designs, building structures, grand houses, slave huts, plantation crops and methods, and set about laying out the island with a town, forests, 4 rivers and 3 plantations and a pen, each with examples of production processes.

 “Our discussions often dwelt on how best to use the limited components of Minecraft – in effect just neat blocks of material – to represent scruffy, dilapidated buildings as closely as possible – quite difficult in fact.”

What challenges did you face?

A bit of ingenuity was needed to plant vast fields of sugar cane as Minecraft requires it to grow with water in an immediately adjacent block. Rows of canes separated from each other by ditches of water would have looked like paddy fields, but an acceptable solution was found.

At one point it was decided that one of the plantation owner grand houses would better suit a different plantation. This required a change of contours for the new house site and I developed a method of using precise coordinates on the current world to define the exactly equivalent area on the original World Painter template. I then used that software to change the contours as required and created a huge “schematic” to import the reshaped house site.

Perhaps the biggest problem arose when we thought we had more or less finished, when we realised that Microsoft’s new version of Minecraft Windows 10 Edition could not run the world we had spent over 2 years creating. This was a bit of a shock, especially as the Minecraft Edu edition, that Nelson had hoped to use to develop the project’s educational potential, was also incompatible. We were both up late nights trying to find a solution, and tried a wide variety of changes with little success.

Eventually we came across software called “WorldToPE” – software available for Android devices in Google Playstore. Now, it would convert our world, but it also changed many blocks it didn’t recognise (being two years old when we found it) to wool.  This meant there were random pieces of wool in buildings, as fences, oh it was a nightmare.

Eventually we found that by using an earlier version of Minecraft (1.8.9 to be precise) we could get our world converted to a form that would run on Windows 10 and Windows Pocket Edition, without this surplus of wool! And while it still has created a fair bit of extra work, WorldtoPE has meant there was no need for a complete brick by brick rebuild of Saint Lauretia.

Thank you for all your hard work Douglas and Marion Dingwall!

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