More than a game: Minecraft in education and museums

Bought by Microsoft for $2.5bn, with more than 70 million players worldwide, Minecraft could shape the future of learning in classrooms and museums. Charlotte Ashley finds out how from artist Adam Clarke.

When you hear the word ‘Minecraft’ you may think of building blocks, or Lego-type characters exploring a virtual world. According to artist Adam Clarke the game is much more, and is an essential learning tool for inspiring the next generation of programmers and creative thinkers.

Clarke is infectiously enthusiastic about the game’s possibilities in education and museum environments: “Minecraft to me, as a creative person, feels like a medium in itself. I can use and manipulate it to create unique ideas and experiences for myself and other people.”

At the time Minecraft was launched (2009), Clarke was working with schools after studying illustration at university, incorporating technology to create an engaging learning experience. “I’d been looking for something that had a virtual space that all the children could safely be inside of, and collaborate in, and Minecraft fitted that bill perfectly.

“A lot of games didn’t feel safe, had issues or you had to pay for it. So along comes this game that is pretty open and was made of blocks, so it felt like Lego. Its blocky characters also meant there weren’t any real issues of identity of self so it really appealed to me.”

Children as young as pre-school age are involved in his work in schools throughout the UK. As more schools embrace Minecraft, Clarke is keen to dispel the myth that IT learning should be restricted to a computer suite. “In the future, technology will become ubiquitous within the entire school,” predicts Clarke. “Schools are very recently starting to feel more confident about how they can use technology, especially with all the VR products that are coming out at the moment.”

“I think Microsoft bought Minecraft because they saw the potential for education. Microsoft and Mojang want to make it accessible to teachers, even if you don’t play ‘games.’ They want to say you can go into the classroom and collaborate with your students.”

“I think Microsoft bought Minecraft because they saw the potential for education. They are championing their educational edition of the game in schools.”

“Young people are unintimidated by Minecraft,” continues Clarke. “I’ve done a lot of workshops with kids using digital technology in schools, and schools were really interested in it, partly because it’s where they lack the skills themselves. This curriculum includes “everything from game-making and programming (things like Scratch) to digital animation and gaming skills.”

“The great thing about Minecraft in a classroom is that it immediately levels the playing the field for a lot of students. For example, a lot of the loud kids become quieter, and more concentrated, and the people that maybe find it difficult in social situations suddenly gain a voice.”

Looking to the future, Clarke is excited by Microsoft combining Minecraft with Artificial Intelligence. “I think AI’s the next big thing. Microsoft is using Minecraft so you can develop elements of AI, and then people can play with that. It makes it very user-friendly, engaging and accessible, and they’re going to attract young people into that idea.”

Clarke has also been at the forefront of the movement bringing Minecraft into the museum environment. Museum and art gallery Tullie House in Cumbria, UK was keen to take advantage of his Minecraft maps whilst he hosted educational workshops there. “Tullie House was great because it was the first museum to validate how Minecraft could be used within in a wider context, with a broader audience,” says Clarke.

As part of the international cultural festival ‘Museums at Night,’ it hosted an evening dedicated to using gameplay to get people of all ages engaged with its activities. The focal point of the event was a Minecraft map exploring the local landscapes of Cumbria Clarke had created, using satellite topographical data available for free online.

Minecraft artist Adam Clark“There was a DJ and three huge projected screens that people could play Minecraft on. We connected to a server which linked to people around the world, including some famous Minecraft builders so they could really see the potential of it. We even had one of the curators there actually build a roman fort with help in Minecraft and then talk through the process of it,” says Clarke.

Tullie House would open the door to working one of the UK’s most iconic art galleries.

Commissioned by Tate Britain, Clarke dedicated a year to bringing together the “world’s best Minecraft builders” to create Minecraft maps representing famous artworks including the ‘Pool of London’ by André Derain for ‘Tate Worlds: Art Reimagined for Minecraft.’ Children visiting the museum would have a challenge to complete whilst exploring the landscape of paintings, for example, searching for the pigments of a painting scattered throughout historical landmarks on the map. “Even young people can realise pigments are paint, so you start to slide in specific language within the text of the piece, but through play,” says Clarke.

“The whole point of it was we wouldn’t re-represent a painting, but we would make an engaging experience that young people would play in, and thus by playing in it they would learn a little bit about the artwork and why it’s on the wall in the first place. It’s reasonably easy to create beautiful things in Minecraft and just dump them there, but what we were trying to do was weave a story that would be engaging and illuminate certain things about the painting.”

Clarke co-ordinated members of the Minecraft community from locations including New Zealand and South Africa from his spare bedroom to bring the project together. “Without the internet none of this could have happened. Multi-player games especially have changed the landscape of creative collaborations.”

Clarke’s portfolio defies the stereotype of gaming being a solitary, indoor experience. His work educating young people about nature includes creating a Minecraft map and mini-game for ‘We are the Rangers’ for United for Wildlife to raise awareness of endangered species in Africa. This September he will also embark on a six-week residency with his family for Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Kentucky, America. Together they will create a Minecraft experience for a ‘Wood and Pixels’ project promoting the local forestry through a Minecraft map incorporating visitor experiences and online contributions.

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