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Inhabiting Art: the Genius of Tate Worlds in Minecraft

As audiences are growing up ever more digitally-oriented, it’s hardly surprising that museums and galleries are looking to a gaming platform to revitalise their collections.

Since its inception as an in-progress video game in 2009, Minecraft has become a global phenomenon, selling over 54 million copies worldwide and generating $326m in revenue last year alone.

The Minecraft Story

Markus ‘Notch’ Persson

Created by self-styled “nerdy computer programmer” Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, the multi-award-winning game went on to be developed and published by the Swedish company, Mojang. Often described as “Lego on steroids”, the game allows players to construct worlds within a virtually infinite 3D environment using textured building blocks. The blocks represent a variety of materials including stone, wood, metal ores, water even “redstone” which allows players to create circuits. There are multiple gameplay modes available including Survival Mode where players have to source natural materials to build with and Creative Mode where players have unlimited access to all available materials and can let their imaginations run riot. Although the blocks themselves are very simple, they allow players to construct incredibly complex environments. Rollercoasters are a popular construction choice.

Minecraft has made unlikely stars out of its expert players.  Stampylongnose, aka Joseph Garrett, is more popular on YouTube than One Direction with millions of viewers watching him and his friends playing Minecraft. 

In fact, Minecraft is as much a tool as a game. It has no specific goal and allows players to decide how they want to play and what they want to create. Cody Sumter, part of the Human Dynamics group at the MIT Media Lab, commented, “Notch hasn’t just built a game. He’s tricked 40 million people into learning to use a CAD program.”

The results of players’ creativity are astounding. A recent episode of The Culture Show: Lego – The Building Blocks of Architecture (BBC) speculated that, just as we can perhaps see the influence of childhood toys on the work of architects past and present – Richard Rogers’ Meccano-esque Lloyds building, James Stirling’s Lego-like No.1 Poultry – so tomorrow’s designers will undoubtedly be inspired by Minecraft.

Lloyds Building and No1 Poultry

The potential for collaborative creativity in Minecraft is already being harnessed in urban design projects.  The Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design has created Blockholm, an interactive tool for reimagining the city of Stockholm using Minecraft. The programme allows users to rebuild the city’s 100, 000 lots using information generated from actual land use data. 

Even the United Nations is working with Mojang,  using Minecraft to help communities in developing countries collaborate on the design of their towns and cities through the Block by Block initiative. The programme was originally intended to allow reluctant 14-24 year olds to have their say in local planning decisions but the accessible nature of the game has had other unforeseen benefits. “In Haiti, we had a group of fishermen who couldn’t read, couldn’t write and had never used a computer, design a plan for Place de la Paix, ” said Pontus Westerberg, Digital Project Manager for UN Habitat in an interview with Mashable.

With Microsoft’s recent purchase of the game for $2.5 billion, expect to see many more applications in the coming months. 

Tate Worlds

So, how do museums and galleries make best use of the possibilities that Minecraft has to offer?

Build the British Museum in Minecraft

As part of its Museum of the Future project, the British Museum is enlisting the help of the game’s loyal fan base to build a replica of itself (see image above). The project is designed to help the museum engage with a wider audience and the plan is to eventually recreate its entire collection within the game.  The V&A in London has staged Minecraft events as part of their Friday Lates sessions where Minecraft-style block-built artwork has been displayed along with other installations created in association with Mojang. Such events attract younger fans in the short term.  But, how to keep them engaged?

This is where Tate Worlds really stands out as an example of how to integrate the game into a gallery’s offering in a relevant, immersive way. Rather than simply recreating their collection digitally, Tate has launched a series of Minecraft “maps” inspired by artworks in their collection which allow users to explore them in 3D.

Tony Guillan Tate MediaJane Burton, former Creative Director of Tate Media, had been thinking about Minecraft for a while; her children are huge fans, ” explains Tony Guillan (right),  Multimedia Producer, Tate Media. “It was clear from the massive popularity of the game, and the amount of time young people spend playing it, that it has huge potential for engaging young people with the arts – particularly in the light of the many creative uses of the game users around the world have made independently.” 

The Tate already understood the need to broaden their appeal when they launched their IK Prize in 2013. The competition was aimed at finding innovative ways to use the power of digital technology to engage audiences with art in new and interesting ways.

Guillan says, “Adam Clarke was shortlisted in that first competition for a brilliant entry that proposed creating virtual worlds in Minecraft, inspired by Tate artworks. Although it didn’t win the overall prize, we were impressed with Adam’s ideas and previous experience using Minecraft for education, and decided to do a smaller version of his project in collaboration with him and his team of Minecrafters.”

Inhabiting art: the genius of Tate Worlds in Minecraft

We asked Clarke (left), Lead Artist and Project Manager on Tate Worlds, how he first became aware of Minecraft and saw the potential of using it at Tate? He explains, “I stared working with Minecraft during its Alpha stage, using it within my workshops in primary schools. My idea was to create downloadable Minecraft maps that could take the player on a fantastic adventure into a selection of artworks from the Tate’s “500 Years of British Art” collection.  Minecraft seemed a perfect medium to introduce and talk about art to a very wide and diverse audience, and because this is Minecraft the maps are meant to be fun, surprising and playful.” 

The first two maps are based on André Derain’s 1906 painting of London, The Pool of London, and Christopher Nevinson’s 1920 painting of New York, Soul of the Soulless City. In Tate Worlds: Soul of the Soulless City, inspired by the futurist-style painting by Nevinson, players enter a bustling 1920s New York, as depicted in the painting. They board a train which whisks them past New York landmarks of the time, before rollercoasting into the future as the skyscrapers go up and up. 

Inhabiting art: the genius of Tate Worlds in Minecraft

The second map allows users to explore London along the Thames as Fauvist painter André Derain did in 1906. On their journey, users visit historic sites such as the Tower of London and descend into the forgotten river Nickinger that runs beneath the city.

“Minecraft offers a really innovative way to explore the stories, ideas or themes”

So, what is the Tate trying to achieve with Tate Worlds? Is it about exploiting of a new medium, reaching a new audience or making the collection relevant to kids/gamers? 

“First of all, Minecraft is hugely popular with millions of children and young people all around the world, ” says Guillan. “One of our missions as a team is to engage new audiences with our wonderful collection of art – so if you’re looking for a place where young people spend lots of time being creative, Minecraft is a very good place to investigate. Secondly, since its initial release, the way Minecraft players have used the game has taken on a life of its own, and one of these applications is the phenomenon of ‘adventure maps’, where talented builders create virtual worlds, often with quite Minecraft steve avatarelaborate narratives behind them, for other users to play. From worlds inspired by films and TV shows, these user-generated worlds have been hugely influential in the Minecraft community. So, when thinking about our mission of ‘telling the story of art’, Minecraft offers a really innovative way to explore the stories, ideas or themes behind individual artworks in a way that is genuinely fun and interesting to young people. It’s about taking aspects of our content (art) and making it available to young people, on their terms.”

Clarke adds, “I wanted to spark the players’ imagination and perhaps inspire them to make their own maps and artwork or discover more about traditional and digital arts. I also wanted to encourage children and families to see these amazing institutions like Tate Britain, full of all this wonderful art and history, as relevant to their own experiences, lives and play. The other day, my seven year old son started to build in Minecraft and told me it was an Andre Derain painting. I am getting messages from parents saying that their children are introducing them to Minecraft via art history. They are asking their parents to take them to see art at the Tate.”

““Tate Worlds is different because it is not trying to teach”

How has the team gone about making sure that the Tate Worlds project combines the objectives of the Gallery with the features of Minecraft and to optimum effect?

“On the one hand, we’re trying to make young people more aware of works of art, ” explains Guillan. “However, on the other hand, we realised we can’t just parachute dry information into what is a very exciting gaming platform. We realised we had to go with the conventions of the platform – and Minecraft worlds have many typical elements when it comes to what people expect from games. Young people play ‘adventure maps’ because they are exciting and playful, so in interpreting the themes of artworks, we had to come up with genuinely exciting activities that explored these themes in a not too formal TateWorlds Pool of London and original Derainway. Take our map inspired by Andre Derain’s painting ‘The Pool of London’ (1906) – what did we want young people to find out about this, other than it is a painting of London along the river Thames? Well, it’s a ‘fauvist’ painting, and fauvist artists were primarily concerned with using bold colours, so we decided to focus on the colours used in the painting and created an adventure round London where players search for the ‘pigments’ used to create these colours.

“Often we forget that artworks are there to be enjoyed and are not just visual encapsulations of facts. Take our map inspired by Christopher Nevinson’s painting of New York – using a little creative license, we turned the train tracks in the painting into a roller-coaster ride (a common feature in Minecraft referred to as minecarts) around New York where you pass through a fast paced city. We hope that the dynamism of our game reflects the New York that inspired the painting, giving players a more instinctual understanding of the artwork. By making the activities fun, we hope to inspire young people to want to find out more.”

Clarke agrees: “Tate Worlds is different because it is not trying to teach. Instead, it is engaging with the creativity and curiosity of the player, inspiring the imagination and allowing the player to discover, for themselves, things about the art work, the artist and the cultural context surrounding its creation.

“To recreate The Pool of London, the map was laid out on paper by the research team, using historical landmarks cross-referenced to the artist, his palette and the Fauvist movement and connected back to pigment facts and the meaning and history behind the ten pigment names. For example, the word Cobalt comes from the High Germanic word Kobald, the name given for the spirits or underground goblin type creatures in folklore, thought to live in mines and ships.

“Once the narrative structure was in place, I approached the builders and they started building the key elements from the paper map: the Tower of London, Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge. The map was handed back and I began detailed work with the Lead Game Designer, Dragnoz, who added extra detail, and buildings. Once the build was finished, Andre Derain self portrait with a hatwe developed the audio and script with writer, Victoria Bennett. Referring to the paper map, Dragnoz began creating the ten pigment mini-games. Dragnoz is one of the top Command Block experts in the world and has a brilliant eye for detail. We worked closely together to complete the map and get it ready for download.” 

“The games should always compliment the artworks”

Were there any particular challenges Tate had to overcome to make this work?

Guillan explains, “Because Minecraft is an unknown quantity for many (despite its popularity) and our project is a very new endeavour for an arts institution, it was quite difficult to describe what we intended to create to different colleagues. For some of the artworks included in the project, we did have to get permission from the artist or estate, and thankfully we did manage to explain what we wanted to do. Tate Worlds doesn’t seek to virtually recreate artworks in digital form, but rather to create worlds or adventures inspired by the themes and ideas explored by artworks. The games should always compliment the artworks – and that’s why when players enter and leave the maps, they’re confronted with a reproduction of the original work prompting them to return to it.”

Clarke adds, “One of the biggest challenges was also the reason the project could happen in the first place. Tate Worlds brings together artists from all over the world – researching, writing, building, designing and recording. Managing a large group of creative people, all in different places, is challenging at times but also very rewarding, and allows me to harness the wealth of talent and creativity that is a feature of the Minecraft Community. One of the amazing things about Minecraft is the creativity it inspires in people – both children and adults – allowing a true sandbox space where ideas can be imagined, experimented with, made and shared in a way that encourages collaboration and box breaking.”

Guillan reports that the response to Tate Worlds has been really exciting with thousands of Minecraft users across the world downloading the maps. There has also been a good response closer to home with parents contacting the Tate to Carnation,  Lily,  Lily,  Rosesay how much their children have enjoyed playing the maps and that the experience has stimulated an interest in the artworks. In response, the plan going forward is to create ways in which children can access more information about the paintings online.

Six more Tate Worlds maps are being released over the coming year on the themes of ‘Play’, ‘Destruction’ and ‘Fantasy’, inspired by famous artworks including John Singer Sargent’s ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, 1885-6; Peter Blake’s ‘The Toy Shop’, 1962; John Martin’s ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’, 1822; and Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’, 1991.

“We want to see how we can use the maps to encourage young people to explore Tate’s collection, ” says Guillan, “but also to stimulate creative responses to art.”

The second IK Prize winner was announced at the end of February.  Flying Object’s winning proposal Tate Sensorium “will offer visitors to Tate Britain the chance to use their sense of smell, taste hearing or touch to experience artworks through the use of new technologies.” 


It will be interesting to see if the resulting digital project is as successful at capturing the brilliance of the gallery’s collection as Tate Worlds.

Tony Guillan and Adam Clarke will be speaking about Tate Worlds at blooloopLIVE London 2015 on May 7th.  For details click here.

Eventbrite - blooloopLIVE London 2015


Images: Tate, Block by Block

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