Often, as we grow older, we lose sight of the joy held in creative play. Life always has something else that seems more demanding than getting creative and playing. Yet, what is more important than play? Ask any child and they sure won’t put cleaning the loo above seeing what happens when you mix that mud and splash it all about! Until we are conditioned out of it, play, curiosity and creativity are the natural state of being. We do not seek permission or validation to do so. We just do. Until we grow up and start telling ourselves we can’t do that.
When we give permission for ourselves to engage in our own creative process, our natural and energetic questioning mind pushes forward into new discoveries, inventions and expressions. We discover more about ourselves and our own ability to make positive change happen. We also have a lot of fun.
So why focus on Minecraft? To answer that, we need to take a couple of steps back to offer a very short overview of what Minecraft is. Minecraft is an open world game that has no specific goals for the player to accomplish, allowing players a large amount of freedom in choosing how to play the game. The creative and building aspects of Minecraft enable players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Other activities in the game include exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat. Multiple gameplay modes are available, including survival mode where the player must acquire resources to build the world and maintain health, a creative mode where players have unlimited resources to build with and the ability to fly, an adventure mode where players play custom maps created by other players and a spectator mode where players can fly around and clip through blocks, however cannot place blocks.
More specifically, it is about the process itself. Minecraft is largely defined by the unprecedented creative output it has inspired, from children and adults alike. Because of this potential for creativity and learning, it has been adopted into many educational and cultural spaces, as a way to engage young people in history, art, culture, social issues and a wide range of educational subjects. Perhaps most unique here is that the children are leading the game and showing educators how they learn.
This book then, is a step back to reflect on our creative process, and to engage with our points of inspiration and resource. It is a space of juxtapositions, dialogues, narratives and experiment, all of which foster creativity. So who are we?
We are Adam Clarke, Vik Bennett and Django Moses. Our CV’s, if we had them, would include, amongst other things, Digital Producer, Poet, Publisher, Minecraft Educator, You-Tuber, Creative Activist, Home Educator, Parents, and awesome child. Our work, both as artists and practitioners and as a family, is about bringing together our experiences, skills and intentions, to create an inspiring space, be that real, virtual or on the page, that is filled with possibilities, a space that encourages curiosity, creativity, investigation and collaboration.
Through our creative work we aim to continue to engage ourselves and others in exploring the narratives we build every day.
Minecraft entered our house in 2010 via a pan of soup. Two years after the birth of our son, we were living in a little cottage at the edge of the Pennines in rural Cumbria. With sandstone floors that appeared to still hold half the ocean in them, an old camper van that spent more time in the garage than on the road, and an almost constantly breaking down Aga, it was not exactly the Country Living dream, but we were making ends meet through workshops and short residencies and so far, had managed to support ourselves through freelance creative work. With a head full of ideas and a penchant for pressing buttons, I was making a name for myself in the field of digital art, and had recently started up a regular workshop where young adults could meet up and have a go at their digital ideas. From taking apart computers, creating music or making their own digital films, the workshop was a ‘free-space’ for experimentation. I called it Digital Soup. Every week, the participants could bring something to contribute to the soup and together, they would cook it up and see what they could make. One week, a young man called Peter opened up his laptop and said ‘take a look at this new game’.
That game was Minecraft. Still in development, it had given no indication of what it would become. It was, at best, regarded as a peculiarly nerdy game that might be enjoyed by grown up geeks. Little did we know…
My first reaction was “it’s a bit blocky, graphics aren’t up to much, not sure if it will catch on” but as with all new toys, I kept with it and started to push the buttons and break it apart to see what I could do, and as I did, I started to get a little inkling as to what it could be. At the time, I was exploring Second Life. I had an idea about creating a digital space where I could bring together other art forms and artists from around the world. I loved what it could do creatively, but I had some serious concerns about it too. It wasn’t a safe space for children, it was expensive to take part in, it felt inaccessible, and it had content that I felt uncomfortable with. In contrast to this, the chunky world of this new Minecraft was completely accessible and immediate in its creativity.
Peter and I would meet up online and spend time building, exploring, and creating. We would often lose track of the time as we did so, and we had a lot of fun making little videos of our early adventures. This was a great space where we could get together with to make and create things without having to be in the same room. It opened up possibilities for collaboration that I had not found in other games. After a few weeks of playing it, my creative spider senses were tingling. I wanted to see what else I could do with it! Anyone and everyone who would listen, had to listen to me raving about this new game. What was it, they would ask? The closest I could get was that it was an online playground where people could play and go on adventures and create stuff. The blockiness of the graphics stopped being a barrier and started to be an asset - there was nothing scary about it and nothing that screamed out ‘expert’. Like picking up a piece of clay and making something with your hands, Minecraft was an intuitive digital medium , and I loved it.
Two things happened over the next year that gave me a push towards a change in focus from general digital animation and play, to Minecraft and gaming. The first was necessity. At about the same time, our lives were heading for a major upheaval, though we didn’t know it then. Between March and August of that year, our son, Django, went from being a very happy and energetic toddler to unable to lift himself from the sofa. He was under the weather all the time, lurching from one unidentified bug to the next. He was constantly hungry, constantly thirsty, and our nights were spent changing soaked-through bed sheets and pyjamas. Repeated visits to the local doctor did nothing to answer what was going on and each time we took him in, we were sent home with a diagnosis of ‘virus’ and told not to worry so much. People told us it was ‘the terrible twos’ but we knew it wasn’t. Eventually, we rushed him into the doctor’s surgery and refused to leave. By this time he had lost over a third of his body weight, could not lift himself enough to walk, and was unable to breathe. He was finally identified as having type one diabetes and sent to hospital immediately, suffering life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis. His organs were beginning to shut down. Watching him fight to stay alive was the most terrifying and heartbreaking experience of our lives, but he was tough and he pulled through.
Two weeks later, we were sent home with a carrier bag full of medical supplies and the responsibility of managing our son’s care, with the comforting words of the nurse ringing in our ears: if you get it wrong, he could die. We had nearly lost our beautiful child. From this point on, Django would be dependent upon medicine to keep himself alive. We looked ahead and saw a future with a crumbling National Health Service, where he might not be able to access those supplies, and we made a deeper commitment not only to keep him safe and to provide for him, but also to make each day count.
No more waiting around, no more procrastination. It was time to make the message clear, and make the opportunities happen.
At the time, the UK government had started its austerity drive and the first casualty was the arts. The era of funded residencies and arts-in-school placements was coming to a bloodied end and the prospect of serious poverty loomed dark in our lives. I felt the responsibility of fatherhood powerfully and the work ethic of my childhood started to grapple with the desire to follow a creative path. Not for the first time, it was Vik who stepped in and gave me the emotional bolster I needed. Whatever life throws, she has never wavered from her belief in the rightness of following our dreams and living life creatively. Creativity is in her world, as important as food and water. Proper job? What is that? Too tired to be a cheerleader, her support was more matter of fact and sternly given. It will be ok. Something will come along. Just send out the message loud enough and clear enough and stick with it. You’ve had ideas before. Have another one.
Easy for her to say, I thought. Hippy hogwash, I thought, but she had a point. Worrying about it certainly wasn’t going to get us out of the poverty and if I was honest, I had no desire to go and work in the local supermarket. We had set out to live our lives creatively and to parent our son in the same way. I just needed to shift focus. It was time to turn the ship.
We had set out to live our lives creatively and to parent our son in the same way. I just needed to shift focus. It was time to turn the ship.
The tide that would help me do this was YouTube but to tell that story, we have to take a few steps back.
Before we had become parents, Vik and I lived in a crumbling old mansion called The Common. The year was 2005 and I was making a living as one half of Gorgeous Media, creating wedding videos with a colleague that I had met during a stint teaching in a local college. It was fun, but frustrating, work and didn’t fulfil me creatively. Alongside this, Victoria and I created random video-blogs of our lives, under the guise of The Common People. Inspired by the likes of the Daniel at pouringdown.tv and Lan and Vu of the Bui Brothers (with whom I would cross paths with again through Mojang and Minecraft), these creations were a platform for experimentation and playful documentation of our journey. Some of these included video-blogs from the numerous creative weekends we hosted, bringing together artists and musicians and writers from around the world. We had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends. The Common became a place of collaboration that inspired a lot of people, including us.
Eventually, on a snowy morning in early January 2008, that house saw our most incredible creative collaboration: the birth of our son, Django. Of course, the landlord failed to see the artistic merit of the place and soon after our son was born, the house was sold for upmarket development and our little family, along with our incontinent cat and creative dreams, were packed up and shipped out to pastures new.
Fast forward four years to 2012, and the fringe community of video-bloggers had merged with the rise in reality television to give birth to a new phenomenon: the YouTube star. At the same time, Minecraft had shifted from being a slightly weird geek game to something that was causing a bit of a stir. Amongst these new creators was a relatively unknown young man from Portsmouth, whose voice would become a daily part of life for many families across the globe, but that is a story for later. I certainly didn’t see myself as a YouTube sensation, but I had been playing around with Minecraft and making videos online for about a year by this time. I started to explore YouTube to see if I could find something that would appeal to our son. I discovered Minecraft Dad, aka Paul Soares Jnr, whose engaging family-focused channel hooked my son immediately.
A couple of weeks later, Django was sat on my lap watching me explore another Minecraft world when, without hesitation, he started to instruct me on what to do. I was amazed. All this time of watching videos, he had been learning and now here he was, age three, teaching me. It seemed to make perfect sense to him. I let him continue to instruct me. His capacity for retaining information, and his intuitive sense of the game, revealed something of deep importance to the path I took from then on. He was going to become my teacher. The next time we sat down, I switched on the record button and we played together, me moving around and him telling me what to do. He went from being a consumer of content to a creator of content. Under my care, we set up a channel for him and he began to post our Let’s Play videos online.
At the same time as this world was opening up, we had made the decision as a family to home educate. Committed to creating a free-range learning environment where Django’s curiosity would lead his education, it was obvious that Minecraft was going to play a big part. His interests at the time became part of his play worlds, from dinosaurs to ancient history, physics to storytelling. Unable to find material online that explored Minecraft in this way, I saw a gap in the content that was available out there for families and educators. I began to make my own videos, taking inspiration from activities and projects that Django had initiated.
One of these was a little video showing how to make paper craft models of some familiar Minecraft characters. Unable to play the game, Victoria had found other ways to engage Django’s interest, from painting to paper craft. There were no Minecraft toys out there at the time, so we had made our own. Using paper templates, similar to the traditional paper dolls of our childhood era, we had made little creepers and Steves to play with. It was fun and simple and I decided to make a ‘how to’ video about it. I made it for a bit of fun and forgot all about it.
The proposed government cuts had taken full force by this time and regular paid creative work was increasingly hard to find. We were, to be blunt, broke. The work dropped away fast and nothing rose up to meet it. I started to spend hours talking about getting a ‘proper job’. When Vik told me to pick myself up and believe that something would come along to help us pay the overdue rent, I certainly didn’t think of my little video but that is exactly what happened. Serendipity struck. We needed to pay our rent, we had no money for food and no funds incoming. Get-a-proper-job voice was going into overdrive. Trust, said Vik. So, I trusted. I spent that evening writing down all the ideas I had and tried my hardest to distil into one statement what I wanted for our future. This was what I wrote:
“I want to earn enough to support my family through my creative work and travel the world doing talks about creativity, art and learning, and how video games and technology are part of that”.
The next day was the final day we could make payment on our rent. Without much hope, I checked our online bank statement to see how bad the situation was. We were certainly not rich - the bank balance at the time was overdrawn beyond the overdraft - but there it was. A single payment from YouTube for exactly the amount we needed to meet the rent. My little Minecraft paper craft video had gone viral. The universe had stepped in - or in more 21st Century terms, the internet.
We paid the rent and the ship was set on a new direction.
It was going to cause a few waves in our family home.