Move over Harry Potter, there’s a cooler wizard around, and he’s got blocks and pigments up his sleeves. Wizard Keen (AKA Adam Clarke) teaches people how to experience art, culture and politics like never before.

Through Wonder Quest and the creation of some of the most innovative Minecraft maps out there, the artist and digital producer proves video games are the perfect tool to educate about empathy and solve societal problems. There’s a reason why he got the most amount of people engaged in the art collections of Tate Britain.

I got to hang out with the wonderful wiz IRL to chat about digital relationships, TNT and why he needs to clone himself…

Wizard Keen

Wizard Keen stars in Wonder Quest along with Stampy, a cat that’s “bigger than Bieber”

Adam Clarke:

“It’s nice to be a wizard! For a lot of people I am Wizard Keen. Often, with the people I know in Minecraft, we call each other by our avatar names not their real names. We like to stay in character. I know a Stampy, Squishy, Dragnoz, Squid and Squidoodley.

I’m in my 40s and I play Minecraft every day. There aren’t many people around the world doing what I do. Whenever I start a talk somewhere I start with “Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name is Adam Clarke and I play Minecraft every day”. When the audience are children, that really inspires them.

Minecraft is a video game inside a map made up of blocks. You often start playing with no materials, almost washed up on a beach, and the first thing you have to do is punch a tree to make wood – ‘mining’ down the environment and then ‘crafting’ from the materials you find. Hence the name… ‘Minecraft’.

I often have people say “but aren’t kids playing too many video games?” A book for me is a piece of technology. It’s just transferable data. Before books we used to invent songs or tell stories. Those skills now inhabit tablets.

Most people can use a tablet. Minecraft is great for children, because it’s completely unintimidating, but it is also great for adults. Minecraft shows video games can be inclusive and open spaces to share ideas and tell good stories.

Wonder Quest was born because I introduced my son to Minecraft when he was three. We loved watching Stampylongnose YouTube videos, so when I read him his favourite bedtime story, ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’, I changed it to ‘When Stampy Came to Tea’. He thought it was hilarious, so I reached out to Stampy to ask if he might voice the Tiger. Serendipity stepped in. He was searching for someone to collaborate on educational content for his new show, Wonder Quest. It was the beginning of something really special…

Minecraft is essentially a sandbox game. A ‘sandbox is a playful approach to solving problems. It fits neatly into the maker movement. You can rapidly prototype an object or design, but it also has a much wider scope. You could create a system of taxation within Minecraft and present players with choices about how they wish to spend that tax – would they invest in healthcare, the elderly, education, buildings and roads – and how would their choices influence the development and shape of their world? Through a game, children and young people can be engaged in political questions and empowered in making informed choices.

Minecraft doesn’t encourage a gun fetish. Another really positive aspect is the lack of focus on violence. In terms of violence this is the most benign, cartoony violence there is. It’s more interesting in terms of the skills involved. The only weapons are a sword, and a bow and arrow. You can forge weapons, or you can punch something.

I had a major problem with online world Second LifeSome people have said “why don’t you do your stuff in Second Life, or something more graphic?” I like the aesthetic of Minecraft. In Second Life, a lot of people were white and stereotypically ‘sexy’ – the characters are highly sexualised, whereas Minecraft is super creative, very low resolution, blocky, non-gender specific avatars.

Minecraft is also a fantastic way of exploring digital literacy. It gives us a ‘biome’ or environment and characters or ‘avatars’. You can reflect back on behaviour between these virtual worlds and how it affects other people.

I have a problem with the word ‘virtual’, because it’s not virtual, it’s totally real. If you spent ten hours creating a lovely clay vase and then your friend smashed it so it shattered into a million pieces, no one would question the fact that you would feel pretty awful as a consequence. The horror is exactly the same if you build something in Minecraft and someone blows it up with ‘TNT’. This is called ‘griefing‘ and can be a real problem, but we are evolving in terms of empathy.

You often find people with autism feel more at ease inside a Minecraft. Being able to communicate is easier and also there’s a certain amount of distance when you have a computer and a screen. You can turn it off and move away if you feel overwhelmed, but this doesn’t make it any the less real in the investment of time, creativity or friendships.

I used to run a home education server with a Facebook page with the parents. A new kid might destroy or steal something from others in Minecraft. Mum and Dad would erupt an argument on the wall – meanwhile, back on the server the kids have sorted it out, happily playing along. The game has given them a safe space to work out these social interactions.

I started playing computer games when I was 11. (I’m going to really show my age now!) My maths teacher showed me the BBC microprocessor and we played a maths game, landing a spaceship. I thought playing that video game in maths was the best thing ever. I begged my mum and dad to buy me a computer and they bought me a cheaper version, an Acorn Electron. I played video games constantly and never stopped. They told me I would need to get a real job one day and to “get off that computer!”… now I am a self-employed artist working in video-games!

I was shortlisted for the Tate Museums IK Prize in 2014 for my proposal, TateCraft. It was my experiment to engage around art with a new audience of 7-11 year olds. I didn’t win, but the idea had a huge popular backing and Tate Museums were interested in developing the idea, so Tate Worlds was created. It was the first to use Minecraft as a platform for exploring famous artworks and has been a great success.

In Tate Worlds, the map is a game that tells a story. So you might meet with André Derain and he tells you he is sent here by his agent to paint the scenes of London but has lost his pigments, the colours with which he paints his paintings. He asks you to help him go round London to find them so he can paint. You figure out what the ‘Pool’ and heart of London is, about the history, artist and artistic movement behind the painting, about commerce and architecture and politics and folklore. All this without being ‘told’ anything!

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Tate Worlds was the first to use Minecraft as a platform for exploring famous artworks. They never expected it to be so successful

I can pinpoint the moment when I knew it was a success. I was sitting with my 7-year-old (at the time) and he told me “This painting is called the ‘The Pool of London’ and it was done by André Derain in 1906 and he was a Fauvist. They used really bright colours. They were called pigments.” By painting, he had absorbed a knowledge of the technical language history of the Fauvist movement. We had designed the map to do just that.

For We Are the Rangers, I created a map that engages young people to think about conservation and what rangers do. I got approached by the United for Wildlife, which were part of the Royal Foundation. At the moment I am doing another one for them about sea life and turtles.

The UN Habitat use kids and intergenerational aspect in Minecraft really well. Block by Block looks at community involvement. They were thinking about transforming dirt areas. They used Minecraft to quickly try different buildings and solutions out. It might be a children’s playground or community building.

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Block by Block looks at community involvement

Minecraft can also be used for very serious and life-changing ways of working things out. My wife’s mother died of cancer at Christmas. That experience and the experience of life and death merged into a collaborative project between us, called My Mother’s House, which was the winner of a Literary Platform Writing Bursary for literature and technology. On a personal level, it helped us to talk about ‘Nana’s death’ with our son and gave us a space to reflect about that as a family too.

What next? I need to clone myself. I’ve got 11 projects going on this year. I keep thinking “Oh, I mustn’t do this one, but then think “oh but that’s so good and will be so interesting!” I am currently producing an interactive map of the Great Fire of London with The Museum of London. I’m doing a live play in Minecraft, a refugee project which we hope to take out into French schools. I am also working with Stampy, and the second season of Wonder Quest is also coming out.

Clarke at Sónar+D 2016

The busy Clarke at Sónar+D 2016

My wife, son and I are an ‘artist in residence’… as a family. In September, I will be travelling with my wife, poet Victoria Bennett and our eight year old son, to stay in Bernheim Forest in Kentucky, USA, for six weeks, as part of the annual Artist in Residence Scheme in the forest. This a first for them though – both in bringing digital gaming into the space and also in having a family in residence. We’re creating some of the forest inside a Minecraft. My wife is a poet, I’m a visual artist and Django is a curious, creative, home-educated 8-year-old boy. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

I still want to push the envelope. As long as Minecraft alows me to do things that are fresh, it will remain a really interesting space to work in. China has just allowed Minecraft to be played thereI feel it is just stepping into the mainstream, so it will be really interesting to see how they use it in schools.

Wizard Keen

Clarke has worked with Tate Britain, Artichoke Trust, The Space, Guardian Newspapers, United for Wildlife, Disney and more

I’m one of the oldest people in the Minecraft world. It’s a world of digital relationships on YouTube and Skype. It’s a world where interpersonal relationships do not really exist. It’s funny when we all meet in real life. Sometimes a bit awkward, but it’s nice. The average age is all under 30!

My Future Power would be time travel. Then I can meet the people who shaped our present and see how the future ends up.”

Adam Clarke

What’s in an avatar name? Dragnoz, Wizard Keen and ‘Goldapple’ at Sonar+D

To delve deeper into Adam Clarke’s Minecraft world, check out more of his projects about culture, history and education: Templecraft offers an opportunity to participate in a major temporary art work, Climate Hope City looks at positive climate change technology and Web We Want was commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall.

Read more FutureHero interviews here – from NASA’s Steve Rader and experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, to VR’s Samantha Storr and WikiHouse’s Alastair Parvin.