Museums are faced with some interesting challenges around the involvement and active engagement with young audiences for on-site experiences and programming. It can be difficult sometimes to inspire the younger audiences and to provide experiences that will make them want to return to the Museum. Finding methods of integrating popular online activities, such as gaming, to fit into the Museum program of exhibitions or events can be a challenge but one that we feel is worth exploring here at the Museum.
A few of us in the digital teams have been looking at the massive growth of the online sand-box game Minecraft for a while now and discussing how it’s basic principles link into a lot of the themes and processes that we explore and develop here at the Powerhouse in our exhibitions and through our collection (a few of us in the office are now addicted). Essentially this game is about creating anything you like with a series of blocks in an extremely creative environment. There is the huge potential to explore architecture, design, construction, materials, engineering, community engagement and sharing and how these elements can be integrated into a Museum experience. So we decided that we would trial Minecraft here at the Powerhouse by running a school holiday program in our digital learning lab Thinkspace.
Dan Collins, (A/G Head of Digital) has done a Q&A with Peter Mahony (Thinkspace Manager) about how we got Minecraft up and running in the Museum and we thought we would share some of the things that we have discovered from running this trial.
DC: Talk us through what Minecraft is actually about?
PM: Minecraft is a computer game where players use avatars to explore a 3D world. This virtual world is made of cube-shaped blocks, think lego, which are used to build anything players can imagine. For example, I have seen ancient Rome, the Starship Enterprise, giant Mario and a working calculator, all rendered beautifully out of blocks to an amazing level of accuracy and detail, and all created from the self-interest of individuals or groups of players. Minecraft is a sand-box game, which means there are no actual rules, instructions, narrative or right/wrong way to play. The game was officially released in November 2011, and at the time of writing has sold nearly 5 million copies.
DC: Why did you choose to run it as a holiday program?
PM: Well, it’s more like Minecraft chose Thinkspace! We are always looking for opportunities to engage visitors practically in human ingenuity, struggle and excellence, using the widest possible range of technologies. And over the last half of 2011, Minecraft kept coming up again and again in conversations with young people and their carers. Increasingly I found myself fielding phone and email enquiries about it, like “My 11 year old son is asking to setup a minecraft server. Should I be worried about this?” Plus, over the last couple of years the focus of Thinkspace has been strengthening around 2D creative computing platforms like MIT’s Scratch, with which people can build computer games, puzzles, etc. Minecraft sits squarely in that category and is 3D.
DC: Were there any technical issues running Minecraft at the Museum?
PM: We decided to trial a ‘drop-in’ style 50 minute session aimed primarily at beginners plus with scope for experienced players to demonstrate their skills. I did quite a lot of research and got great advice and support from various experts notably Jokay at Massively Minecraft, who are well advanced with their community development and paying careful attention to duty of care and child protection issues. For our first trial, we decided to run a private server, and we used a version of Minecraft specifically devised for classroom use called Minecraftedu. A new virtual windows 2003 server was commissioned specifically for Minecraft, and network port access management was completed for Thinkspace by the Museum’s IT team.
DC:Did you offer a custom Minecraft environment?
PM: Yes, we built our own world, with a mini tutorial at the spawn point (start of the game), an observation tower and an underground temple, chests pre-filled with blocks and tools, a hidden passage leading to a nether gate, lava pit, giant Thinkspace logo (branding!). One of the issues we anticipated was the range of skills we would encounter, from absolute beginners (some players were so young they couldn’t yet read!), through to highly advanced players for whom defeating the ‘ender dragon’ was old news. Also, Minecraftedu provided some teacher controls which we found useful given the short time frames we were working in. eg we could ‘gift’ resources, and teleport players back to a central point to conclude the workshop with a fly-through everyone’s work on the big screen.
DC:What did our audience build in these past weeks?
PM: We were truly amazed and thrilled by the efforts of these young designers. Many, many amazing homes, multi-floor or split-level constructions with glass atriums, indoor pools or waterfalls, lockable red-stone mechanism doors, houses hidden with invisible ‘painting’ screens, a number generator, lots of traps, productive farms. All built in less than 1 hour! Plus highly functional collaborations between complete strangers.
DC:How do you think it was received?
PM:From the point of view of engagement, its been a tremendous success. The enthusiasm of players was at times extreme, and it was not uncommon for (particularly boys) participants to arrive breathless, parents and carers trailing behind, having sprinted to Thinkspace to ensure they didn’t miss a second. And lots of parents also stayed and observed, and often peppered us with questions about what was going on, clearly evaluating out in their own minds the legitimacy of the experience which had so captured their kids. Many experienced to advanced players would have preferred to have played in survival mode, complete with hostile mobs (cavespiders, creepers, etc), instead of creative mode.
DC:Given its success, what do you see as your future plans with Minecraft?
PM: We’re in the process now of reviewing our learning (so much!) and are currently discussing a range of possibilities. Many players expressed their desire to come back to our world and continue building with us, so that’s something we really need to look at. And we would like to build our own unique and beautiful Powerhouse world (mod).
So now to summarise the main points that we have learnt from trialling the integration of Minecraft into the Museum:
*This younger audience was extremely engaged in doing Minecraft in the Museum even though they could still play at home
*There was an interesting inter-generational connection going on through the Minecraft sessions
*Mostly all of the students want to return to the Museum to continue their experience
*Minecraft possesses really interesting learning frameworks that we want to explore further and almost any topic could be covered given the right creative instruction
*There is a strong community building capability with emphasis on working together to construct worlds that can be explored that we would like to trial in exhibitions
*Oh and it’s totally addictive