the Wonderful Wizard of Minecraft
Adam Clarke builds a better world – one block at a time
The leading Minecraft producer and YouTuber – best known for voicing a wizard – on the power of virtual play, solving society’s challenges and cloning himself
Video games can be inclusive and open spaces to share ideas and tell good stories.Adam Clarke
If I tell you I met a wizard at Sónar Festival, you’d think I’d eaten one too many gummies, and the rest. But ‘Wizard Keen’ – aka digital noodler Adam Clarke – is very real and the award-winning artist has produced some of the world’s most innovative Minecraft projects. Move over Harry Potter, there’s a cooler wizard in town and he’s got pigments and hacks up his sleeves.
A global influencer in immersive games-based learning, Clarke is best known as the voice of an intelligent wizard sidekick to an orange cat in Disney’s educational Minecraft show, Wonder Quest. Considered child-friendly, safe and positive content, ‘Stampy’ (created by YouTuber Joe Garrett) is now “bigger than Justin Bieber”.
Today, children have agency over their online viewing choices in a way that had previously not existed and are rapidly changing the way YouTube is being engaged with. Clarke is a firm believer in using video games, art and digital technology to inspire and entertain.
Think adults don’t play Minecraft? Think again. Since 2011, the 3D adventure game has become a global pop phenomenon with a community of nearly half a billion players and over 140 million monthly active players. However, Minecraft is a lot more than the biggest video game in the world, it is also an educational tool for social change. Plus, in lockdown, it was the perfect game to get everyone ‘outside’ – building imaginative worlds inside an immersive environment.
Set inside a map made up of virtual blocks, Minecraft is a game of possibilities; players build textured cubes creating maps of their open worlds that then can be shared with friends. As well as helping build brain cells, video games can help solve society’s challenges.
As widely recognised on the streets of Hanoi as in Houston, the ‘Lego of a new generation’ can engage citizens and teach us digital literacy. It is all about expressing yourself and the journey is more important than the destination itself, precisely because there is no end goal. Players create their individual adventure, by building it, and then share their fantasy world with others.
Clarke has also worked with the UN and World Wildlife Fund, and his projects have seen the most amount of people ever engaged in the art collections of Tate Britain. (He’s also now created a 3D model of my brain that you can spin, zoom in on, and even enter in VR, but that’s another story.)
A firm believer that video gaming, digital technology and play can enable a new generation of agents of social change, he is passionate about encouraging global creative engagement. Together with his wife – award-winning author and poet Victoria Bennett – Clarke has created The Wizard and The Wyld, an official Minecraft map maker and immersive digital storytelling company, which also publishes educational books. Because the story is more important than the pixel.
The Unofficial Minecraft Life Hacks Lab for Kids, is their practical resource for those wanting to use Minecraft to develop skills in emotional intelligence and creativity.
As part of a digital fellowship at the RSC in 2022, Clarke created a book exploring the intersection between live theatre and video games, and testing ideas for hosting Shakespeare performances in Minecraft. Game Over draws on Hamlet, Macbeth and the current political atmosphere.
Upcoming projects include an offshore wind farm simulator and a biodiversity game. I asked the nature-loving digital noodler about how virtual worlds connect us to one another. These are some of the things he had to say.
Over to Adam Clarke…
“It’s nice to be a wizard. There aren’t many people around the world doing what I do. This is what technology is good at – connecting us to one another in virtual worlds that can be shared to massive online niche audiences. It’s thrilling and creative and wonderful. And that’s where I find myself.
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’m in my 40s and I play Minecraft every day. Minecraft is great for children, because it’s completely unintimidating, but it is also great for adults. People often 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.
Online play is important. Lots of people need the power of virtual worlds that kids can engage with. Minecraft gives us the opportunity to model the world around us. It offers us a way to connect with each other and learn how to build together from our local communities for global problems. I want to inspire people to use their imaginations and strive for knowledge.
VR headsets sold out around the world during the pandemic. People want to travel, but now they can travel from their homes and communities – and share the creative fruits of their travels locally. I saw a folk festival from the artists’ living rooms. It’s very post-punk rock!
The advent of more remote ways to learn and entertain ourselves has emerged. The pandemic has taught us that travel was the mode of the virus’ spread. That’s going to change how we see the world in the future. Minecraft is just one way to do it.
Video games can be inclusive and open spaces to share ideas and tell good stories. Most people can use a tablet. Through a game, children and young people can be engaged in political questions and empowered in making informed choices.
I started playing computer games when I was 11. My maths teacher showed me the BBC microprocessor and we played a maths game, landing a spaceship. I thought that 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.
My parents 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 and have never been busier.
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. It was the beginning of something really special.
Minecraft is 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?
Minecraft doesn’t encourage a gun fetish. Another really positive aspect is the lack of focus on 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. (But you can forge weapons or you can punch something.)
I had a major problem with the online world of Second Life. Some people have said, “Why don’t you do your stuff in Second Life, or something more graphic?” But I like the super-creative, very low resolution aesthetic of Minecraft. Minecraft has blocky, non-gender specific avatars. Whereas in Second Life, a lot of people were white and stereotypically ‘sexy’ – the characters are highly sexualised.
Minecraft is 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 there’s a certain amount of distance with 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.
Games and online worlds help us connect in creative ways. They give us the skills needed to communicate and play with people from around the world. I spoke to a parent today, she wanted her eight-year-old to learn how to communicate in an online world as her son was finding home schooling difficult.
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 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.
In Tate Worlds, the map is a game that tells a story. So you might meet with artist 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!
I can pinpoint the moment when I knew it was a success. I was sitting with my seven-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 called pigments.” He had absorbed a knowledge of the technical language history of the Fauvist movement. We had designed the map to do just that.
The UN Habitat uses the intergenerational aspect of Minecraft really well. For example. Block by Block is a project that looks at community involvement. They were thinking about transforming dirt areas and used Minecraft to quickly try different buildings and solutions out, like a children’s playground or community building. Minecraft helps neighbourhood residents model their surroundings, visualise possibilities, express ideas, drive consensus and accelerate progress.
Minecraft can also be used for very serious and life-changing ways of working things out. When my wife’s mother died of cancer, 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 poetic space to reflect about that as a family too.
My family was once an ‘artist in residence’ in a forest. I travelled with my wife, Victoria Bennett, and son, to stay in Bernheim Forest in Kentucky, USA, for six weeks as part of the annual Artist in Residence Scheme. As ‘The Common People’, we created some of the forest inside a Minecraft. My wife is a poet, I’m a visual artist and Django was a curious, creative, home-educated eight-year-old boy!
The natural world is beautiful and fragile. It’s important to create reminders and sign posts to teach and demonstrate the importance of biodiversity. That’s why I created a map that engages young people to think about conservation for United for Wildlife called We Are the Rangers. Then I did another one for them about sea life and turtles.
You too can conduct research about climate change and work collaboratively to build creative solutions. We collaborated on an interactive curriculum called Extinction! A Biodiversity Crisis with the WWF and creative minds of Naturebytes, a UK-based collective of technologists and conservation scientists. You can ride a rollercoaster through different eras. Climate Hope City is another positive climate change technology project (with The Guardian).
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.
We like to stay in character. Often, with the people I know in Minecraft, we call each other by our avatar names not their real names. I know a Stampy, Squishy, Dragnoz, Squid and Squidoodley.
What next? I need to clone myself. I’ve got too many projects going on. 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’ve been producing an interactive map of the Great Fire of London with The Museum of London, done a live play in Minecraft, a refugee project which we hope to take out into French schools and I am also working with Stampy on the next season of Wonder Quest.
For a lot of people I am Wizard Keen. but I still want to push the envelope. As long as Minecraft allows me to do things that are fresh, it will remain a really interesting space to work in. China allows a version of Minecraft to be played for free there. I feel it is just stepping into the mainstream, so it will be really interesting to see how they use it in schools.
If I could have any superpower, it would be time travel. Then I can meet the people who shaped our present and see how the future ends up.
The TOPIA Guide to Minecraft: a glossary
Intimidated by understanding the world of gaming? Read our glossary, join the community and start crafting today. DO attempt this at home…
In real life (IRL for the kids), a biome is a large naturally occurring region, like jungles, forests and deserts. It’s exactly the same in the Minecraft world. These virtual biomes even have their own climates and environments, including rain cycles, plant life, rivers and mountains.
Dreaded deadly creepers sneak up on players before exploding, doing significant damage to everything. They’re considered an aggressive mob. Other mobs are passive, such as horses and chickens, but some are weird, like ‘Endermans’ – tall, thin creatures that enter the game in pairs to pick up and place blocks at random to dismantle your shelters. Yes, it all gets a bit surreal.
Golden apples (food)
When you find and eat an enchanted golden apple, you get healing, speed, resistance to fire and regeneration status. The trophy should not be confused with our TOPIA Editor, Lisa Goldapple, who is less valuable and can’t cure zombies. (And is writing this in the third person, for some reason.)
If you don’t have all the mod cons, the good news is that you can build them with Minecraft. Mods are user-created content that isn’t contained within the initial install, but can be downloaded and added to change the content of the game – from new materials to design elements to adding difficulty levels. Modding is a whole world on its own.
Modes (main game modes)
The five game modes in Minecraft are Survival, Creative, Adventure, Spectator and Hardcore – if you’re game enough. We like Creative, which lets you build anything you want, like an endless supply of blocks, plus renders you invincible. With Hardcore there’s no respawning. Once you croak, that’s it.
Mojang is a video game developer and studio based in Stockholm. It was founded by Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, Jakob Porser and Carl Manneh, who happen to be the creators of Minecraft – and they’re laughing all the way to the bank. The company was acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014. (There are rumours that Mojang is shutting down the servers on 31 December 2020, but it’s a prank.)
Nether (alternate dimension)
The standard world is called the ‘Overworld’, but the ‘Nether’ is a hellish landscape that has environmental hazards, such as lava and flames – and is only accessible via a portal. Let’s face it, this year the real world has definitely fallen into the Nether.
A standard Minecraft tool that’s used to mine bricks for important materials, picks are probably the tool that people use the most in Minecraft. They can be crafted by the player and enchanted. People even name their axes. (If you’re a Minecraft fan, tell us in the comments below the name of yours…)
Redstone (raw material)
The Minecraft equivalent of electricity can be used to brew potions; power devices, such as doors, pistons and lights; or create amazing inventions, such as working computers or factories… once you know the basics. Although Redstone is one of the most versatile materials in the game, it’s also one of the more advanced concepts.
Sandbox (open world video game)
Minecraft is considered a sandbox game, meaning players have the option to modify the game world as well as explore without restrictions or limitations. A true sandbox game gives players the same tools as a designer of the game. Doesn’t give you Mojang’s $2.5 billion, sadly.
A Minecraft server lets players engage in multiplayer games online. No two servers are alike and they’re typically configured into specific game types – from team-based or solo-player-versus-solo-player combat to capture-the-flag and last-player-standing matches.
Any texture placed on an avatar or mob that allows players to customise the game, skins offer visual flair to the game. And that is where the fun comes in. You really can be who you want to be.
Steve (main protagonist)
The mononymous Steve is the generic white dude avatar, like a blank slate. (C’mon, we all know a Steve.) Despite being one of the most iconic characters in the video game culture, very little is known about the basic male default playable character. Time to customise, it’s 2020!
Minecraft is a place where everything is made of blocks and the only limit is your imagination. Think of voxels as the blocky virtual particles that can be stacked up and stuck together to form anything from a landscape to a player, as if it’s built from hundreds or thousands of Lego. Adam creates voxel magic.
What’s so good about this?
Minecraft is not just a game, it’s a cultural phenomenon that has had a significant impact on society by inspiring a generation of young people to pursue their creative passions and embrace technology in new and exciting ways. It has also played a crucial role in fostering online communities that promote inclusivity, collaboration and learning.
Meet the writer
Lisa Goldapple is the creative brain behind the world of TOPIA. The magazine’s Editor-in-chief has been creating shows for MTV, BBC, Vice, TVNZ, National Geographic and more since the noughties. Then created social good platform, Atlas of the Future. Today her desk faces the trippy side of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which might explain a few things. To understand how TOPIA came out of this rare brain, read ‘Mind Blown’. As she puts it: “If life splinters and you hallucinate triangles, make a kaleidoscope.”