Games and art: Minecraft at the London Victoria & Albert museum
A child of around ten years old walks past me accompanied by his mum. He is noteworthy largely because he is carrying a gigantic cardboard squid under one arm.
We were all part of a crowd of people being politely but firmly propelled through the revolving doors of London's Victoria & Albert museum and onto the street. The previous few hours had seen the sprawling galleries and central garden given over to all things Minecraft. Now, peppering the crowd were cardboard replicas of Minecraft's inhabitants and blocks.
They were used as props and set dressing during the evening but donated to visitors rather than rack up a massive excess baggage charge on the Mojang credit card lugging them back to Stockholm. "You have to do it in a careful way, though" says Lydia Winters, Mojang's Director of Fun (more on that later), "so people don't assume everything can be taken away."
I presume she is worried about ten-year-olds (and me) happily wandering off with handfuls of the museum's permanent collection but she explains that she is actually more concerned about the artworks contributed to the show by artist and prop maker Greg Aronowitz. It's fair enough - there is a pickaxe in the Silver Gallery which would have looked lovely on my bookshelf.
Minecraft's presence at the V&A owes its existence to the UN. Well, sort of. Senior curator, Kieran Long went over to Stockholm to interview Winters about the Block by Block project - a Mojang/UN collaboration which lets people with no architectural training whatsoever get involved in the rebuilding of their communities, presenting their ideas as Minecraft creations.
"He said, 'I work at the Victoria & Albert museum, if you guys are interested it would be cool to do something,'" says Winters. The V&A has already shown an interest in gaming, appointing a designer in residence - Sophia George - to work on a game from October onwards. But the Minecraft evening was a way to bring gaming within the museum in a way it hadn't previously been able to do.
"It's an old setting but the people want to do cool new things," says Winters. "It's very us. We're a company who wants to think really far outside what everyone else is doing. [The V&A] have the Friday Late programme where they take one theme and [focus around that] each month. It was a good way to ease into gaming happening in the museum. The plan was based on being as true to Minecraft plus art plus design - not just bringing a computer to game in a new area but going to a place you've never been."
The finished programme sprawls across the whole museum and caters to a real variety of potential visitors: animated projections featuring Minecraft torches and vines flicker in the pendentives of the entrance hall; a katana sword made by Aronowitz nestles amongst the rest of the artefacts in the Japan Gallery; a giant pop-up book can be thumbed through in the art library; 3D printing and papercraft workshops generate a queue from the Sackler Centre to the sculpture hall.
It's Aronowitz's work which has Winters most excited. "Greg is an artist in Los Angeles and he's worked on a bunch of Minecons with us and he has a repertoire as long as they come, with Spielberg and Lucas. He's worked on tonnes of films. I said, 'Can you make one piece? I want something where a kid will come into a gallery they've never been to because they see a Minecraft piece there.'
"I listed out all these ideas I had for him to pick one and he was like, 'I want to do them all!' Final total, it's 22 art pieces that were put into the museum. It's weird mashup things like an Enderman version of The Scream, a Minecraft version of a Japanese samurai sword."
After the V&A the artworks will turn up at Minecon, Orlando in November. Orlando is a right pain to get to from Finsbury Park (Florida is at least Zone 5) so I ask whether they would mind terribly hosting one in the UK. "We won't do another this year but we try not to even propose places because it would be sad to get people excited but yeah. The UK is our second biggest fanbase after the US so it's a natural place at some point, it's just when it happens."
Given its interest in gaming and that, over in New York, the Museum of Modern Art is keenly collecting games as examples of design I ask whether the V&A is likely to try to acquire Minecraft for itself. "We haven't discussed that at the moment," is the response. It isn't a no, though, and the MoMA collaboration seems to be an entirely positive experience from Mojang's point of view.
"The founders founded the company based on wanting to be the most influential independent game studio in the world and when you can move into different spaces even though at the core we're a game studio? It's amazing that MoMA would be like 'We want to have you in our permanent collection'."
For those not based in the UK or near Florida, Winters adds that other museum collaborations are likely. "I have a few in my inbox at the moment. After the Minecon tickets sold out so quickly I've made it my personal thing to work on, finding cool collaborations to do so we can have people interact with the game in new ways around the world."
And what about the reverse - bringing art into Minecraft? "I don't know. The developers do whatever they want - they're never directed in anyway so it's just if one of them goes 'That would be cool'. The nice thing is that people are already doing it. There's not a specific thing in the game that helps you do it but people are creating museums and art and creative things so we kind of have the crossover."
Having covered off all things arty (and because I said earlier in this piece that I would get back to it) we circle round to the Director of Fun job title. The short story is that it was a jokey suggestion made to her boss which then stuck around. The slightly longer version is that what Winters does at Mojang would probably be called Community Management at another company.
"We would never use the title Community Manager because I'm not managing the community. The community is out doing crazy things all the time. What we do at Mojang and what we do pretty well I think is work alongside the community versus directing them."
It's why you won't see Mojang complaining about YouTube Let's Plays and tutorials. "We don't need to have a grasp and say everybody needs to hear about Minecraft from us," says Winters. "It's a natural flow. The community has been there since the beginning - that's what built the game."