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MoPOP exhibit highlights Minecraft creativity, from 'zombie pigmen' to educational uses

Ashley Gross

It's been 10 years since a Swedish developer created Minecraft, and the video game has since become a global cultural phenomenon.

Kids adorn their rooms with creeper and zombie pigman toys and head to school with tiny plastic pickaxes dangling from their backpacks. Adults have spent countless hours building a Minecraft version of the kingdoms of Westeros from the Game of Thrones series.

A new exhibit at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle showcases the creativity of the game. Brooks Peck, senior curator at MoPOP, said he got into playing Minecraft by watching how imaginatively kids used it to build new worlds.

“This one kid built a giant dome filled with pigs, and it was sort of this seething mass of pigs. It’s like nothing I would ever have imagined doing, but it was kind of cool,” Peck said. “And then I was like, 'OK, there’s something going on here.' These kids are not just running around playing a game. They’re making.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
A display highlights how Minecraft has spawned merchandise opportunities.

Peck and Jacob McMurray, the museum’s director of curatorial collections and exhibits, are both enthusiasts of the game. They persuaded executives at MoPOP that Minecraft was worthy of its own exhibit, which they’ve designed to delight fans who want a chance to geek out and illuminate what makes the game special to people who don’t know much about it.

For example, the exhibit begins with a quick explainer about the differences between playing in “survival” mode, in which you build during the game’s day cycle and fight off murderous monsters during the night cycle, compared with “creative” mode, in which you have unlimited resources and don’t get attacked.

Throughout the exhibit are life-size creatures (known in the game as “mobs”) built in that quintessential blocky Minecraft style. There’s everything from a llama to a creeper to an iron golum.

One highlight is a display about the Nether, the game’s creepy underworld, which is full of oceans of lava and creatures such as zombie pigmen.

“It’s a completely different dimension that you get into by crafting a Nether portal out of obsidian blocks and light it on fire,” McMurray said.

That part of the exhibit includes audio that McMurray said sounds like an “asthmatic kitty” and is meant to evoke a ghast, another unique-to-Minecraft creature that Peck described as a “hell jellyfish that shoots fireballs.”

The creatures may sound silly, but McMurray says what is so unique about Minecraft is how it’s created a feedback loop of creativity between the game’s creators and the millions of people using it.

“The developers will create these tools, but they don’t really have an idea of how the community is going to use it, and the community comes up with stuff the developers never thought could be done,” McMurray said.

The exhibit explores all the ways Minecraft has been used in the broader world, including how the game is used in education for teaching everything from indigenous languages to computer coding. Urban planners are using Minecraft to get community input on designing public spaces, such as playgrounds.

The Minecraft exhibit will be at MoPOP until Labor Day next year and then will travel around the country.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.