Entertainment

Campus is closed, so college students are rebuilding their schools in Minecraft

The day before University of Pennsylvania students were told that their college commencement would be held online, junior Andrew Guo thought of an alternative to holding the address over Zoom. Students could have a “Hey Day” and graduation inside Minecraft, just as a Japanese elementary school had organized days earlier.

Quickly, “Penncraft” students began to recreate dormitories, food trucks, and local sculptures in-game. Makarious Chung, an early builder, measured buildings’ dimensions and streets positions constantly to ensure their scale was as accurate as possible. The first day of building, students took an hour to decide the placement of one street. Their main goal was to have a completed campus, specifically Locust Street, for graduating seniors to walk down in-game now that COVID-19 ensured they wouldn’t return to campus and complete this UPenn tradition.

“I’m the first in my family to graduate from college so it wasn’t just my commencement, it was for the rest of my family too,” senior Nyazia Sajdah-Bey says. She left campus suddenly, and is now helping rebuild it in Minecraft, days after departure. “I didn’t have the chance to properly mourn or, finish out my senior bucket list, say goodbye to my friends and teachers,” she says. “I’m still trying to process that loss. So it’s really sweet working on the campus. It’s making the process of leaving feel less sudden and more gradual.” Guo, Chung, and Sajdah-Bey are a few of the hundreds of college students on similar paths of departing and virtually rebuilding.

University of Washington’s Architecture Hall.

Students from Boston University to UCLA, from South Louisiana Community College to Northwestern University, have recently created or resurrected Minecraft servers and shared their creations on Discord chats, in Facebook meme groups, and on Reddit threads. The boom of college Minecraft servers has begun. These servers have the express purpose of bringing students together and building, oftentimes focused on recreating their college campuses. Searches for Minecraft server hosting have peaked to unprecedented levels in the last few weeks, and thousands of students are discussing college servers, most notably on the Facebook group “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens.” Smaller groups and clubs, like Bowdoin College’s men’s ultimate frisbee team or University of La Verne’s debate team, have found ways to bond in survival mode servers after their practices and championships were canceled. Zoom isn’t nearly enough, and it doesn’t carry the ten years of memories that Gen Z has for Minecraft.

An overwhelming number of colleges recently closed their campuses and moved to online courses, which felt like a painful shock to students, especially seniors, who expected to have months more time on campus. I was gutted when I had to pack away my Oberlin College dorm room and drive homeward over a weekend. As I entered self-quarantine, I created an Oberlin server for Minecraft, a game I’ve had for a decade and one that has catalyzed dozens of relationships with people I’ve never met in real life. Our server is small, but I’m able to spend time building a home with my partner and adventuring with seniors that I never said goodbye to. Minecraft has become a salve for many students like myself, and college servers have started to become a place where students can log in to process the sudden loss of an on-campus community — or maybe rebuild it.

“I’m not going to really see campus alive again. I can go to the buildings, I can go to the space, I can go to the actual square, the plot, but I’m not going to see campus as I remember it,” Jay Gibbs, a University of Chicago senior, says. “So from my point of view, it’s basically gone at this point.” Although Minecraft does allow for building 1:1 scale replicas of campuses, just as importantly it allows students to fill campus spaces and interact with each other. After the Penn Relays — the oldest track and field competition in the United States — was canceled for the first time in 125 years, Penncraft started to work with the competition’s staff to host a virtual “speedrunning” version of the Relays in Minecraft. Once each college has a completed in-game campus in the coming weeks, it will be easier to host events; Brown and Columbia are discussing intramural Minecraft Hunger Games.

Even without formal organization, students have come together in college servers in curious ways. In the Oberlin College server I created, I returned one day to find an impromptu food cooperative, a throwback to the famous and culturally significant Oberlin Student Cooperative Association that feeds a fourth of the student body with meals cooked by their peers. This Minecraft version mostly consisted of a chest filled with inedible seeds and raw chicken. On the University of Minnesota server, two students played spikeball on the campus green, tossing a sunflower to each other. In the University of Texas server, students held an in-game birthday party at the top of the famous UT Tower where they set off fireworks and ate cake.

Come May there will be in-game graduations. Inspired by the aforementioned Japanese elementary school, Boston University seniors Rudy Raveendran and Warren Patridge created “Quaranteen U.” This is a new server specifically made to host a Class of 2020 graduation for students from hundreds of different universities. 706 students from 278 institutions have signed up in the last week, and one mom has already emailed Raveendran asking how she can get an in-game seat to this massive ceremony on May 22nd.

The Herb Alpert School of Music in the UCLA build.
Photo by Pearse Anderson

The boom of servers has inspired others to quickly organize around them, like Jasper Ty, a Drexel University freshman, who recently recorded and uploaded a Zoom presentation where he ranks the top five college campus builds. “I have heard people call me a college Minecraft server connoisseur,” he says. Spurred by friends, he is considering starting a series of guided tour videos through Minecraft campuses.

Nearly all builders say that they will leave their projects with a newfound appreciation for campus architecture, especially the spots they never visited or overlooked. “It makes me feel like I took this for granted,” Jan Rubio, a UT freshman, says. “Especially knowing that people have toiled to recreate these views and these buildings,” adds Jasper Ty.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo by chrisinphilly5448; Minecraft screenshot by Pearse Anderson

It’s true that people have toiled, especially inside the BU build. Last week, Will Pine, a BU junior, journeyed through the deserted BU campus snapping reference photos for the building team, making special note to capture emergency evacuation maps on each floor of the engineering building: they double as well-measured blueprints. On other build Discords, students shared floor plan PDFs that fill in their blindspots for reference photos or memory. Builders can get caught up in small details; a pair of Girl Scouts selling cookies at a crosswalk in the University of Minnesota, or Domino the Cat lounging outside the UT student union building. University of Washington builders went as far as creating a “Building Standards” channel on Discord to formalize road widths, the variety of wood for signs, and the color of concrete blocks used in brutalist constructions.

I won’t be walking through Oberlin College’s Wilder Bowl or Terrell Library anytime soon, and my memory will inevitably erase details of the spaces I spent years in. A campus build server could be a mind palace for me, as it has been for others. “There have been some parts of [the Penncraft] campus where I can stand there and I can feel like I’m standing in the same place in real life, or at least I get the same brainwaves,” Makarious Chung says, remembering a particular frozen courtyard puddle that he slid around on one day. In a moment of new and tragic memories, many students are searching for familiarity. That courtyard is now constructed in the server.

The server boom can be measured. Mitch Smith, the managing director of Minecraft server hosting service Shockbyte, has seen demand for Minecraft servers spike five times higher than their normal daily orders, starting on March 12th (the day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic). Beyond providing servers to colleges, Smith said in an email that the company’s Shockbyte for Education program has begun hosting servers for “scout groups, kindergartens, homeschooling parents, daycares, and summer camps.” But the graduating class of 2020 have a unique relationship to the game. We grew up with Minecraft updates from middle school to today, the game getting more complex as we aged. Most interviewed students purchased Minecraft during early alpha development, and returning to it now, in their childhood bedrooms, is like returning to an old toy — one with no real endgame.

“If I have an indefinite bit of free time that might end whenever, I would want something I could just play and stop playing whenever I want,” Jay Gibbs says, speaking about why students are flocking to Minecraft during indefinite self-isolation. Years from now, the spires and statues of Quaranteen U might still stand tall. Students might be playing capture the flag in the Frankensteined mix of campuses below. But these servers aren’t collegiate graveyards; they are small wonders currently under construction.

The Berklee School of Music campus build is constructed on a strange lie: some blocks that players see are actually disguised sand. In Minecraft, players can construct a few half-block slabs, but Berklee E-Sports Club President Marc Yu wanted their campus to have slabs of terracotta, glass, and other materials that Minecraft didn’t offer. To get around this, the Berklee builders created dozens of “falling sand” entities in-game that they could re-skin as building materials. Many details of the Berklee build are, technically speaking, a series of sandcastles that are falling apart and being reconstituted almost imperceptibly quickly thanks to the ingenuity of students. Builders like Yu have created an anti-Ozymandias, as their sandcastles will live on as long as the server chugs forward.

For me, there have been many times when Minecraft has been more reliable than Oberlin College. I hope that won’t be the case for graduation. When the world becomes safer, I want to travel back to the town and campus that has meant so much to me and hold commencement in-person. But this May, I might walk across a blocky stage in Quaranteen U to receive my Oberlin diploma. According to the sign-ups, my avatar will be standing beside nursing school seniors, business school seniors, seniors from my hometown college, as well as Canadian and Turkish universities. When I walk across the stage, I will be proud to be with the Class of 2020 in whatever strange and ragtag form that takes.

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