A laundry list of colleges emptied their campuses this last month amid the coronavirus outbreak. Students packed up their belongings, traveled home, and made the switch to online classes. College seniors whose graduations were canceled said goodbye to Boston and to friends. It wasn’t what anyone expected from spring term.
In the midst of the upheaval, though, some found both a creative distraction and a way to stay connected to classmates and campus in a decade-old video game, “Minecraft.”
Students created new “Minecraft” servers for their college community or took to social media to invite classmates back to dormant realms, where players can freely build ecosystems or battle foes. There, students — left without real-world classrooms, dorms, and dining halls to socialize in — are spending time together virtually.
“It’s a fun way to, at the very least, interact with each other,” said Ralph Drake, a junior visual media arts major at Emerson who launched the school’s “Minecraft” server on March 13. “It’s collaborative at a time when we are so separated.”
At Berklee College of Music and Boston University, an ever-growing group of students is rebuilding their urban campus block-by-block in the game’s creative mode, which offers players unlimited resources and no restrictions. Builders from both schools use Google Maps’ street and satellite views to piece together the outside of the buildings, and their memories and pictures for the inside.
The Berklee reconstruction includes towering campus buildings and dorms on Massachusetts Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue, and Boylston Street, but also the stores, restaurants, apartment buildings, and hangout spots in between and on Newbury Street. Students hope to finish making the dense chunk of Boston from Hynes Convention Center to Fenway within the next few months.
Berklee Esports president Marc Yu had previously made a handful of buildings with the help of two members, but progress slowed before the shutdown.
“We had started building the whole thing last fall, but we didn’t get too far,” said Yu, a junior film scoring major, who has moved back home to San Francisco. “We started working on it again when all these people became interested.”
More than 70 people joined the existing realm after Yu advertised it on students’ private Facebook group, Overheard at Berklee College of Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself, on March 12. The Berklee realm, a premade platform for multiple users that costs $7.99 per month, is paid for by the school’s Esports club.
“It’s kind of funny that kids are doing this,” said Levi Cooper, a freshman film-scoring major at Berklee. “Still, it’s a good way not to do music for a second and ‘see’ people.”
Members of the Boston University Gaming Club had been working on the BU campus reconstruction as early as last summer. But in the last week or so alone, the project has gained momentum. After club member Jithvan Ariyaratne shared the server and its live map on the nationwide Facebook group, Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, the number of dedicated builders tripled to 15.
“It’s kicked off at such a faster pace now that students are not on campus,” said Ariyaratne, a junior computer science major still in Boston.
Together, players have completed the BU Bridge, the facades of multiple buildings on Commonwealth Avenue, and a large portion of the campus’s east side.
A second world within the BU server is dedicated to setting the stage for a virtual graduation, complete with a stage and chairs. Meanwhile, another pair of BU students is building a separate “Minecraft” server devoted to hosting a nationwide graduation ceremony. Via their website, quaranteen.university, they’re inviting students and families to sign up for it. As of Thursday, they’d gotten the attention of more than 500 students from 219 schools.
The “Minecraft” projects are healing for some.
Aubrey Mixon, a music therapy major at Berklee who has retreated to her grandparents’ home in Naples, Fla., spends up to four hours per day toiling away at buildings to keep herself occupied. Since joining the server two weeks ago, she even found the blueprints and floor plans for Berklee’s largest building, 160 Massachusetts Ave., online to aid her building efforts.
“As much as college can be stressful, the Berklee campus is really special to me and to a lot of people,” she said. “To be able to re-create it when we’re not able to be there and appreciate it with fellow classmates is just amazing. It’s also kind of our way of coping with being away, with this whole coronavirus situation.”
At Emerson, Ralph Drake, who has remained in Boston, built his own server for Emerson students in two days. Drake constructed his server in the game’s survival mode, where players evade threats, like mobs and fires, with limited materials. Through a private Facebook group, he encouraged students to rebuild dorm buildings (though this is more difficult with the threadbare resources available in survival) and socialize.
“It’s interesting to see the ecosystems people create and what they do,” he said. “It just seems like we have all this time.”
As one of the best-selling video games of all time, “Minecraft” was overtaken around five years ago by newer games, like “Fortnite” and novel “Animal Crossing” releases. But over the past year, it has seen a resurgence, boosted at least in part by Youtuber PewDiePie’s video of himself playing “Minecraft” in August.
“For a while, it became not cool to play ‘Minecraft’ — cringe, you could say,” said Robert Wilson, the Emerson Esports president. “Now though, it’s one of the only ways to stay connected.”
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.