It has been four months since we all began living our entire lives from a corner of our beds. For college students who had just begun discovering the joys of adult life, the new normal came with a shock as they were asked to pack their bags and leave for home. As universities went online, they lost the opportunity of making memories in the microcosm of a campus.
But inspired by UC Berkeley’s “Blockeley” and MIT’s virtual campus, a few students from Ashoka University in Haryana in north India have now come together to build their own campus within the ultra-popular video game Minecraft, which offers endless virtual space to roam when real spaces become rare commodities.
The game—which already was the most popular game in 2019, with over 100 billion YouTube views—has gained immense popularity and even more users because of the pandemic. It serves as a platform for live events when none of us can go live in real life with raves, gigs, and even some semblance of social interactions. On the platform, you can recreate real life spaces, something akin to a virtual Lego block-building experience.
Atishay Khanna, the founder of the Ashoka University Minecraft project, conceived the idea in May. Now, two months in, with a team of 12 members, they will lay out the last block today.
“We all missed the university incredibly and all of us are waiting to go back to campus,” Khanna, a rising third-year political science student, tells VICE. “Moreover, Ashoka is a residential campus so when we all went home after being together for so long, all of us felt something was missing. So this is one alternative to being at the university while not being present at the university. Our team’s motto is ‘We will bring you back’.”
Getting the team was one of his biggest tasks, says Khanna. Once formed though, the team saw a very diverse bunch of students from not only technology backgrounds but also humanities. “All of us are building it together,” says computer science student, Aditi Tibarewal. “And we are from different places—Maharashtra, Lucknow, Delhi—and even international students from Rwanda, all united by our feelings for our university.”
The game’s interface allows the transition of day to night and back and the university’s red-bricked campus looks glorious in both. The virtual lamp posts shine bright at night while the grey-and-red walls gleam in the cubic sun’s glow. In the ongoing monsoon, the campus also sees rain showers, gentle breeze and swaying trees.
The motley group behind this has a daily meeting on a call which is followed by five to six hours of building each day. Building a campus requires a lot of details, especially when it comes to the interiors. The students had to extensively study Google Maps and all the photographs of the campus they could get hold of. The process included studying the maps, making calculations to build a virtual model and building a 1:1 scale replica. This scaling turned out to be their biggest challenge, making them rebuild complete structures at times if they got their dimensions wrong.
However, the group has taken a few liberties with their model too. They’ve started working on building an extended campus, something the actual university would be getting in the upcoming years and can take notes from. They changed their rectangular greenhouse to build a more attractive dome. Additionally, they also built an entire stadium with a flying phoenix that obviously doesn’t exist in real life, because why not? “I’ve always wanted my university to have a stadium,” adds Khanna. “So I built that here. It had to be all made after elaborate assessments, including the phoenix, which honestly, was hard.”
Not expecting the project to grow so big though, they say all the challenges have been worth the amazing response they’ve received from the student body. “We hope this inspires students from other universities in India as well to build something similar.”
The Minecraft interface allows all the members in a server to interact. Students can also relive their college experience a bit by socialising on a virtual campus through the game’s chatting function. This digital campus can be used to serve an educational purpose, to hold events, and even to go crazy at a Minecraft music festival.
This entire project is a students’ initiative, with the university officially having nothing to do with it. Regardless, once the server opens for the students, they plan to host events. “Minecraft has unlimited opportunities, honestly,” adds Tibarewal. “We have had one event so far. At Ashoka, we would ideally celebrate senior week for the outgoing students. One of the events is a tree planting drive on the campus grounds.” But this year, with no access to the campus in the face of a deadly pandemic, they decided to make do with planting tiny green cubes on a screen.
While their server can host unlimited students, it does start to lag if it is too occupied. It can host about 500 students at a particular time while functioning properly. If you are wondering how you can also enjoy this Minecraft campus once it opens up tomorrow, well, you can’t. The server is only open to the university students and alumni. If you are a student or alumni though, go wild.
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