Brown students create virtual community through Minecraft campus project

A project launched by Brown Esports has convened more than 60 undergraduates, graduate students and alumni together to create from afar a virtual replica of Brown’s campus.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the Fall 2018 semester, members of Brown Esports — or BEST, a student organization dedicated to online gaming — began the painstaking process of creating, brick-by-brick, a digital version of Brown’s College Hill campus in Minecraft, the ever-popular virtual world sandbox game.

Fast-forward a year and a half into that effort: the coronavirus pandemic began its spread across the U.S. this March and forced hundreds of colleges and universities, including Brown, to shutter their classrooms and most residence halls for the rest of spring. And the BEST project found itself with a new level of urgency.

“When coronavirus hit and we all were sent home, I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be really, really awesome to have this project done right now, so that we can have everybody be able to visit campus away from home?’” said Isaac Kim, a first-year BEST member studying cognitive science.

The project is creating in Minecraft a 1-to-1 scale, three-dimensional model of Brown’s many buildings and greenspaces that can be inhabited and explored — essentially, “lived in” — by community members through the online game’s virtual avatars, Kim said.

On March 22, BEST opened its Minecraft campus to members of the Brown community. Through a partnership with Geopipe — a company, co-founded by Brown alumnus Thomas Dickerson, that uses machine learning algorithms and aerial imagery to create 3D models of cities — BEST was able to access an accurate Minecraft map of the entire exterior of Brown’s campus.

Next, the group invited students, alumni, faculty and staff to sign up to help them add details to the exteriors of each campus building — and to create the interiors of each from scratch. To date, 67 undergraduates, graduate students and alumni have answered the call and are building away.

Having this broad community involvement has helped BEST complete the campus interiors quickly.

“Over spring break, some students spent over 25 hours on our server, just helping us build,” Kim said.

Each guest builder brings to the project their own unique knowledge of specific buildings on campus, said Griffin Beels, co-president of BEST.

“I lived in Emwool [Emory-Wooley Hall], so I know what Emwool looks like, but I’ve never lived in Chapin,” the junior computer science concentrator said. “We needed people from every dorm — people who all spend a lot of time at different campus buildings — to make this virtual campus work.”

For Dickerson — who is a 2019 graduate of Brown’s doctoral program in computer science — rendering the Center for Information Technology (CIT) building in BEST’s Minecraft campus was an opportunity to help others experience a space to which he felt an emotional connection.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in that building,” Dickerson said. “It was really important to me that other people be able to see it as accurately as possible.”

Being able to collaborate remotely on the project with fellow students and alumni has also encouraged a sense of community while most students are away from campus, Beels said.

“We’re in a time when you can’t interact with fellow students in person — but by being able to work on this with the rest of the community, you get to be part of something that brings people together after all,” he said.

The best part? The virtual version of Brown’s campus is available for anyone with Minecraft access to visit, tour or even "live in" — regardless of where they might be geographically during the pandemic.