With life on the U.C. Berkeley Campus shutdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a group of current and former Cal students have taken to crafting a virtual version of the campus in the video game Minecraft.
The virtual Cal campus, which the group titled Blockeley, is filled with fussily-detailed campus buildings such as the Campanile, Memorial Stadium and the Sather Gate. Former student computer engineering student Bjorn Lustic, who started the project, said the idea was to allow students to return to a virtual version of the campus since the real one was abruptly shutdown.
“I think it really takes a toll on someone,” Lustic said, “when they’re stripped away from their friends, their community.”
Lustic said players of the sandbox-style game, which allows users to modify gameplay and add structures, will find familiar buildings and paths of the real campus to stir a sense of nostalgia. But he said the goal was to take it a step further by adding small details, like the falcons that live in the top of the Campanile clock tower, to spark a familiar connection to the virtual campus..
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“Transferring a psychical space into a virtual space is hard if you don’t have an emotional connection with it,” Lustic said. “So we want to make sure that there’s emotional value to this and not just a bunch of blocks. “
Lustic’s own emotional connection to the campus was the addition of rowing machines in a corner of Memorial Stadium where he spent a lot of time exercising as a member of the school’s rowing team.
“Really reminds me of a lot of good times that I’ve had on campus,” he said.
Lustic said a member of the Cal Marching Band helped tweak the stadium’s tunnels improve their accuracy. He said the loose team of developers also added an a cappella choir next to Sather Gate to replicate the actual choir that often sang there. He pointed to a meadow in the game that was a popular gathering spot.
“This is where students come to hang out after class,” he said, “or in the afternoon when weather’s nice.”
Unlike the real campus which is devoid of most activity these days, the virtual version allows people to hang out together, chat, and even take walks together around the computer generated campus.
Lustic’s initial idea for the project was to create a stadium where graduating students could hold a virtual commencement ceremony since their actual graduation was cancelled. He said once he reached out to other developers, the idea snowballed until an entire campus was under works. But Lustic said the ultimate goal remains to have the project done by mid-May in order to host the virtual commencement slated for May 16th. He even hopes to have virtual diplomas available to hand out.
“Someplace where people can get a kind of closure,” Lustic said, “because a lot of seniors graduating won’t be able to finish their semester off properly and that really hurts a lot of them on the inside.”
Lustic said if there’s an irony to the shutdown, it’s that he now has plenty of time to help craft Blockeley. He said the details of its world are still getting filled in daily, giving students at least a slice of the real thing.
“We want people to understand there’s still a place for them to go,” Lustic said.