Building remotely: Minecraft makes comeback at college

Students are reaching back into their pasts to reconnect through this popular game while constructing their campuses during the coronavirus pandemic.
By: | April 10, 2020
Photo courtesy of Mark Eckelaert/University of Minnesota

What do you think of when you hear the word Minecraft? Building blocks. STEAM learning. Problem solving. Positive social-emotional outcomes. Fun for young kids.

All true, but oddly, one of latest descriptions of Minecrafters might be this: they seem to be getting a lot older.

Dispelling the notion that Minecraft is now only a game for young children, college-age students have been reaching back to their roots and showing off their skills by crafting elaborate versions of their campuses, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

From community colleges to Harvard, these crafty Gen Z gamers have taken on massive architectural projects and built life-like renderings of buildings, gymnasiums, stadiums and libraries online, spending their spare time laying blocks remotely (check out the work of Mark Eckelaert at the University of Minnesota above, who sent us this campus news update!). It’s not new. College students were building virtual schools back in 2012. But it is trending up again, and now going far beyond child’s play.

“It’s a good way to bring different college backgrounds and majors together into one game, which is made for all,” says Chris Kumke, a student and co-founder of the esports program at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. “This is a time where we can build up from COVID as a group and find a way to work together. Minecraft can bring the creative feel and the competitive feel all in one, making it the perfect game.”

Student leaders like Kumke aren’t just flying solo in developing these works of art but gathering en masse virtually. Their schools and esports programs are also capitalizing on their creativity by holding online events on various platforms such as Discord.

Shenandoah University logo build courtesy of Chris Kumke

Shenandoah, in fact, is hosting one of the biggest collegiate Minecraft experiments starting Monday and running through May 1. It will compete against several other neighboring schools – George Mason, Virginia Tech, Randolph College, Radford University and Patrick Henry Community College – in a friendly competition of “best campus build.” A committee will be voting on the progress each week.

“These types of events can really bring people together from all types of backgrounds,” says Dr. Joey Gawrysiak, Esports Director and Professor and Director of Sport Management at Shenandoah. “It helps develop a community of people that want to come together and work on something bigger than any one person. It helps bridge that gap of isolation during challenging times like we are in.”

Adds Kumke: “The competition we are running is letting everyone work as a team to finish an end project, which to me is super important. Creativity is the biggest factor, where you can do whatever you want, with a little bit of competition.”

Eckelaert says his project has been ongoing since August.

“There’s still so much to add (we’re slowly expanding away from campus to build the student neighborhoods), but it really amazes me to see how far it has grown since then,” he says. “The server started out as a fun summer project, but I think the pandemic has really turned it into something more than that, because everyone has something to add to it.

“It’s fun to log on and see what’s been added– I just saw that someone recreated one of our local bars, all the way down to the popcorn machine in the corner. Little things like that make it really exciting to explore, and create a sense of community.”

Armand Buzzelli, Director of Recreation at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, says embracing a Minecraft build is good way for educators and the campus community to stay connected.

“By virtually and metaphorically rebuilding your campus, you are offering your campus community hope, while giving your students a fun project that they can be proud of,” he says, “This is a fun, therapeutic way to visit the buildings and campus landmarks that you miss already.”

Although Minecraft has done well with the youngest generation of learners, especially in recent years with its Education Edition, it didn’t start regaining a foothold among the college crowd until 2019, when a cadre of campus builders unearthed it, seeing big value in recreating the worlds that surround them. Last year, Minecraft crushed Fortnite in popularity on YouTube by nearly 40 billion views.

Gawrysiak says there are a number of reasons for the game’s appeal among teens and young adults.

“All types of gamers have probably had some experience at some point in Minecraft, so it reaches everyone no matter what genre of gaming they are interested in,” he says. “It is one of the most accessible games out there. It does not require fast reaction time or coordination. You are only limited by your imagination. It is a casual game that can be taken seriously, but not a necessity.”

Curiously, K-12 students actually have been creating their own schools for years. Minecraft forums and YouTube are loaded with detailed creations and videos of those builds. Bay Shore High School on Long Island just recently posted this picture on Twitter of a build its students completed. It still remains hugely popular as an educational tool that has many positive outcomes.

Steve Isaacs, who teaches Video Game Design and Development and Digital Storytelling at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, N.J., is one of the nation’s leaders in utilizing Minecraft in both primary and secondary schools. He is also a producer for Minefaire, a fan experience that brings together educators, presenters, YouTubers, vendors and attractions to large-scale events across the country.

He says the game’s ability to provide a creative, open-ended learning environment for all users, no matter their age, is immeasurable.

“Minecraft is amazing in the education space as it has a low floor (accessible for all) and a high ceiling (the potential is exponential),” Isaacs says. “It is an incredible platform for designing, building, and automating and it’s designed for collaboration by groups of any size.”

Even when that collaboration is happening is remotely.

 

 


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