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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Will the Class of 2020 Please Line Up on the 'Minecraft' Stage?

The lectern stands before a vast, grassy amphitheater. Above, the sky is a pristine blue, the cloudless quintessence of a spring morning. Perhaps the most arresting feature in this panorama is the stage: a towering neoclassical structure with Doric columns that soar heavenward. Suspended from the columns are banners emblazoned with the letters QU, for Quaranteen University. The name is a wink from the world-builders—college and high school students, homebound for weeks now—about the surreal circumstances of their situation. Here, more than 1,000 graduates of the class of 2020, from over 400 schools, will receive their diplomas during a ceremony hosted on the gaming platform Minecraft.

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down IRL schooling across the United States, and with it the possibility of traditional on-campus send-offs. For now, the pomp and circumstance has migrated, higgledy-piggledy, to videoconferencing platforms like Zoom. At my alma mater, which has historically marked its commencement with dances and processions, the class of 2020 will tune in to a Virtual Degree Conferral Ceremony. The university president will present a Symbolic Baccalaureate Degree Diploma. The graduates’ names will be listed on the website. Other schools have created social media campaigns to honor their graduates, while families organize at-home processions.

Warren Partridge, a senior at Boston University, was on spring break when he received the alert. He had been following the news about the coronavirus and knew, vaguely, that it was getting worse. Now the specter had come for his campus; dorms would close a week later. “I quickly came to terms with the fact that I might not graduate in person. It was disappointing,” he says. He lamented that a remote graduation wouldn’t feel “momentous.”

“I was upset. It was like, there goes senior spring,” says Rudy Raveendran, also a BU senior. He had been looking forward to spending one last semester with friends, including Partridge, and walking with them at graduation. So in mid-March, during the stultifying weeks of shelter in place, they hatched the idea: If the physical world couldn’t accommodate graduation, why not move it to a virtual one? Partridge suggested Minecraft “as a funny joke,” he says. Raveendran texted back immediately: “That would be legendary,” he wrote. “Let’s do it.”

The basic building blocks of Minecraft are, well, building blocks. The game can be played on a computer or other consoles. Its creative mode allows players, who are represented as stocky, pixelated avatars, to roam landscapes, manipulate terrains, and construct fantastical structures using an infinite number of multicolored blocks. College students have already used the game to re-create their own campuses in blocky detail. Partridge describes the game as “the Lego of our generation.”

Unlike a handful of Legos, though, Minecraft is a powerful online social platform. In multiplayer mode, players can invite friends to romp around their conjured-up virtual realms alongside them. Made by Swedish developer Mojang and bought by Microsoft in 2014, Minecraft now hosts 112 million monthly players.

Organizing a large-scale ceremony inside the game didn’t seem so far-fetched—in fact, Raveendran remembered reading about Japanese elementary school students who had organized their own Minecraft graduation. Raveendran and Partridge are both computer science majors; this could be their last, glorious project to cap off college. And besides, they were bored.

Rather than create a ceremony exclusive to Boston University, Raveendran and Partridge opened their event to all at-need students. Everyone would be united under the banner of Quaranteen University, a nod to their collective struggle. Partridge and Raveendran started posting their new website and sign-up forms to various colleges’ class of 2020 Facebook groups. On March 25, they posted on a popular page called Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens. Within hours, it received hundreds of likes and comments—some cynical, others intrigued. “I’ve done nothing but play Minecraft anyway. Might as well walk in it,” wrote one commenter. “We may be able to walk after all,” wrote another, tagging several friends.

As of their May 1 deadline, Quaranteen University had 1,388 signups from 439 schools. They include 2020 grads from UC Berkeley, Rice, the University of Florida, Princeton, and the American University in Cairo.

To “walk” in the Quaranteen University graduation, the graduates only need a Minecraft account, which is $27 for a computer account and cheaper for most other consoles. When they join the QU server, the graduates’ blocky avatars will enter the virtual campus. There, they will don caps and gowns, designed in-game by the QU team, and wait in the ceremony area alongside their classmates. When a student’s name is announced, their avatar will be teleported to the grand, Parthenon-like stage, where they will walk to receive their diploma.

The ceremony has no official school partners or corporate sponsors. Partridge, Raveendran, and eight other students have volunteered their time and Minecraftsmanship to the event, all while finishing final exams. (In the middle of planning, Partridge was invited to share the idea with a panel of university administrators—they thought the plan was “neat,” he says, but never followed up.) So far, the QU team has been able to run their operation on free trials and the lowest tier of freemium services. And unlike Facebook's and YouTube’s glitzy virtual graduations, which will boast appearances from the likes of Oprah and BTS, there won’t be big tech logos looming over the festivities.

So the students have free rein over designing QU’s virtual campus, which highlights Minecraft’s flair for the fantastical. A Gothic cathedral recalls Ivy League architecture, while a Hogwarts-like great hall is illuminated by floating candles. “In the game, you can do all this stuff that you couldn’t normally do, to help make up for the fact that you’re not walking in real life with your friends,” says Raveendran. “You can fly,” says Partridge.

The team is working on a custom plug-in to scrape students’ school colors from their RSVP forms, so that they can program the blue and white Quaranteen University banners to display a student’s own school colors as they cross the stage. They’ve set up an RTMP server to stream to Twitch from multiple camera perspectives, “like televised events,” Raveendran says.

With weeks until graduation, the QU team needs to anticipate the possible complications of a massive Minecraft event. One central issue is server capacity. “Minecraft multiplayer servers aren’t supposed to handle thousands of players,” says Umru Rothenberg, who helps run virtual music festivals with OpenPit. The volunteer-run virtual events company, started in 2018, has become known for its events that host up to 17,000 players in a single night. Pulling this off takes serious modding—by default, a personal multiplayer server can accommodate 10 players. If a server is overtaxed, players experience lags or get booted off entirely. Then there’s the omnipresent problem of trolls. The organizers designed safeguards around campus, like limits to where players can wander, but there’s only so much bad behavior they can anticipate.

But the QU team’s outlook is sanguine. The organizers emphasize that QU isn’t meant to replace the real-life ceremonies that will, in theory, resume at some point. Rather, it’s the kind of graduation that befits the strange present moment, an improvised bash that manages to muster a shared, wry humor around the graduates’ coming of age in a world roiled with crisis.

“It feels frustrating that something that’s so special to so many high schoolers—that celebration with our friends—is being taken away from us,” says Sofiya Lysenko, a senior from Abington, Pennsylvania, and the QU team’s only high schooler. Lysenko met Partridge and Raveendran at a hackathon when she was a sophomore competing alongside college students. She’s now helping to organize a separate high school ceremony. “It’s not the same, but at least I’m still able to connect with a community. I hope the Minecraft graduation gives a little more closure.”

Not one to miss an opportunity to skewer reality, Raveendran designed a university seal. At the center, two lions salient flank an open book, partly eclipsed by a biohazard symbol. Below are the words In Zoom We Trust, a reference to the tool that has supplanted their classes and friends. Encircling the sigil is the name Universitas Quaranteeniensis—the collective identity that, if it was unwillingly thrust upon them, has now become something of a rallying cry of the class of 2020.

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