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With Minecraft model of Brown’s campus, students cultivate community

Brown Esports creates Minecraft scale replica of University, increases accessibility for prospective students

By constructing a scaled Minecraft replica of the University, Brown Esports and Geopipe — an alum-founded virtual modeling company — have kickstarted a novel way to experience College Hill during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Minecraft server now live, and hopes to have complete online tours available by late April, the gaming club’s campus model seeks to remedy issues of community for current students and campus accessibility for prospective students, said Griffin Beels ’21, co-president of Brown Esports.

As higher education institutions across the nation have closed their campuses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have resorted to the internet to find and maintain community during a time of social distancing. On Facebook meme pages like “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” — which has amassed over 500,000 members since its inception — students have touted Minecraft models of peer institutions, like Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Penn, which have emerged as virtual modes of interaction.

But Beels emphasized that the motivations and aspirations behind Brown Esports’ project are distinct from other universities. “We want to use this project to better the current and future Brown community, and that is something no other university is touching on,” Beels said. 

The now-live Brown Esports Minecraft server not only offers a place for current Brown community members to interact while in isolation, but also a place for prospective students to get a feel for the physical campus. Tours hosted on the Minecraft server would be led using Discord, an application designed for communication via voice and text channels.

In the Minecraft-pixelated world, students can perch on the Blue Room steps or the Quiet Green just like they might any other April morning — only, this time, while chatting over a Discord voice channel rather than in person. “Current students could also hop on the server, show you around, show you their dorm, tell you stories outside of an official admissions tour,” Beels said. “You can have conversations with real people.”

Brown Esports is currently in communication with University administration, Beels said, but “regardless of official support, we want to provide a platform for prospective students to come and experience a little bit of what campus is like and talk to current students.”  

Brown Esports sees the potential of a Minecraft model as extending beyond the contemporary pandemic, as it offers solutions to campus accessibility problems for prospective students. “If you were to come to Brown from California, how much would that cost? You have to fly, maybe take a train, maybe take an Uber,” Beels explained. “But with Minecraft, it’s a $26 fee once, which in reality a lot of people have already probably paid for.” 

The Minecraft model has the potential to create an enduring difference in the accessibility of campus visits for prospective University students — according to Business Insider, Minecraft had 112 million monthly players as of September 2019. 

“Now that prospective students have access to this server and access to Brown Esports’ Discord, they can interact with current students in a way that was never before possible,” Beels said. “There are a lot of things that you can do virtually that you cannot do in person.”

Isaac Kim ’23, a member of Brown Esports’ Minecraft subcommittee who effectively leads the project, expressed that the benefits of a virtual campus tour “extend beyond accessibility to flexibility.” While on the Minecraft server tour, prospective students can enter in and out of buildings freely — with the option of teleporting back to their tour guide if they get lost.

Although administration canceled tours and A Day on College Hill programming just weeks ago, Beels noted that Brown Esports had been considering constructing a Minecraft model of campus since late 2018. At the time, the group “realized it wasn't super feasible to get the entire campus done by hand, and we ran into a lot of issues with consistency and scale,” said Beels. 

But in the fall of 2019, when Geopipe Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer Thomas Dickerson PhD ’19 saw a Brown Esports post on Facebook about modeling the University’s campus in Minecraft, he reached out to see if his virtual modeling company could be of help. The collaboration was a “happy coincidence,” Dickerson said.

“We agreed that Geopipe would provide the exterior environment and the Brown Esports team would cover the next level of detail by modeling the interiors,” said Dickerson.

Dickerson, who received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University in 2019, described the typical process of modeling a project as three-staged: collecting data, modeling the data and reconstructing the data within a 3D model. For the Brown Esports project, because Geopipe had never before modeled Providence and had not worked in Minecraft models since the company’s early days, the “software engineering time and data acquisition time were much longer than the computational programming time of campus,” Dickerson explained.

The Brown Esports project remains an ongoing process “because the projected image of buildings Geopipe uses is so downscaled in the satellite rendering, you lose a lot of detail,” Kim said. “What we have been doing for every single building is revamping the exterior so that it matches up more closely with real life, and building out the interior of every single building as well.” 

Kim and Beels both expressed that any student able to pitch in would be instrumental in the project’s success, and that anyone who is involved will have their name “forever etched into the area they create.” Currently, Brown Esports has a signup form where students can indicate the zones of campus they are interested in modeling.

“We can bring the community together by building,” Beels said. “People want to be a part of something awesome, and we are providing that awesome thing during this difficult time where we cannot be together physically.”



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