This article is part of the guide Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.
Andrew Guo, an undergraduate major in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, made headlines earlier this month for his effort in building a virtual replica of his university in Minecraft, the popular sandbox video game.
At a time when students are sheltering in place, Andrew’s recreation of the Penn campus in a virtual world offers thoughts for how students may be able to stay connected with each other online. It also provides a path for thinking differently about educational spaces as well as how a school’s annual events could be transformed into virtual community experiences.
Last week, I reached out to Guo to learn more about his effort to date, and where he is hoping his project will go. He shared his comments from his home in Chicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew, it was great to learn about your work in the recent Business Insider article. I imagine you’ve probably had a lot of interest in your efforts since the article was published.
Guo: Yes. It actually kind of blew up after that article came out. A number of news agencies have contacted me. It’s been pretty exciting.
In the article, you mentioned maybe 300 people have been visiting your server. Have your numbers increased since then?
We have about 470 people right now. Many of these people were already signed up on our Discord server, which is kind of an upgraded version of Skype. We use it as our security system. We don’t want to give out the IP address of our server to everyone. We’re trying to make sure people are not coming to destroy our work.
That makes sense. So if someone wants to visit your world they need to connect with you through Discord in order to receive some sort of key or credentials to get in?
Did you custom create a way to check for a student ID or some kind of student code?
Yeah. Someone on our team built a tool on our Discord server we call the PennBot. People have to verify themselves through it; name, ID, email address. It’s the first step to receiving credentials to get in.
Are you noticing that the in-world experience is getting busy?
It has spikes. During weekdays most people are busy with online classes, doing their homework. We usually see the most traffic in the late afternoons, Fridays through Sundays.
In the beginning, it was just you who started building out Penn in Minecraft, and then later another eight people joined in. What percentage of the Penn campus do you think you have recreated in Minecraft so far?
We’re probably at about 70 percent. We started building in March. In a couple of days, it will be our one-month anniversary for the whole project.
Was everything custom created, or did you acquire assets through other means to help accelerate the building?
In a sense, it’s custom created. For context, Brown University is doing something similar. They’re using a tool to directly download satellite images of the buildings and import it instantly into Minecraft. While that method does speed things up, I think it’s more meaningful to build by hand. Also, if you use fast-building tools sometimes the software makes mistakes so most of the process of building is actually cleaning up the software’s mistakes. So we chose to build by hand.
We use a mod, a plugin, called WorldEdit. Anyone interested in building something from real life should consider WorldEdit. It’s a tool that minimizes repetitive tasks. Let’s say you want to build a cube that’s 40 by 40 by 40 meters. First, you build the base, then you can just copy and paste that lower layer on top of one another. This process saves a lot of time.
I’m unfamiliar with how you can use a satellite image in Minecraft. Isn’t that only giving you the base layout?
Google Earth helps provide a cross-reference for the height information.
Tell me about your server setup. How did you start thinking about the server and how did the needs of hosting evolve as you began to release your build to friends on campus?
In the beginning, it was just me. I started our Discord server and invited some friends to check it out. I was asking around on Penn’s subreddit if anyone owned a server I could use so I wouldn’t have to buy a server host myself. A decent PC can handle around 20 people playing at the same time, and in the early stages of a building, we never had that many people playing. But when we started thinking about holding events we realized we would need more processing power to handle more users. So we started looking for different external hosts, something that was cheap, highly rated, and had good customer support.
Fortunately, someone within the Penn administration offered to host us. That helped us a lot. We’re now in the process of transitioning to Penn’s servers.
I imagine in the early days it was just you moderating. Has moderation become more challenging as more people started playing?
In the beginning, all of us were moderators. That’s when moderators outnumbered non-moderators. It was pretty simple to manage. But as time progressed we didn’t have enough coverage to be online all the time. We couldn’t keep up. So we implemented a whitelist system where only people who registered could come on. When moderators aren’t available we turn the whitelist on.
In the case where one of those “trusted people” causes damage, we rely on a mod called CoreProtect. It allows you to roll back time and removes damage. CoreProtect is the most important mods we use. We also use CoreProtect to grant non-moderators the ability to build within certain geofenced areas. So if those users choose to destroy things, their damage is contained in a smaller region.
More recently we decided that if you’re not whitelisted and you don’t have any permissions, you can visit the server in spectator mode. You cannot interact with anything, but you can view. Basically, read-only.
So it sounds like you don’t need moderators around the clock.
No, we don’t, as long as we check in every once in a while. If you don’t check in frequently you may have to roll back, say, two days’ worth of damage and that would be very hard to do as you would lose all the building you want to keep that occurred during that time.
What are you doing in terms of the in-world time clock? Is it frozen at a particular time or are you letting time run?
If you were to offer multiple virtual events in a day, would you switch how you treat time?
Oh, for sure. You can lock it at any given time you want. So if you’re holding an evening event we can make it nighttime. We’re currently not offering a calendar of events, where multiple events are offered at different times throughout the day, but it’s a good idea.
The reason I haven’t made a calendar yet is that the campus is not fully built, and all of us have an idea of what we want to accomplish before the end of the school year. There’s the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track competition held in the US that was originally scheduled around April 24, but we don’t know what the actual time will be because of the virus. Then there’s the upcoming Hey Day event on April 30 where juniors line up on Locust Walk, the main walkway through campus, and everyone wears red. There’s also graduation and commencement scheduled sometime in mid to late May. We’re working really hard towards all of these events.
What would graduation look like?
It would be on Franklin Field. I’m actually in the process of writing Penn’s anthem, the music. You can also write music in Minecraft. There are certain blocks you can use to play notes. We’re planning for music to play along during the ceremony. There’s still a lot to figure out. I’m planning to reach out to the president of the school to see if she would participate.
You could even start asking around for who would deliver the graduation address. You might be able to get anybody you wanted since it’s a virtual event.
Yeah, for sure. I’m thinking about all kinds of things to do for graduation, but since it’s a little further out I’m more focused on the upcoming events.
Tell me about the multiple servers you have set up.
Currently, we have three different servers. The experience offered on each server is different. The creative server is where we’re building the Penn campus. It’s basically set up for create mode. You can’t die in the game. You can also fly around.
Then there’s the survival mode server, which is standard gameplay most people are familiar with in Minecraft. We also have a “modded” server where we run a mod pack called Feed the Beast. It’s a collection of dozens of different mods all combined into one. It’s a very technical mod where you can build all kinds of crazy stuff. You can even build a functioning nuclear power plant that generates radiation if you’re not careful. It can also explode if you don’t give it enough coolant. It’s very advanced and a bit intimidating for people who don’t know a lot about Minecraft. It’s neat but has a steep learning curve.
Do you have any thoughts for additional servers beyond that?
We have plans for a fourth server. It’s going to include additional campuses beyond Penn. The plan is for it to be a factions server, almost like in Game of Thrones where each school would be their own kingdom on different parts of the same map. There will be a bartering system. You can form alliances. You could even declare war on the other kingdoms.
We’re not sure when we will launch this fourth server. We’re still in the process of reaching out to other schools. We have been in close contact with Columbia. Brown has reached out to us. Stanford and M.I.T. are interested in this as well.
If you had to start over again from the very beginning what would you do differently?
Well, definitely getting a better security system in place would have saved us some trouble. There are people out there that like to destroy things. Getting a better way to vet those people out would have been ideal. Fortunately, we’ve only had one big attack on our creative server. Most of the attacks have been on the survival server, which is easier to deal with because they have less destructive tools in standard gameplay.
A second thing I would have done is to get the ground elevation correct. Penn’s campus has a slight hill. Over the course of a couple of thousand meters, it becomes obvious. We started building everything on a flat surface and didn’t think much about the topography.
Are there things about your project that other outlets haven’t asked you about yet? Do you say to yourself “Why doesn’t anybody ever ask me about this?”
The practical utility is one thing I don’t get asked about, beyond just hosting a graduation ceremony. Before going off to college I wasn’t able to visit the Penn campus until the day I moved in. It was expensive for our family to travel there.
I think giving this server to people interested in the school, letting future students who can’t visit the campus have an opportunity to take a virtual campus tour would be very useful. Hosting virtual tours is something I have planned.
Are you talking with Penn’s admissions office about coordinating such efforts?
Yes, actually the admissions office has already reached out to me. It’s something I would definitely enjoy doing. I’d also like to offer live tours of the campus as well and other events.
Andrew, that’s super insightful. Thank you so much for sharing.
It was my pleasure. I’ve been a fan of Minecraft for many years. It holds a special place in my heart. It’s something I’ve been playing since I was 11 when Minecraft was first released as an early alpha.
Separately, but related, I’m also a pianist and composer. I love creating things and in a certain sense building in Minecraft is an expression of the soul’s freedom, to wax poetic about it. I think giving people an outlet to vent and display their creative talents through the building is very important during these times.