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Building a Virtual World When the Real World Shuts Down

  • March 2020

University of Rochester students create their campus in Minecraft

Five days ago at breakfast, my son was typing on his laptop as we talked about the latest notification: university commencement was canceled. Though he’s a college junior, many of his friends are seniors. It began to sink in that not only would his friends not get to participate in their traditional milestone celebration, Alexander wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to them. This news was cataloging in his mind alongside other big and small shifts: family members serving as first responders, friends isolated in COVID-19 epicenters, fellow students trying to make it home safely from study abroad, figuring out how a lab and internship will work as online classes, wondering how long it will take for his plants to die in his apartment five states away.

He’d been home in self-quarantine with me for about 10 days, and the days were starting to run together. He was doing what was asked—distancing from others physically. Yet he felt powerless.

So, as he ate his breakfast, he coded the card game of War in Python—for fun and distraction.

As a mom, I was happy to have him home and not among other young adults his age who were making different choices. But I, too, was feeling powerless and disoriented.

I knew what was really on his mind—he missed his friends, felt anxious about the rapidly changing environment and uncertain future, and grieved a growing list of losses in his world. He turns 21 in a few weeks. I’m sure a party at home with Mom during a peacetime emergency Stay-at-Home Order is not what he had in mind to mark the day. It’s hard to know where to put those feelings when real people we love are facing a real health crisis. Where do day-to-day feelings belong in the midst of a global pandemic?

How do you prioritize one grief over another when they flow together like a river?

Knowing the enormity was too big to digest, I came back to his coding project. I asked him if he could think of any way his talents might help others with similar feelings.

That evening he connected with his friend Kyhl, a fellow university student and online gaming buddy. They started building—to scale in Minecraft—the University of Rochester library and academic quad, where commencement would have taken place.

The next day Alexander posted a screenshot of their progress in the Facebook group Overheard at Rochester. Within minutes, other students posted screenshots and sent messages with their renditions of Rush Rhees Library, academic buildings, and dorms they had been building in their own Minecraft worlds.

These students, overwhelmed by world events and missing their university community, had also turned to replicating their campus home in a Java-based sandbox video game.

Soon, librarians and archivists began sending blueprints of buildings to add to the Google Earth images the students were using for reference. Deans asked if they could host virtual department graduation ceremonies in the student-built virtual world.

Evolving as quickly as the crisis surrounding them in the real world, the Virtual UR team set to work.

Alexander and Kyhl added fellow students Serena and Sean to their core team of world developers. Together, they are finding ways to honor each person’s creativity as they combine their individual worlds into one virtual campus to share with the entire student body.

More students are joining the effort every day, offering skills and time to work on a website, meet with the university commencement team, create videos and social media skins, and spread the word.

I don’t know where this virtual world—or the real world—will land in the coming weeks or months. But I do know that it’s good to share how we feel and the steps we are taking to cope. When we do, we just might find a whole community feeling the same way, ready to work together to make it Meliora, ever better.

These students will be posting updates over the coming weeks on and on social media as @VirtualUofR (FB, TW, IG).

In-progress Virtual UR in Minecraft

Virtual UR in progress, five days into the project.


    • Ashley Smith
    • March 2020

    This is fantastic! Your classmate, Carolyn Stone, shared this story with me. What an amazing group of students and how wonderful that they have found this outlet and connection during a time of such upheaval. Thank you for writing about this and for being both an amazing alumna and supportive parent. We sincerely appreciate all you are doing! Please stay safe and healthy.

    • Ashley, Thanks so much for your kind and encouraging words! It’s really cool to see these students work together on this. The project evolves by the hour as more students and alumni get involved. Be well!

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Karen’s life experience is intertwined with her roles as a wife, mom, stepmom, writer, publisher, photographer, traveler, and woman of faith. All these elements tend to make their way into her blog posts.

“Writers have to write. It’s something deep inside us that pushes and pushes until we let it out. It’s part of the air we breathe, this need to make sense of the world around us and to somehow find the right words to express and influence the way we each feel and interact and love and live.”—Writing is Risky Business