Spring commencement is one of happiest events at the University of California, Berkeley. But this year, along came COVID-19 and campus buildings emptied, lights went off, doors locked and students, staff and faculty disappeared.
Leave it to the students of UC Berkeley to find a way to hold graduation ceremonies in the era of coronavirus and social distancing.
At 2 p.m. today Pacific/5 Eastern (May 16), Cal graduates can attend a virtual, mock commencement ceremony in Memorial Stadium— complete with “Pomp and Circumstance,” the chancellor, the conferring of degrees, singing of “Hail to California” and flying mortarboards.
It will happen within Blockeley University, an amazing recreation of the campus built by Cal students and alumni using Minecraft, a video game many of them first played as tweens.
A two-day Blockeley Music Festival will follow, starting at 4 p.m. on Saturday, with 40 artists performing on a Blockeley University stage. Donations to the event will go to Off Their Plate, a COVID-19-related grassroots effort that’s reviving restaurant jobs while providing meals to health care workers.
This one-of-a-kind, maybe never to occur again, event is made possible courtesy of 100 of their fellow students and alumni — most of them are STEM majors. The technology behind the effort is way beyond me, a Baby Boomer, but to the students who grew up playing the game, it was like breathing air.
They recreated the entire campus and most of its landscaping online including familiar landmarks like the stadium, Sather Gate and the Campanile. Speakers will attend with their own avatars and those who want to take part in the ceremonies can also create their own avatars.
All the festivities will be livestreamed on Twitch and YouTube. Those with Minecraft accounts can join in-game from anywhere in the world by clicking here. They’ll be able to move about, even fly, through campus, where more than 100 buildings have been painstakingly reinvented, as have tiny details, from the Campanile’s falcon chicks to Kiwibots to boba shops to campus banners for the current “150 Years of Women at Berkeley” observance.
“Our priority, for the graduating class this year, was to provide a sense of closure, especially now that we’re in such a weird time that brought an abrupt end to senior year,” said Bjorn Lustic, who came up with the idea of Blockeley University after seeing a Facebook post suggesting a virtual graduation in Memorial Stadium built on a Minecraft platform.
At the simulated event, UC Chancellor Carol Christ and Vice Chancellor for Administration Marc Fisher will appear in-game to give speeches, along with speakers Lustic and fellow builder Nga Nguyen; Lydia Winters, head of brand vision and strategy for the global Minecraft franchise; Justin Kan, co-founder of live video platforms Justin.tv and Twitch; and Min-Liang-Tan, co-founder of gaming hardware company Razer Inc.
Fisher admits he didn’t know a thing about Minecraft until he heard they pulled data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to generate the terrain with pinpoint accuracy.
The two-month effort was joined in by freshman Nga Nguyen, one of the few women to help build the virtual campus. A Minecraft player since she was 12, she said, “It’s 100% still a thing with my peers, …It’s a great way to spend time with friends, while simultaneously relieving the stress of impending adulthood.”
Nguyen, a chemical biology major from Southern California, said she’s built or helped construct Dwinelle, Sproul, Bowles, Lewis and Mulford halls, the stadium, International House, Maxwell Family Field, the law and business schools, Foothill residence hall, the Genetic and Plant Biology building and Doe Library.
She’ll also be a guest speaker at the virtual ceremony, proud to be one of the few women builders of Blockeley University and to have accomplished this at Berkeley as it celebrates the outstanding women in its 150-year history.
Elliot Choi, a senior majoring in economics and data science who oversees many of Blockeley University’s different project teams, was introduced to Minecraft about 10 years ago by a cousin. At the time, an account cost about $12, compared to around $27 today.
“My dad is a software engineer; he helped my friends and me set up our own Minecraft server, which regularly had 60 to 70 players, which was pretty high for back then,” said Choi, who is from West Hills, California. “I also was able to set up a donation system to keep upgrading the server. I made about $1,200 in my second year of running it.”
In high school, he said, “I don’t think it was as much of a craze as it is right now, and most people weren’t very open about playing it.”
When he saw a Facebook post about a Minecraft commencement at Berkeley, “I thought it was a joke and forgot about it for a week,” he said. Choi coined the word “Blockeley” in mid-March and helped transfer the burgeoning files from Lustic’s server to a more stable web hosting service.
President of Golden Records, an electronic music industry club at Berkeley, Choi also thought up this weekend’s Minecraft music festival. He reached out to alumnus Johan Yang, of Beauz, a DJ/music producer duo, “and from there it really took off. We started getting interest from A-list artists around the world, and currently, we’ve reached a point where we’ve had to make a waitlist.”
“We’ve gone through protests, we’ve gone through power outages, we’ve gone through fires, but I think this whole project itself shows our resilience and our ability to carry on,” Choi told ABC News.
Commencement begins at 2 p.m. followed by the music festival at 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday and continues Sunday, May 17 @ 11 a.m. – Midnight (PST)
Join the ceremonies and the music festival.
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