Inside a Global Graduation Ceremony, Held Entirely in ‘Minecraft’
If each of the graduating members of the Class of 2020 took 30 seconds to cross the stage at commencement, the Quaranteen University graduation planning team calculated, the commencement ceremony would take five hours. More than 500 seniors were registered to walk in the experimental ceremony, scheduled for May 22nd, one of the first of its kind. Quaranteen University had RSVPs from around the world: Cairo, Egypt; Auckland, New Zealand; Oxford, England; New Delhi, India; Ontario, Canada; Ithaca, New York; even Ohio, where I was graduating from Oberlin College.
The seniors were going to be given diplomas from a smattering of degree types and majors, from nursing and dentistry accreditations to aero-mechanical engineering degrees. Because so many students had their in-person commencements either delayed or canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Quaranteen University decided to get creative. Despite being a student-run initiative, Quaranteen University advertised a more detailed commencement plan and a clearer schedule than my college did for its 40-minute pre-recorded commencement. As soon as I saw Quaranteen University’s posting on a Facebook meme page this March, I signed up to walk across the stage inside of Minecraft. I was the 322nd graduate in line.
Minecraft is currently the world’s best-selling game of all time: This month, developers announced it had sold 200 million copies since its 2009 release, and tens of millions of players still jump into Minecraft games every month. A kind of virtual Lego-like game that allows players to work alone or collaborate with friends, Minecraft lets players build massive virtual worlds out of the game’s hundreds of different blocks by having their player avatar place one block on top of another, an arduous task for a complicated building. Inspired by the viral story of a Japanese elementary school graduation in Minecraft, Boston University seniors Rudy Raveendran and Warren Partridge decided to host a graduation ceremony in-game for the Class of 2020. As many graduates have been playing Minecraft since they were 11, the game has become a defining experience of teenagehood and college years. Now, they would be using Minecraft to journey into adulthood, a phase that Minecraft’s features of community-building and house-designing has well prepared them for.
But even in virtual spaces, event planning is a difficult task. A week before the ceremony, problems loomed over Quaranteen University. Organizers, working from rooms spread across the United States, hadn’t found a speaker to give a commencement address. Lead modification developer Taylor Berg was still finishing writing and testing the modification code needed to adapt Minecraft into a graduation simulator. The server hosting the Quaranteen University world had never had more than 30 people join at once, and the team had no plans to stress-test capacity before the actual ceremony. At times, the builders were getting lost in the details: They had only recently decided on what kind of chair to place in the seating section. (High-backed? White? Teal?)
For Rudy Raveendran, planning this Minecraft ceremony had become his life. “Everyday is whatever needs to be done,” he tells me during the final week of lead-up to graduation, when he was racing to finish building the server’s village and correctly sort spreadsheets of graduates. He hadn’t been outside in days. “It’s not very sustainable,” he says. Partridge was busy spending hours learning how to pronounce each of the names of the 515 registered students and recording himself welcoming each of them to stage for their in-game diplomas. Berg had spent about 30 hours coding and organizing the ceremony. “I definitely have much more respect for people who do this for a living,” Raveendran says.
For two months, volunteer builders had sculpted the island that the ceremony would be hosted inside. Using modifications to copy and paste rows of blocks, builders had flown around the island individually placing down walls and columns. Now, it looked like a mix of Hogwarts and Harvard, though it also contained a White Castle, a photo booth, and two bartenders who offered graduates gin and tonics and sparkling or still water. As the final buildings were added in the weeks before the ceremony, organizers began their search for a commencement speaker: Should they reach out to Microsoft? Khan Academy, the online education website? Mojang, the developers of Minecraft? Organizers sent dozens of emails, but either didn’t hear back or couldn’t organize a speech within the timeframe. (Mojang chief storyteller Lydia Winters did speak at UC Berkley’s “Blockeley,” a Minecraft commencement/EDM concert for its students. “It would’ve been cool if Mojang was as supportive of an event that caters to everyone as they were to an event that is just for a single school,” Raveendran says. “I think that boils down to UC Berkeley having better connections than we do.”) In the end, Partridge volunteered to give Quaranteen University’s speech himself. “When the time came to give the speech, it felt natural, like I was addressing students in a community that I was a part of,” he says.
Without institutional support from a college or much of a budget, Quaranteen University had to find creative ways to plan the best commencement. Although Jithvan Ariyaratne, the server manager for Quaranteen University, thought it was too difficult to stress-test the server, he wasn’t worried that it would crash and burn or be delayed. By studying what technical problems went wrong in events like Block by Blockwest — the recent Minecraft music festival whose server capacity was overwhelmed by players joining — Ariyaratne and Berg were able to adjust their ceremony to hopefully run smoothly. For two final touches, Ariyaratne redrew Minecraft’s usual armor to look like velvety graduation robes, while Berg coded a modification that allowed graduates without a Minecraft account to still walk across the stage using a bot. It was down to the wire; they were debugging errors until 10 minutes before the event was set to start.
At 5 a.m. EST, the Quaranteen University commencement began. As the 30 international graduates threw their in-game caps into the air, Raveendran finally exhaled. “We’ve been planning this for two months, and it went off without a hitch,” he tells me as the final few graduates walked. They only had to graduate 485 more students in a massive second phase, mostly focused on American colleges.
At 2 p.m., the second phase started and was quickly delayed, with “Pomp and Circumstance” looping in the background. Behind the scenes, the organizers hustled to export Partridge’s commencement speech about his relatable struggles as a fellow senior and coronavirus victim as the right file type: “.mov?! No! .mp4!” Unlike a real-life commencement, in Quaranteen University graduates and audience members could pop onto the server for 10 minutes, see a few people graduate, and head out — few were expected to stay for the hours of graduations, and this decreased attendance would lower the chance of the server being overwhelmed. Still, the server froze several times after only a handful of students crossed the stage, but organizers worked quickly to sort it out.
What struck me the most was not the technical trials and tribulations, but the goodhearted nature of everyone on the server. No one rushed or scolded the organizers for the technical problems. Instead, they spent the time congratulating each other and cracking jokes about senior quotes. Others tossed streams of caps into the air. Martha Kerbel, an Ursinus College junior and friend who I hadn’t seen since my Mongolian study-abroad program, gave me a bouquet of red flowers and danced with me. If this was the most my graduation could be under the circumstances, it was enough.
After 260 more graduates, it was time for four Oberlin College students to walk, one-by-one. When it was my turn, I typed, “/robes red,” to don my garb. I right-clicked to chug a gin and tonic before jumping around on the stage.
The diploma I received — which was a modified map displaying my name and majors — was beautifully filigreed and matched the Zoom-blue color scheme of Quaranteen University. Even days after my official commencement, my Minecraft diploma is the only diploma I’ve received. The ingenuity of this diploma made it feel even better than my college’s official diploma, and the symbolism of it being a modified Minecraft map meant a lot.
I feel incredibly lost as I enter adulthood during a pandemic, mass unemployment, and climate crisis, but Quaranteen University showed me that the Class of 2020 is fantastic at navigating big challenges together. If dozens of volunteers can come together to build an island and reprogram Minecraft for closure and fun, I am confident we will do even more for one another in “the real world” — whatever that means. To me, our new map-diplomas are saying: “Here, let’s use this to navigate. We won’t let each other get lost in the great unknown ahead.” We will sail.
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