On campus online: looking behind and beyond virtual university campuses

Universities are heading online. For now, at least.

This means that there is little opportunity to enjoy our striking campuses across London. Our ability to consume information in libraries and galleries is limited; social spaces at university have become virtually secluded: invite-only video meetings and chats. Some students, however, are recreating their campuses online. Why?

“I have friends in the Class of 2020 who I haven’t been able to see physically all year,” confided Adrian Mok, who completed a to-scale Minecraft map of the SOAS campus earlier this week. There’s a fond reminiscence for London behind the new world: “I miss it. I miss the JCR, and I miss everything about London.”

SOAS, along with many of its neighbours in Bloomsbury, is well known for being a creative and community-led institution. The school boasts a specialist library for the study of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Next door, the Senate House and Wiener Holocaust libraries host their own vast archives and collections. These aspects of the unique campus are easily missed, and Mok was keen to preserve some of Bloomsbury’s quirks in his build.

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On the concept, Mok explained, “I had a lot of fun creating mini exhibitions in the SOAS Brunei Gallery… The map also engages with the neighbourhood’s components at a more serious level. For instance, the map also includes a recreation of the Wiener Holocaust Library at 29 Russell Square.” To achieve a just depiction of the Wiener, Mok explained that “a proactive engagement with the space and the institution” was integral to the design process.

Describing the design before its release, he said: “On the ground floor, there are lecterns and books which you can read detailing the Wiener’s history and contemporary role in combatting antisemitism. At the Brunei Gallery, there is an exhibition dedicated to Decolonising SOAS which has a few quotes about professors relevant to that project.”

Mok’s recreation of the Brunei Gallery in particular celebrates SOAS’s regional and subject specialisms, including colonialism, gender, and sexuality. He aims to provide visitors with an essence of the SOAS ethos by introducing players to some of the authors and activists shaping discourses at the school. The build includes a feature on Ugandan LGBTQ+ activist Pepe Julian Onziema, who was subjected to the question “Why are you gay?” on local television (remembered in meme culture), and on the lesser-known Swedish East India Company.

SOAS Library (A Floor) reconstructed on Minecraft
SOAS Library recreated on Minecraft.

Beyond London, could Minecraft be used as a platform for education or activism?

“Absolutely,” Mok replied. He described the platform as a “tool to convey information and space.”

Our campus creator sees limits to Minecraft as a medium, though: “My project [signposts] to other resources which can and do deliver the information [with greater expertise and depth].”

But the vision to use Minecraft as a tool for conveying information is not for a far-fetched future. Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders, RSF), for example, realised this heightened potential last March when it released its “Uncensored Library”.

A fist statue made from Minecraft blocks, with a large library in the background.
RSF released “The Uncensored Library” in March. Credit: RSF.

“In many countries, websites, social media and blogs are controlled by oppressive leaders. Young people, in particular, are forced to grow up in systems where their opinion is heavily manipulated by governmental disinformation campaigns,” RSF says.

“But even where almost all media is blocked or controlled, the world’s most successful computer game is still accessible. RSF uses this loophole to bypass internet censorship to bring back the truth – within Minecraft.”

Represented in the library is “Mada Masr,” a left-leaning Egyptian magazine “committed to an open and ongoing editorial conversation on the ethics of what we do, especially with regards to protecting the oppressed.” Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Russian Yulia Berezovskaia, editor of the blacklisted grani.ru, are also featured in the library.

On similar virtual platforms, such as the aging Second Life, you can find North Carolina State University and University of Western Australia campuses.

And beyond archiving ideas, some creators are even archiving architecture and artefacts online. During the reconstruction of the Notre Dame in Paris, key parts of the reconstruction referred to data from “Assassins Creed: Unity.”

A birds-eye view of the Founders Building at Royal Holloway
Dr Michaela Jones recreated Royal Holloway’s Founder’s Building on Sims earlier this year.

Owing to Covid-19, online organisation – for education and activism – is firmly in the mainframe. A return to the campus looks likely in the future; for now, platforms like Zoom are set to take off again come term one across the capital’s universities. As for the fate of the gamified SOAS-verse: it will stay in fun form, its bottom line.

“Building it was therapeutic, really,” Mok concludes from a locked down city, more than 10,000 miles from the campus he misses. “It’s relaxing to geometrically place and order things – there’s an inherent joy to that.”

You can play the SOAS and Uncensored Library maps on Minecraft. The SOAS map is available to download from Planet Minecraft. For The Uncensored Library, visit: https://uncensoredlibrary.com/. You can also download the Royal Holloway Sims map online.

Feature image: The SOAS Minecraft Project/Minecraft.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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