Spring commencement is one of UC Berkeley’s happiest events. But this year, along came COVID-19. Campus buildings emptied, lights went off, doors locked and students, staff and faculty disappeared. So did hopes for the massive Saturday, May 16 ceremony in California Memorial Stadium, and the rest of this month’s graduation festivities.
But Berkeley’s newest graduates will hardly be forgotten. Starting this Friday night, lights will be turned on — blue and gold ones, shining from campus landmarks — for sheltered-in-place students to see on social media. On Saturday, Chancellor Carol Christ will email video congratulations to all grads. And any well-wisher can visit a special website that day to post photo, video and written tributes to the Class of 2020.
The graduates’ most amazing gift, however, will be from a team of more than 100 of their peers. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, they can attend a virtual, mock commencement ceremony in the stadium — complete with “Pomp and Circumstance,” the chancellor, the conferring of degrees, “Hail to California” and flying mortarboards. It will happen within Blockeley University, a fantastical recreation of the campus built by Berkeley 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.
All the festivities will be livestreamed on Twitch. Those with Minecraft accounts can join in-game from anywhere in the world by entering a Blockeley server ip address in the Minecraft multiplayer tab. 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 invented Blockeley University after seeing a March 15 Facebook post suggesting a virtual graduation in Memorial Stadium built on a Minecraft platform.
“For me,” added Nick Pickett, a graduating senior on the Blockeley University team, “working on this has definitely been a coping mechanism (during the pandemic), a way for me to express my love for Cal and to celebrate my graduation, my four years here.”
At the simulated event, 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.
“If you had asked me a month ago what Minecraft was, … I would’ve told you it was the art of working in a mine,” said Christ. “Now that our students have constructed the incredible Blockeley campus, I know better! It will be an honor to participate in the once-in-a-lifetime ceremony on Saturday.”
Fisher quipped that, the first time he saw his avatar, he thought it bore “an uncanny resemblance” to himself. He said he’s impressed at how the student team has built in six weeks a campus that was “slowly pieced together over the course of about 150 years.”
“When I heard they pulled data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission to generate the terrain with pinpoint accuracy,” he added, “I thought, ‘I might need to see if our campus architect is hiring.’”
Students revive favorite middle school game
Many of Blockeley University’s student builders are old pros at Minecraft, a so-called “sandbox game” that lets players control their own fun, or objectives. A cognitive science major on leave from Berkeley this semester, Lustic first played in 2010, as a Marin County 8th grader.
“It’s a freeing thing, and unique,” he says of Minecraft, admitting it became such a creative and social outlet for him in high school that his parents would yell, “Why are you staying up so late? You have school tomorrow!” “Yeah,” he said, “it was an obsession.”
He didn’t have time for Minecraft at Berkeley, with his studies and Cal Men’s Crew schedule. But when COVID-19 hit, courses went online and in-person graduation ceremonies were dropped, Lustic said he decided to build Memorial Stadium with friend Hunter Hall, a current Berkeley student, just to produce “a little ceremony, maybe having Minecraft avatars walking across (a stage).”
In no time, their siblings and about a dozen others had joined in. The stadium was built in three days, said Lustic, “and then I-House, then the law school, then the Campanile, and then all these buildings were popping up, and we thought maybe doing the campus was feasible.”
Pickett, from San Diego, started playing Minecraft at 13 — “I grew up on Legos, and this is like Legos, but infinite,” he said — but stopped after 10th grade. In college, as a tuba player in the Cal Band, he said his band member roommates threw the occasional Minecraft party, but that he didn’t return to the game until he saw photos posted of what Lustic and the earliest crew members were building.
“About a week after they finished Memorial Stadium,” he said, “I saw a photo of North Tunnel, …which is an emotional place, a second home for us (in the Cal Band)” while waiting to rush onto the football field. He said the tunnel built in Minecraft looked “very off, and I was kind of distraught. …I joined the builders’ group then and there.”
Two weeks later, “we knew we wouldn’t finish the entire campus on time,” said Pickett. A call was put out for more builders, “and I started a Discord (group-chatting platform) to coordinate and organize everyone into a more complex structure,” said Pickett, who was put in charge of making sure various buildings got done on schedule.
Today’s massive team of Blockeley University builders “is a ball screaming down a hill at a little over 100 (people),” he said.
Most of them are STEM majors — the group took a poll – and only a handful are women, like freshman Nga Nguyen, a Minecraft player since she was 12. “It’s 100% still a thing with my peers,” she said. “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. “Then Bjorn and Hunter’s mutual friend added me to a group chat with Bjorn. I joined Bjorn’s server and did most of the bleachers and walls of Memorial Stadium … and the shell of I-House, because I spent a lot of time in the dining hall there.” 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.”
Virtual, but heartfelt, tributes across campus
Berkeley’s graduates are spending a lot of time online this month, not only wrapping up remaining coursework, but checking out video tributes and participating in Zoom events created for them by their academic schools, units, departments and organizations as they shelter at home.
The College of Environmental Design (CED), for example, will launch on May 17 a virtual yearbook where its grads can create a personal profile they can share, and that alumni can see, for recruiting efforts. It also will include speeches, student essays and CED’s annual CIRCUS showcase of exemplary student work. A printable version will be designed by Berkeley landscape architecture professor Richard Hindle.
A virtual celebration for engineering graduates and their families and friends is on May 19. The self-guided event will include recorded video remarks from the College of Engineering’s dean and department chairs, as well as personalized slides for each graduate.
This Saturday, Cal Athletics will stream the “Cal Athletics Senior Celebration: A Recognition of Student-Athlete Success,” with guest speakers Christ, Director of Athletics Jim Knowlton, Rugby Head Coach Jack Clark and rugby student-athlete Robert Paylor, a graduating senior who suffered a spinal cord injury at a game in 2017 and is one of five recipients of the 2020 National Association of Academic and Student-Athlete Development Professionals’ Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award.
A tradition at Cal Performances’ end-of-school-year celebration for its student workers will continue this Sunday. Each year, graduates on the 40-member Front of House team — students who take tickets and help guests at events — receive leis made of performance-related items, like tickets, caution tape, program notes, ear plugs, glow sticks and headliners’ photos.
This year, the leis are being delivered to grads, so they can wear them at the event, to be held virtually, and 2020 pandemic-era supplies — hand sanitizer and a mask — were woven in.
Right now, staying close and connected to others is tough, but Berkeley’s graduation events all contain a healthy dose of heart, in hopes of keeping and deepening graduates’ ties to the campus and each other while sheltered at home, no matter where they are worldwide.
Even at quirky, yet ethereal Blockeley University, it’s impossible not to be pulled into the emotionality of the landscapes. Students have dreamed them up, depicting what they love about Berkeley and its landmarks — on blue sky mornings, at fiery sunsets, on starry nights and even in the Bay Area’s thick fog — and the little things, like a llama on Memorial Glade, where students occasionally are treated to visits from therapy llamas, to fight academic stress before finals.
Lustic, who took this semester off, feeling lost, said the project, which grew beyond anything he’d imagined and introduced him — albeit virtually — to dozens of new students and alumni, helped him “finally understand that Berkeley has so much to offer.”
“Forming this Blockeley community really invigorated me and showed me the minds of my peers at Cal,” he said. “I don’t know where else you meet these kinds of kids. It makes me want to come back, for sure.”