Take a virtual tour of campus…or grab a pickaxe and just start building.

Stanford’s Memorial Church and Main Quad built at a one-to-one scale in Minecraft by Michael Byun. (Photo courtesy of Michael Byun)

When Stanford junior Michael Byun started building Memorial Church in Minecraft on a whim in December 2019, he had no idea how relevant his project would become in 2020 — or how big it would be.

“That initial build of Memorial Church became an increasingly elaborate project just because I’m the sort of person who is sometimes a little bit too obsessive about details,” said Byun in an interview over Zoom.

The video game Minecraft first gained popularity when it was released in 2011. It’s perhaps most known for its iconic blocky terrain: Every element in the world, such as the dirt or the wood that forms the branches of the trees can be harvested—or “mined”—as a cubic meter block and used by the player. Players can choose to either play in Survival mode, where they must gather resources to stay alive through “mining” and fight monsters, or Creative mode, where they have access to infinite blocks and can build and explore as they please.

For Byun, building Memorial Church in Minecraft at a one-to-one scale meant exactly that: tediously measuring every square meter of Stanford and reproducing it virtually. Determined to make his replica as accurate as possible, Byun consulted floor plans and even used rulers on his computer screen to measure everything out. Over winter break, the project expanded into building Stanford’s Main Quad.

Michael Byun, one of the leaders of the Stanford in Minecraft project, in Stanford Main Quad in real life (left) and in Minecraft (right). (Photos by Sinead Chang and courtesy of Michael Byun)

When college students across the country were sent home and many who had grown up playing the game in their childhood suddenly found themselves with more free time, Minecraft saw a resurgence. The game allowed players to chat with each other while exploring an unknown world, exactly what everyone craved in the early days of shelter-in-place orders.

With an entire generation of college students away from their campuses, recreating it with Minecraft blocks (often described as “virtual Legos”) was a project that many embraced. As graduation approached, students used their virtual campuses as platforms to reflect on their memories, meet up with friends, and even walk across the stage on their big day.

Along with other trends reminiscent of early 2020, many Minecraft campuses have been for the most part forgotten, with only the most dedicated maintaining the school grounds. However, to the students behind Stanford in Minecraft, this project was really just the beginning of an ever-expanding virtual campus.

The Cantor Arts Center, featuring the iconic OY/YO sculpture by Deborah Kass, built during summer 2020 entirely out of Minecraft blocks. (Photo courtesy of Michael Byun)

Survival mode—2020 style

Byun’s personal project transformed into a quarantine project in March 2020, when Stanford sent their students home and Byun continued building the campus from his home in Los Altos.

Two other Stanford juniors, Jainil Sutaria and Kyle Yu, also found themselves turning to Minecraft as a way to connect with campus virtually. The pair started a server, named “Stanford in Minecraft,” which allowed Stanford students to meet and play in Minecraft’s classic Survival game mode.

“It was really a place or a way to have people bond together over quarantine,” said Sutaria in an interview over Zoom. Sutaria grew up playing Minecraft, and the server was the perfect way for him to keep in touch with others from New York, while also showing off his monster-killing skills.

Once Sutaria and Yu found out about Byun’s project, they knew instantly that they needed to combine forces. “The server itself is like Stanford in Minecraft so why not just have Stanford actually be in Minecraft,” explained Sutaria. The team immediately started importing Byun’s project onto their server. Now, visitors to Stanford in Minecraft could either play the game in Survival mode, or enjoy a leisurely stroll (or flight) through what’s completed of the virtual campus in Creative mode.

During the transition to the new server, Byun’s project got a major upgrade. Using satellite imagery on height data from a U.S. Geological Survey LiDAR scan of Stanford campus and using programs that approximated it in Minecraft, Byun created a new template for him to build the campus on. Instead of starting each tree and building from scratch, builders would at least have some piles of virtual dirt that would show the rough outline of the campus to work with.

A template for eventually building Stanford Stadium, created using a LiDAR scan of campus approximated in Minecraft. (Photo courtesy of Michael Byun)

As the project and server grew, the team realized that they had an issue: servers cost money. Spotting the opportunity in a newsletter, Byun applied for a COVID-19 Creative Community Response Grant, a grant program created by Stanford’s Office of Vice President for the Arts. The funding allowed the team to pay for server costs and keep Stanford in Minecraft alive.

After receiving the funding, the trio started drafting a system that would allow others to build parts of campus, including a thorough guide to different materials used on the virtual campus and a spreadsheet to coordinate building. Through posts in Stanford’s student-managed meme page, “Stanford Memes for Edgy Trees,” and even official Stanford social media, word began to spread.

“It became this really exciting project with all sorts of people working on different buildings,” said Byun. “Someone was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna take the fountain in front of Hoover Tower,’ and someone else was like ‘Okay, I’ll do the Student Union.’ That sort of thing.” Stanford in Minecraft was starting to have the same buzz of inventive energy that once could be found on the real campus.

The Three Shades in the Rodin Sculpture Garden in real life (left) and created by Gabriel Magaña in Minecraft by posing armor stands (right). (Photos by Sinead Chang and courtesy of Michael Byun)

Under construction (watch for Creepers)

Gabriel Magaña, an incoming Stanford freshman at the time, remembers fondly the first time he visited the campus — except for this visit, he didn’t need to leave his bedroom in Texas.

After hearing about the project through a friend, Magaña started visiting the Minecraft campus. “One time when I was on the server, I hopped on a call with some other kids,” remembers Magaña in an interview over Zoom. “They gave me a tour of a lot of the places that were built, gave me some of the history, and even convinced me to join a couple of the classes that I took last quarter.”

Even though Magaña had never stepped foot on campus, he soon found himself in charge of recreating the various Rodin sculptures scattered around campus. “I would not consider myself much of an arts person, I’m not an architect or a sculptor or anything. I am just someone who likes building things in Minecraft,” said Magaña. While he’s only seen the sculptures in reference photos, he’s certain that once he spots them on campus, their poses will be very familiar.

Byun, a long-time plant fanatic, is proud of another small detail on campus: the trees. With the help of the website Trees of Stanford and strolls through campus via Google Street View, he’s ensured that all of the trees in the Main Quad are the right species and shape and even have the correct number of branches — to the best of his ability.

“I spend a lot of time staring at trees,” said Byun. “If you can believe it, I spent even more time staring at trees this time via Street View.”

The team’s attention to detail has taken their project to new heights—and the lessons they’ve learned have gone far beyond Minecraft. Whether it’s a newfound appreciation for a French sculptor or exploring an old fondness for plants, Stanford in Minecraft replicates Stanford in another way: there’s always space to learn something new.

The interior of Stanford Memorial Church built by Michael Byun in Minecraft. (Photo courtesy of Michael Byun)

Digging deeper

As graduation approached for the class of 2020, the Minecraft campus trend caught on across the country, including right across the Bay. Blockeley, the Minecraft replica of UC Berkeley’s campus, had over 100 builders and was completed in time to make the headlines as the platform for UC Berkeley’s virtual graduation and a two-day music festival.

Byun was aware of the other Minecraft projects. In fact, so many students were building their campuses on Minecraft that an online community on the messaging platform Discord formed, named the Intercollegiate Minecraft League.

“I’m a big fan of the act of recreating a campus in Minecraft,” he said. “I think of course, there’s the sort of nostalgia and the familiarity of being able to meet friends in familiar places. But, there’s also a way in which having to pay attention to every detail and every brick and every pillar and every window forces you to really engage with the built environment.”

However, with over 8,000 acres of land and many fewer students than UC Berkeley, the Stanford builders knew that their campus wouldn’t be completed in time for graduation.

“Stanford has a huge campus, and it’s not normally something that you’d complain about,” said Magaña. “But, in terms of recreating your campus one-to-one in a video game, I would think that that’s a reason to complain.”

Even though the Stanford project started before many others, by the time summer hit, only 1% of the Stanford campus was completed and about a dozen builders had contributed.

The Lane History Corner, northeast of the Main Quad, built in Minecraft. (Photo courtesy of Michael Byun)

At this point Byun, who was now in Korea, wasn’t sure if the campus would ever be completed. “I felt like I had more important things to pay attention to: both the protests and other stuff,” he said, in reference to the Black Lives Matters protests over the summer. “I was like, how good of a use of my time is this? Maybe it’s useful to decompress, but should I really be devoting that much energy to this?”

The project having been mostly forgotten, Byun returned to the United States in November. Sutaria, who managed the technical aspects of the server, was caught up with other responsibilities.

As others started to lose interest, Magaña, now a couple months into his first quarter at Stanford, continued the push to keep Stanford in Minecraft alive. He contacted Sutaria and was eventually granted access to run the server in December.

“I know I’m just a freshman and the upperclassmen who may have lost interest in this project just want to let it die,” he said. “But I mean, I think we’re still going pretty strong with how many people still want to play and have funding that we’ve been able to achieve.” Magaña hopes that no matter the circumstances of the outside world, Stanford in Minecraft can continue to be a place where students can gather.

Byun is also still committed to seeing the project through, even if Stanford’s constant construction will mean the replica will never be perfect. The team is working on getting the server back up and running, as well as adding some new features.

Memorial Church in real life (left) and in Minecraft (right). (Photos by Sinead Chang and courtesy of Michael Byun)

“Minecraft is a visual medium. Vision is one way of engaging with campus, but obviously not the only way and not the primary way for different people,” said Byun. He plans to introduce spatial audio, which would allow visitors to Stanford in Minecraft to hear others in a voice chat based on their direction and proximity, just like in real life. “I’m hoping to also get recordings of ambient sound from campus and put them in so it’s more of an audio replica of campus as well.”

While Stanford in Minecraft doesn’t have many active builders right now, both Byun and Magaña hope that there will be more (virtual) construction on campus soon.

Byun is focused on continuing to build Stanford, but he’s fully aware that the project may not ever be finished. “For me, it’s just like, use it however people get value out of it,” he said. “Maybe that’s building campus, but maybe at a certain point, it’s just like, no, we don’t want to build campus, we just want to turn this into a giant environment for virtual hide-and-seek or something.”

For many students, including Magaña, Stanford’s recent announcement that it will be at least another quarter before they’re able to go back to campus means that they will have to continue to make do with this Minecraft version of their university.

“I feel like I’m going to have this appreciation for all the beauty that’s in these old-standing buildings.” said Magaña about his eventual visit to campus. “But also I’m not fully prepared for the shock that will happen when I’m like ‘Oh, wait a minute. This isn’t blocks.’”

For those interested in visiting campus or even building some of Stanford yourself, you can apply to join the server here — everyone with a Minecraft account is welcome.

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Sinead Chang Profile Photo

Sinead Chang

Budding journalist at the University of Southern California. Drinking every matcha latte I can get my hands on.

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