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Block Party: Students Connect Virtually on HawkCraft

HawkCraft - UMass Lowell's Official Minecraft Server

Get a sneak peek into UML’s virtual world!

Credit: Sam Kelly & Victor Chen

UML’s Minecraft Server a Creative Hangout Space for New and Returning River Hawks

Brennan Macaig holds his laptop with the HawkCraft screen showing Photo by Ed Brennen
Computer science major Brennan Macaig, who helped build a virtual version of University Suites on HawkCraft, stands in front of the real-life building.

08/25/2020
By Ed Brennen

Computer science major Brennan Macaig has spent a lot of time on campus the past few months.

Some days, he roams around University Crossing or Fox Hall and chats with fellow students. Other days, he busies himself by stacking one-cubic-meter blocks at University Suites, the residence hall where he was living when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus in March.

“Whenever I miss being on campus, I’ll come on and work on stuff,” says Macaig, a junior from Concord, N.H.

Macaig’s not physically on campus, however. He’s visiting virtually on HawkCraft, the university’s official Minecraft server. 

Launched in May by the Office of Student Activities and Leadership, HawkCraft is an online world where UML students can connect with one another and, if they choose, help build a digital replica of campus.

“We heard from so many students that they missed the familiarity of being on campus and the fun of bumping into someone and hanging out spontaneously,” says Dean of Student Affairs and Enrichment James Kohl, who in April recruited a small group of Minecraft-savvy students to create and manage the HawkCraft server.
Fox Hall as depicted on HawkCraft
Brennan Macaig helped build the HawkCraft version of Fox Hall, where he worked for two years as a resident advisor.

For the uninitiated, Minecraft is the bestselling video game of all time. Released in 2011, it’s played by an estimated 126 million people worldwide. In 2014, Microsoft bought Minecraft from its developer, Mojang, for $2.5 billion.

Colleges across the country, from Boston University to Northwestern to UCLA, are using Minecraft as a way to help keep students connected during the pandemic.

“Most students my age, especially in science and engineering fields, grew up playing the game,” says Macaig, who started playing in grade school and credits Minecraft with spawning his interest in computer science and coding. 

Macaig, along with senior computer science major Jason Kiesling, security studies graduate student Fabrizio D’Angelo and sophomore electrical engineering major Victor Chen, are the server administrators. They work with UML’s Information Technology office to make sure everything runs smoothly on the back end of the game, while also ensuring that players follow the student code of conduct on the screen.

Nearly 600 students have registered for HawkCraft since its launch. Anyone with a UML email address can join, although you need to have the Java edition of Minecraft (which costs $26.95). Players can also join HawkCraft’s Discord server to talk to each other while playing.

“For an incoming freshman who might not know the campus, or for returning students, it’s a chance to get together, enjoy the game, have fun and chill,” says Chen, who had created an unofficial UML Minecraft server last fall with a friend from Leitch Hall, Sam Kelly.
A Leitch Hall dorm room as depicted on HawkCraft
A virtual version of a Leitch Hall dorm room, as created by sophomore electrical engineering major Sam Kelly.

You don’t need to be a budding Bill Gates to play Minecraft.

“Anyone can get into it,” says Macaig, who is continuing his summer infrastructure engineering internship this fall with Mutualink, a company that provides network communications for emergency first responders.

The Minecraft world is made up of 3D blocks, which players navigate in their own custom-created character, or “skin.” The game features two modes: creative, which is the one students use to build the UML campus; and survival, which is played in an alternate (way-off-campus) world and requires players to gather resources and fend off foes.

Using publicly available geographic data for the layout of campus, HawkCraft players collaborate on building scale-model versions of buildings — both the exteriors and interiors — as well as grounds, streets and structures like the Howe Bridge on University Avenue.

While solid progress has been made on East Campus and North Campus (where players can even visit Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s), virtual construction is lagging on South Campus.

“If you’re familiar with South Campus, we need you,” Macaig says.

Kelly, a sophomore electrical engineering major from Randolph, Mass., took on the challenge of building Leitch Hall, the East Campus residence hall where he met Chen last year.

“I like the community aspect of it, and I love making all this cool stuff like the landscapes and then seeing people’s reactions to it,” says Kelly, who has played Minecraft “since it first came out.” 
Sam Kelly talks on webcam about HawkCraft
Sophomore Sam Kelly says he enjoys the community aspect of Minecraft - and seeing people's reactions to the things he builds.

Working mostly from memory, Kelly spent about four hours a day for a week meticulously building Leitch block by block — a creative outlet that kept him occupied while he recovered from knee surgery.

“It gets you more in tune with the campus,” he says. “You start to notice all those little details about buildings.”

While the server administrators are happy to see around 40 dedicated players on HawkCraft, they hope more students will check it out as the mostly remote fall semester gets underway. 

“The thing I miss most from my freshman year is being able to walk down the hallway, seeing someone’s door open, and just wandering into their room and talking to them,” Macaig says. “I hope that we can kind of mimic that in the game.”

Noting the strong gaming and e-sports community at UMass Lowell, Kohl isn’t surprised to see students getting together on HawkCraft. 

“We hope that students who aren’t interested in playing Minecraft will still log in and use it as an opportunity to create personal connections with other students and the physical campus,” he says.

And maybe grab a block or two and help build the Starbucks at the O’Leary Learning Commons.