If You Build It, They Will Graduate
Although the COVID-19 pandemic stopped all in-person, on-campus events, including Commencement, it didn’t prevent the Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD) program from celebrating its graduates.
On May 22, IMGD faculty sent off its graduates with a virtual Commencement, which was designed through Minecraft Education Edition (a branch of the popular videogame Minecraft). Faculty members, graduates, and current students built a Minecraft-style WPI campus, and created their own “skin” in order to have an avatar live and move on campus. Commencement attendees watched via Zoom.
“The IMGD community functions as a community precisely because we celebrate one another throughout the year. Of course, we needed to celebrate our graduating class of 2020!” says Jennifer deWinter, department head. “We worked hard with our representatives from the student chapter of the International Game Developer’s Association to figure out the correct venue, make it fully accessible to all students, and celebrate each student’s accomplishments.”
The live-streamed virtual commencement—now available to watch on the IMGD Class of 2020 website— featured opening remarks from Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences, parting words from faculty members, both calm and disastrous weather, and a big bang at the end.
“I was personally thrilled with the creativity of the students, building the environment, creating personalized avatars, and hiding IMGD-specific Easter eggs all over the place,” deWinter says.
While the Minecraft Commencement didn’t replace the traditional exercises, it was still a way to celebrate students’ achievements. DeWinter says that current IMGD students asked if the department could have this event every year, since it felt personalized and catered to their experiences at WPI.
“While Covid-19 has disrupted so much of our typical approaches to a college experience, we have been privileged to work with students to face this disruption with creativity and empathy,” she says. “It has compelled us to think about future activities for our students as part of a program that focuses on experience design and close collaboration.”
Here are some highlights of the Minecraft commencement:
An eagle-eye view of the Minecraft-style WPI campus, including the Quad, where the Commencement tent is usually set up.
Members of the IMGD Class of 2020 kicked off their virtual Commencement by partaking in the traditional crossing over Earle Bridge, and filing to the Quad in front of the stage.
The avatar of Ralph Sutter, Computer Science instructor, onstage during the ceremony. He found a potato on stage, too (in Minecraft, potatoes can be planted to produce food to feed avatars)—he’ll need all the strength he can get to hand out digital diplomas to graduates!
Jean King served as the IMGD Class of 2020’s commencement speaker. Her avatar stepped up to the podium, and she appeared live via Zoom to address the students. She commended students for overcoming the struggles presented to the world from the COVID-19 pandemic, and congratulated them on their successes.
“The important thing about struggling in times that are difficult is not how you manage the struggle, but how you figure out to move forward, she said. “And I need to tell you, IMGD group, you have done it. You got this. Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations!”
Jennifer deWinter, Commencement moderator, invited students to maneuver their avatars to the stage and receive their digital diplomas. She introduced each student with a description of their talents and accomplishments, including games they designed during their tenure at WPI.
Avatars of IMGD students Karen Royer, known for her pysanky project, and Leo Bunyea, known for his game “Gotta Go!”, cheered on their graduating classmates.
To mirror the uncertainty and curveballs COVID-19 has thrown at the world, the IMGD team designed some disasters into the Commencement ceremony—the left side of the stage caught fire, and the weather soured into a rain storm. Students’ avatars rushed to put the fire out (some got burned along the way).
Once all of the graduates’ names were read, deWinter invited all attendees to unmute their screens to applaud. The sky cleared, and fireworks burst above the stage. Faculty members, including Gillian Smith, assistant professor of computer science, and Ralph Sutter, hung around via Zoom to chat with graduates, as they would have after the traditional Commencement ceremonies.
Josh Rosenstock, associate professor of Interactive Media and Game Development and Humanities & Arts, found some potatoes near the stage, too. Maybe he’ll pick some for another addition to his musical microbe project, Fermentophone.
One graduate’s avatar got up close in personal with viewers after the ceremony, diploma in hand.
Congratulations, IMGD Class of 2020—“You got this,” indeed.
-By Jessica Messier