So, I Buried My Anthropology Class Alive…

After my previous post about teaching a class in Minecraft, I had hoped that right now I would be excitedly tapping-out a follow-up post filled with cool descriptions and anecdotes of success. Sadly, as things turned out, on the second day of the semester I frustratingly entombed my entire class together in the fiery rocks of The Nether.

Some backstory.

When we started our second class it was clear that the Minecraft experiment had generated some heat. Students seemed engaged and things had some buzz. I began class by briefly recounting an adventure story: my visit back to our classroom Minecraft world, how I discovered a mysterious portal, how I got lost deep in the Nether dimension, and how in the end I had to jump in a lava lake to get back to our classroom. Folks seem entertained by my story, and one student’s roommate leaned into the frame to hear my tale of woe.

Of course I wanted to entertain. In sharing my story, however, I also wanted to model for the class my lack of expertise—yet my willingness to be curious, strike out into the unknown and bear the consequences. In all seriousness, I also did tell them that if I could spend a frustrating hour lost in a dark digital netherworld—so near giving up that I contemplated blowing up the world and using a previous saved version—that they could spend at least an hour getting lost in the difficult reading or doing the assignment that was due. (A few assignments appeared to be done at less-than-an-hour-stuck-in-The-Nether-level of effort.)

After breaking the ice with my adventure story, we began a short conversation about the class reactions to our first foray into Minecraft. Many commented on how novel the experience was and how “energizing” it felt engage in Minecraft rather than on Zoom. Being in-world was “fun”.

I responded with a feigned attitude of serious professorness that “education shouldn’t be fun” and that we are doing serious work. I pressed them on the issue of fun. What was the difference? Without pause, a student offered that it was “refreshing” to “build something together.” In a pandemic life where we have much less interaction, it felt good being together just “doing something with people”. It was comforting to connect with others in that place. In retrospect, I suppose it is novel that we had twenty-six people together in one place without masks!

Another member of the class appreciated that things felt much more “casual”. Minecraft is a game they played with friends and family, and so they associated it with less high-pressure environments than a college classroom. Minecraft-interaction put them at ease compared to staring face-to-face on Zoom.

There were some challenges with our first day Minecraft experiment, however. A few recounted challenges with serious computer lag trying to hold together the three applications we are using in class—Minecraft and Zoom and Milanote. Clearly this is something on the hardware and software-interface end that we are going to have to manage going forward.

Finally, an issue that many shared was concern with chaos. Quite a few students gave examples of how they couldn’t make sense of what was going on. They had problems with learning the controls. They couldn’t orient themselves. They weren’t sure how to function. With no rules and uncertain skills, people accidentally destroyed structures, built haphazardly and generally lacked confidence that they knew what to do. They didn’t know how to comport themselves in the new context.

Reacting to these comments I’m struck by how much the responses students shared are like those you hear from students while studying abroad. I’ve taken many undergraduate student trips to China and they remark on many of the same things: enjoyment at getting away from the everyday structures of their college life, leaving behind meaningless work, getting a change, being invigorated by novelty, engaging curiousity, enjoying the more casual interactions between people that emerge in shared travel, and, of course, the chaos of being assaulted by an encounter with an unfamiliar environment. How is this like study abroad? That is something to keep in mind going forward.

Additionally, I think the student comments that observe how it felt to “do things together” need more important attention. We know that being in human-proximity and working together on shared tasks are constitutive of human relations, and are notably a vital aspect of life that we are lacking right now. Communities labor together, build together and create together. I mentioned to the class that some of the inclinations of Homo faber will come up when we read some selections from Tom Boellstorff’s classic ethnography of Second Life in a few weeks. (I am also reminded of comments that students in visual anthropology class made during lockdown in spring of 2020: that being accountable to their project groups and the importance of working together on final projects gave them a collective purpose for remaining connected during a very stressful time—keeping class real.)

At the end of our conversation, we agreed to continue in future classes and work to arrive at a shared sense of etiquette/rules/behaviors while in-world. I began a Milanote board to begin collecting notes on this as we move forward. How should we use space? How should we interact with one another? Should we also use our cameras? How often? How to we deal with distractions?

After wrapping up I took care of a few more housekeeping items and we embarked for Minecraft. As with our first day, I provided everyone with the connect code, asked them to head in-world, keep their Zoom connection for audio, but turn off their cameras as soon as they appear in Minecraft. Once again I had that feeling that we were going somewhere and it was impressive to see people “disappear” from Zoom and appear in that other place. (I think we will need to come up with a name for our world at some point.)

Once everyone made it over there I led them to the purple portal on the snowy mountaintop that had led me into so much trouble a day earlier, so that we could head as a class.

Yes, I wasn’t just taking them to Minecraft. Earlier that morning, before class, I decided that I would take the whole class into The Nether. So I spent a bit of class-prep time working out what I thought was a foolproof path through the portal down a shaft, across the ceiling of a lava lake and into a rudimentary classroom space that I cobbled together. How hard could it be to lead them on the short excursion.

Why did I take them there instead of just staying safely in the place we had enjoyed on our first day? In retrospect, I think that there are a few possible reasons. After my experience being lost and alone in the subterranean hellscape, I’m sure I was taking some control and exert some competence over the place that had nearly bested me. Having fun there would domesticate that space.

It was also great fun, however, to build on the unexpected contribution of the creative student who had built the portal. The same way that someone contributes to a class conversation by adding something that takes everyone in a new direction, the student who built the portal created an opportunity for us all. Would it be too much to say that their built contribution to the class was an opportunity to (literally!) explore an unknown dimension of our collaborative work? I couldn’t turn down that invitation!

There was also a relationship to the academic content of our class. The reading assignment for the day was a selection dealing with the deep time of media from Jussi Parikka’s volume, The Anthrobscene. My plan was to talk about the geology of media, discuss the deep history of mined materials, wax poetically about earth-forces, and imagine the future trajectories of the zombie remains of our technology. The molten-gothic surroundings of a fiery digital underworld seemed so perfect!!

Entombed in a Digital Underworld

Things began to fall apart almost immediately.

When we arrived at the portal and I led the class through, I had no way of knowing there would be a cascade of lag as two dozen students’ computers simultaneously worked to render the new dimension. As they crammed into the portal entrance, I hadn’t anticipated that somebody might accidentally delete a portal block and render it useless. Even worse, I hadn’t considered the possibility that part of the class might make through successfully, while the remaining people (and me!) were left stranded on the snowy mountaintop!

Fortunately, the calm voice of a Minecraft-savvy student talked me through the necessary steps to rebuild the portal. Obsidian brick to repair. Flint and steel to light it. After it reignited people continued to file through the portal. When I finally made the journey, I arrived on the other side surprised to find a bunch of people crammed into the narrow passage. I failed to construct a big enough arrival area!

I quickly headed down to the classroom space to check on the folks there and found them settling in. Some had already started finishing the space—constructing lanterns, building a lectern, putting in some carpet. Nice touches! It was looking good and I liked their initiative. Other students, however, were stuck in the arrival area and still others got booted from the game because of the laggy portal and had respawned back in the regular world. I could hear their voices on the line, distant in virtual space. Where was so-and-so? Would someone come and get me? Where am I? Where is everyone else? My computer is still connecting. I’m stuck!

If I, in any way, considered the Minecraft experiment comparable to study abroad, I was failing on our first day and I was getting panicked. I’m used to having control over class time and the general order of things in the classroom. Yet, at that moment, I had no control. My class was spread across two dimensions in a virtual world during a pandemic. And, we still had to get to the day’s assigned text! What about course content?!

I don’t remember the exact order of everything that happened next. All I know is that I made a fateful mistake using God-powers beyond my ken. You see, the Minecraft instructor interface gives teachers some special powers. The most useful of these is the power to transport everyone in class to a specific location on the map. It was very helpful on the first day of class in the regular Minecraft world to bring everyone together with the click of the mouse. So, of course, while panicking underground, I decided I would try transporting everyone directly to the classroom.

It was bad.

I was thinking in terms of the X and Y planes and had forgotten about Z. That’s an important orientation in a 3d world. When I panicked and pulled everyone together to a location on the map, I had forgotten we were underground and transported us all to the same exact location in terms of X and Y, but the Z number placed us in the middle of solid rock. Imagine what the screen looked like with the avatars of twenty-six people piled on top of each other embedded in rock. It was chaos.

We were trapped.

When I realized the mistake I had made, I just thought it was all over. No more Minecraft! I give up! This is nuts! Then the authoritative voice of a Minecraft-savvy member of class calmly informed me that we were all on top of each other in the same location. We couldn’t break free because instead of breaking the stone around us, when we hit our surroundings, we were probably just hitting the avatars of other people in class. A troubling image to be sure! To solve this problem, they suggested, everyone needed to leave except me. I could then break free and then everyone else could log in again.

Thank goodness for local knowledge! The plan initially seemed to work. Everyone logged out. I broke free and then invited everyone back in-world so we could get back underway.

Sadly, things didn’t quite work out. Near as I can tell, when everyone in class re-entered the world they appeared in my vicinity. Since I was still in rock, as people rejoined, they re-spawned into the featureless rock all around my location. Everyone was entombed again—this time individually instead of together. Chaos quickly bubbled back as the returning avatars, upon discovering themselves lost in rock, started haphazardly digging every-which-way trying to figure out where they were. The audio chatter grew strained. I didn’t even know where I was.

After some feeble attempts at fixing the situation, I decided we needed to call off the experiment for the day and come back together. The syllabus! We needed to get to the scheduled content for the day and didn’t have time to make sense of the chaos of the The Nether. I had some things to lecture about and we had a reading and small assignment yet to get to. I told the class I was going to close down Minecraft and asked them to turn their Zoom camera’s back on. One by one the human faces returned to their boxes on the screen and the Minecraft avatars went still and disappeared as I severed the connection.

What Happened Next

It’s funny to think of moving from Minecraft to Zoom—or maybe more accurately one dimension of Minecraft to another dimension of Minecraft to Zoom—as “closer” to the actual world. When we emerged out of the fiery netherrock “back” to our faces on Zoom, it felt like the class was retreating back to somewhere safe. Back to normal.

Upon our return to Zoom, the collective unease was easy to sense. I asked students how they felt about what had happened. Many were frustrated and confused. A few students said the ordeal made them physically, uncomfortably anxious. I told them that I was briefly panicked myself! A few other voices commented to the effect that it had really been a wild ride—chaotic, confusing but also kind of interesting.

I remarked to the class on the power of our game-world experience to actually raise our real heart rates, make us feel the way we did, and make us physically react. As we continued our debrief it became clear that, while folks had a range of experiences, we had also shared an adventure together. I assume some of the expert students might judge me for the pathetic rookie mistake, and some of the really novice students might have been more upset because they were really lost and confused. It was undeniable, however, that we had had an experience together in our attempt to accomplish the simplest task—just making it to the classroom. How often in a college classroom can you take risks, really get lost and find your way back? Now if we can just figure the proper technique to bolt the power of that onto the academic content and objectives, we will really be getting somewhere interesting!

I still want to think a bit more about the things that led to our collective entombment and the failure of my initial plan. Was it just my ignorance of the commands and functions of Minecraft and a simple miscalculation of the risks of bringing the class to The Nether so soon? Or, was I being overconfident that I could lead the class to an unknown and dangerous realm that had humbled me only a day earlier? Of course, I would never have taken the same chances in the actual world on a study abroad trip. Regardless, between now and our next class I have some learning to do on the Minecraft Wiki and the Minecraft for Education site!

After returning to Zoom for the remainder of class, I was surprised to find that we still had enough time. Rather than discuss the reading slowly and in detail, however, I had to resort to a quick lecture before heading directly into reviewing the assignment. The syllabus!

I’m left, however, pondering the lessons of the “The Nether Disaster.” I’m wondering what my students think. I’ll find out more next week!

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