The recent Queensland floods had a catastrophic impact, but Dr Jeff Brand, a Professor at Bond University refused to take things lying down. When significant flood damage resulted in the closure of his university department and a disruption in his carefully planned curriculum, he decided to think laterally. Jeff Brand decided he was going to teach his class no matter what.
His solution involved avatars. It involved virtual worlds. It involved a little game called you might have heard of. Jeff Brand's solution was Minecraft.
In the beginning Dr Jeff Brand created a sign. On the sign were three simple rules, rigid and binding:
1) Build Bond. 2) Make Books 3) Play Nice
On the second day Jeff Brand set about the task of building Bond University, his place of work, in Minecraft.
He looked upon the sign, he looked up at the arch he just built and he saw that it was good.
If you care about video games and its advancement as a cultural medium, you may have heard of Professor Jeff Brand. Jeff Brand is the author of the reports you’ve have seen referenced in mainstream media reports on video games. He is the man that tells you what percentage of the Australian population are playing video games. He is the man that tells you what that statistic means.
But Jeff Brand is also a teacher. He started the Interactive Media Program at Bond University. Each year he stares at the blank faces in the pews; impressionable minds waiting to be informed. He talks about video games; he finds ways to engage fledgling brains. Jeff Brand figured Minecraft was as good an idea as any.
Jeff's Minecraft adventure started with an idea. A big idea. Actually, it started with a conversation, at a dinner table. Jeff Brand is the Father of three children, so when he started toying with the idea of using Minecraft in class, he figured his kids, all avid players of the game, would be a decent testing ground.
Jeff Brand wanted to build his University campus using Minecraft. At the very least he wanted to have a go. He wanted to make a start, take the concept to his students in his Computer Games Industry and Policy class, and ask them to help out.
This idea got Jeff’s kids excited.
“I told them about my idea over the dinner table,” explains Jeff. “They said, ‘you would actually do this in your class?’ I said, ‘yes’. Then they asked, ‘can we help?’.
“I said, ‘please can you help’!
By the time class started Jeff and his three sons had already built the framework of Bond University’s Arch Building. More than enough to introduce the concept to a group of yawning students on their first day back after the summer break.
“I told the class, ‘I want to try something different.”
Jeff flicked his slideshow to a picture of the Arch Building as built by Jeff and his three sons. He said, ‘here’s the campus’. They were confused. Then he showed them the world in Minecraft itself.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” he explained to the class. “I want you to build the campus. Then, eventually, we are going to hold a class in there.”
“We were all like, yes! We get to play Minecraft in class!”
Jeremy Orr is a student in Jeff Brand’s class. He was intrigued. Alongside a group of students at Bond, Jeremy was engrossed in Minecraft long before the genesis of Brand's concept. The task of building Bond University “energised” him. Before he knew it his group was spending hours walking around Bond for “research”.
“We’d say, ‘oh there’s a window here, we better put that in!’ Never noticed that before.”
Jeff began to notice that his class spent more time in Minecraft than they did reading the class texts, but his students were more engaged than ever.
"That was predictable, laughs Jeff, "but they were instantly more interested in the class itself. I was getting, at least, a higher level of buy in.”
The students built feverishly, focusing on the underground. Liberties were taken. Some, like making their own lab exponentially bigger than the others, were practical. Others, like the dungeon underneath the lab named ‘Effects of Videogame Violence’, were inspired. That room led to a Nether Portal that sent players into another dimension.
The Minecraft experiment was going swimmingly. Jeff Brand’s colleagues in the Interactive Media department were savvy enough to recognise the benefits of what he was trying to achieve. Even those in the broader Arts and Social Sciences faculty were mildly curious. What was Jeff doing in there with his crazy computer games and his LEGO blocks. Where was all this heading?
Image courtesy of Shutterstock. Then, the floods.
It started with heavy rain. Flood warnings were issued; tornadoes were predicted to bombard coastal towns throughout the state. Almost instantly, hundreds of thousands were without power. Evacuations. Rivers began to burst their banks. The small town of Bundaberg was hardest hit. The floods there exceeded anything documented in recorded history. Fatality reports. Lost children. Lost parents. In the Gold Coast, where Bond University is located, doors and windows were being ripped off clean from the sheer weight of the gale force winds.
In its 25 year history, Bond University had never closed due to a weather related event. But this time, an exception had to be made.
“The university almost never closes,” says Jeff. “We have a culture and a history of just going for it. This was the first time in my memory -- and I’ve been here for almost 18 years -- that we closed because of weather.”
At this point almost 40,000 of the Gold Coast’s 500,000 residents were without power. Some had to forego electricity for over 60 hours.
“Bond University itself had mild water damage,” explains Jeff. “I think the university took the view of, let’s close, let’s be safe. Let’s not ask students to travel.”
Jeff sat at his desk. Maybe now was as good a time as ever to make good on his promise. Maybe now was the time to take his students into the virtual Bond campus they had helped shape. Maybe now was the moment to finally teach a class within the boundless walls of Minecraft.
“When that announcement came out on Monday,” says Jeff, “I quickly got online and put up a notice. I said, ‘we live in this online world, everyone is getting involved, it’s the third week of the trimester, let’s try having a class if you can make it.’”
His student, Jeremy Orr, had a sneaking suspicion this might happen.
“I was actually thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if Jeff will do the class in Minecraft’,” he laughs. “As soon as he actually suggested it I knew things were going to get interesting.”
Jeff was the first to arrive, jumping aimlessly amongst the carefully structured architecture. He looked around. He asked himself, ‘how are we going to do this?’
Jeff’s conclusion, in hindsight, was relatively obvious.
“I said to myself, ‘why not mimic the real world?’”
One of the first things Jeff’s students had built, when designing the interior of the Bond campus, was the lab where Jeff’s class regularly took place. They placed so much importance on that space, knocking down or flat out ignoring other rooms in the building. It was modeled in painstaking detail. In short, it was perfect.
“I went down there and just told students, ‘hey, I’m down in the lab.’”
The pressure pad by the entrance clicked and the door slid open. One by one a parade of Minecraft avatars sauntered into class. Some were early, some were on time; a few stragglers. But everyone had a story to tell. The impact of the floods were huge. Some students were without internet, tethering charged up mobile phones to charged up laptops, squeezing the last slither of battery life in order to attend class.
Some couldn’t make it. One student was trapped down in Coffs Harbour, others had no power whatsoever. All of the students attended from home. Except Jeff, who headed into Bond University for some insane reason. He was sitting at his actual desk, while standing in his virtual classroom. In Minecraft.
Class was in session.
“I said we should probably start,” says Jeff. “I did some news items, we were talking about THQ and what happened there, then we talked some more about industry disruption. We got through that. Then I started going through my slides.”
There were some issues -- students had to alt-tab into another program to see the slides, for example. But the main problem, initially, was communication. Students were used to face-to-face discussion, raised hands, speaking with actual voices. At first people seemed a little reluctant to answer questions, to ‘talk’.
But Jeff had a back up plan: experience points.
“Within about 10 minutes I thought to myself, it’s kinda going slow,” explains Jeff. “I want more involvement. It was then I realised, I could just give out XP!”
But it took Jeff a couple of minutes to work out precisely how to give out XP.
“I was like, ‘hold on a minute! Just let me work it out! I’m not that experienced! I gave him 200 points.
“From that point on I couldn’t shut them up -- the text was flying.”
Jeremy Orr is still smarting. Jeff didn’t give him any XP.
“He robbed me! I didn’t get any!”
Jeff Brand left Bond University and made his way home, floating on air. In his own words he was “as high as a kite”. One student in particular, who wasn’t very talkative in class, came alive within the virtual Bond campus and made genuine connections.
“That to me is magic,” says Jeff. “That’s what it’s all about.”
He couldn’t wait to tell his children, who had initially helped build the initial structure of the virtual Bond campus, about the class.
“I told them what happened and I think it was my middle son who said, ‘all schools should be in Minecraft’.
“Of course he would say that!”
At the end of the class all of the students left the lab. They ran out into the open with a strange sense of glee and lit virtual fireworks all over campus. It felt like a celebration, but Jeff was a little more reflective.
“We’re having so many conversations about the place of gaming within culture and how that bleeds into aspects beyond entertainment,” he says. “For me this was an exercise in engaging with a space in a way that is consistent with contemporary lived experience.
“This was just another opportunity for us to connect.”