Anyone with eyes will tell you that the Bronx High School of Science only has three floors. But it is a tradition that freshmen are told there is a secret fourth floor that houses a swimming pool. To get there, you’d need to buy a pass from a senior who knows the ropes. It was just a bit of light hazing until earlier this month, when a group of students decided to build the fabled pool as part of a larger project, reconstructing a virtual campus on Minecraft of the school in which they can no longer set foot.
“I just sent a message to a lot of group chats. It was just out of boredom,” said Rex Chung, one of the outgoing seniors constructing the digital Bronx Science.
I spoke with him and others in a group chat on Discord, a Slack-for-gamers app that’s been a popular social hub in this period of social distance.
“I was on student council, and it’s kind of disheartening seeing all the events we planned for the year basically go away,” fellow build-team member Tyler Pelayo said.
The students aren’t finished yet, but on a walk-through they hosted for me, it was clear how much detail has already gone into the product. That detail is partially a product of how much the students care about the school, and of all the free time they now have. In a re-creation of the spotlight room above the auditorium, my guides pointed out that my avatar was standing on a true-to-life pile of trash. “We’re actually looking at school blueprints to make sure that our building is following the size and the rooms are accurate,” senior Ashley Bao said.
A standard block in the game (Minecraft structures are made of cubes) represents a cubic meter in the real world, and the building’s dimensions are to scale, as are the sports fields across the street and the buses and the three true-to-life food trucks outside. The blockiness of Minecraft has led to some compromises. Classrooms that could usually fit roughly a couple dozen desks now have nine or so.
The server isn’t meant to be a stand-in for a tactile space in the way that a game like Second Life might be. It’s more of a novelty and a way to channel frustration and school spirit. And though it might not be used as a classroom, build-team member Jeffery Luo suggested that once it was complete, the environment might be used to play games like hide-and-seek or a Hunger Games–like fight to be the last student standing.
“It’s meant to be a role-play novelty server from the beginning,” Brian Lai said. “We didn’t expect it to be some really large network where a bunch of people are going to join.” Lai is hosting the school replica on his own computer at home, and the capacity maxes out around 50 users. Even if they wanted to, it’d be difficult to hold a prom or graduation ceremony on the virtual grounds.
“What’s really cool about the Minecraft version of the school is that we can really take things that we don’t actually have in our school and make them exist in the Minecraft version,” says another senior, Davide Hallac. “And make a more ideal version of Bronx Science. Also, we can overexaggerate issues that we have in the school.” On my tour of the campus, the builders made sure to point out a menacing crew of seagulls and oversize bees hanging out around the trash cans outside.
Jokes aside, however, the project has been a unifying force for the students, who often work on it late at night or whenever they have free time, building walls and rearranging rooms to better mimic the real thing. “In the past week, the fact that I’ve seen the school in Minecraft more than real life, it’s kinda sad,” Chung admitted. “We’re making the most out of it, and I think that’s what matters.”
*This article appears in the March 30, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!