Thursday, May 8, 2014

Minecraft Afternoon Club - Rebuilding the GFS campus with Middle Schoolers

Since there was such a positive response from the Middle Schoolers and Minecraft, I was asked to start an afternoon club for the remainder of this school year. Seven of the Garrison girls signed up shortly after the announcement was made at morning meeting and I was delighted to find that some of the those from January's minimester course were on the list. This meant I had a group that was most certainly inclined to learn more about Minecraft and technology concepts. I planned to have them help me rebuild the GFS campus all while plugging in programming and electrical engineering concepts by using command blocks and Redstone, respectively. So far, we have constructed quite a few parts of the campus, but we definitely have plenty more work ahead of us. We've faced numerous challenges and have a list of unanswered questions although the girls have made a clear and solid effort to overcome the hurdles in place in order to meet our goal.

Preserving the detail and beauty of the campus has been my main priority from the start. Since I first had this idea in mind, I've been taking careful note of the intricacies as I walk around campus. Each time I notice something new, I take a picture with my cell phone and reference it later while I am building in the game. I even went so far as to gather original drawings which contain accurate measurements of each building's dimensions. Translating real-world measurements in to Minecraft was a bit tricky at first, but I decided that our scale would be 2 feet = 1 Minecraft block. This decision resulted from a few iterations of the Marshall Offutt building; some felt too big, some felt too small, but using this scale felt just right. Of course, nothing is going to be absolutely perfect since we are restricted by using only cubes, but we can do our best to compensate for lack of accuracy with some clever workarounds.

Thus far, we have been working on reconstructing the Marshall Offutt building as it was the first set of floor plans I was able to obtain and, not to mention, it is seemingly the "main" building on campus considering it contains the Admissions Office along with the office of the Head of School. Below are some side-by-side comparisons of the real Marshall Offutt building versus our rendition within Minecraft.

          (Front-side view of Marshall Offutt as of 4/28/2014)

           (Our Minecraft rendition of Marshall Offutt from a similar perspective)

For the readers who aren't familiar with Minecraft, you'll notice the lack of fine detail with the in-game screenshot. Objects such as the trees aren't very easy to create and you often need to manually adjust them to your needs. We must use our best judgement to pick blocks and textures that closely match what we are building.

Another not-so-obvious difference between the real-life picture and in-game screenshot is the front entrance of Marshall Offutt. You'll notice in the real picture that it appears to be significantly wider than the in-game version. This is because we found ourselves facing a dilemma when first constructing this archway. If we want to change this, depending on whether or not we add an even or odd number of blocks, it will either be too wide or we will have an odd number of blocks which causes the doorways to be off-center. We've had to make this same decision regarding many other parts of the building, not just the entrance.

Currently, it is 8 blocks wide which, since we are working with an even number, allows everything within the archway to be symmetric which stays true to the building's design. We thought adding one block would make it wide enough, but we then lost symmetry since we are working with an odd number of blocks. If we added two blocks to the width, it became slightly too wide despite maintaining symmetry.

We balanced our options and decided that symmetry was most important in this case. On top of that, we felt that there was less of an impact from using 8 blocks where it felt just a little too small as opposed to using 10 blocks which felt way too wide. Clearly, we've learned to compromise!

Below are more side-by-side comparisons:

           (View of Marshall Offutt from the courtyard)

           (Similar perspective in our Minecraft world)

           (Pathway on the left side of Marshall Offutt)

           (Similar perspective in our Minecraft world)

Of course, these are not intended to represent our final product as we still have much more work to do. Once we are content that Marshall Offutt is finished, we will complete the inside detailing which includes things like desks, chairs, whiteboards, and even non-player character (NPC) representations of real GFS faculty members.

One of our more important goals involving this campus rebuild is to have the girls get their hands on Redstone and command blocks. We will use Redstone to design electrical circuitry which will control the lighting system throughout the building and command blocks to write scripts for various functions that cannot be achieved using normal Minecraft blocks. A simple example of this includes checking a condition for a player's age to either allow or disallow entry to certain rooms.

At our next meeting, we will resume work on Marshall Offutt and, hopefully, get started working on Redstone and command blocks. I can tell the girls are eager to learn more than just how to play Minecraft. They want to take home knowledge that is applicable elsewhere and I know this will be a good starting point for them. Once they learn the basics of programming syntax and logic, they will have no problem transitioning over to other languages whether it be procedural, object-oriented, web-based, whatever!