Charles Benedict Nobleza, a second-year student of the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Institute of Information and Computing Sciences, has been a Minecraft player since he was a child. But he was able to put into good use his creativity and skill when he decided to build a Minecraft map of UST to serve as a means for the freshmen of Academic Year 2020-2021 to see the campus, albeit virtually, especially for those setting foot on it for the first time, and for them not to miss out on long-held UST traditions, the Welcome Walk in particular.

“The pandemic has cost us a lot in terms of celebrating our traditions,” said Nobleza in an online interview, adding, “So I took action to continue our yearly traditions in a different and virtual approach.”

Through the sandbox video game Minecraft, Nobleza — who has been playing the game for over eight years already — was determined to give these new students at least a virtual experience of the Welcome Walk, a tradition since 2002 where freshmen symbolically enter the University through the historic Arch of the Centuries to signify the beginning of their Thomasian life.

After gathering a team of 80 Thomasians through sending out a recruitment tweet, the Minecraft UST team took two months to painstakingly reconstruct the 21.5- hectare Manila campus in a Minecraft server dedicated to that purpose. With members from the different academic units and even alumni divided into smaller groups of “Builders, Assistants, Interior Designers, Floor Planners, and even Small Details,” each team member had their role.

Led by Nobleza and through real-time communication in the Discord messaging application, the group meticulously worked together with keen attention to detail, to give their target audience the very same view of UST that any Thomasian could see in real life. From the iconic large yellow letters forming ‘UST’ in the Olympic-size pool to the life-size ‘UST’ standing letters and Tiger figure in the Plaza Mayor.

“We tried to ensure [the correctness of the structures] by using other programs that do an accurate ratio of buildings in real life. We also have our fellow College of Architecture students to help, and one of them was Francpoe Javin Dalangin, a second-year student. He is our Master Builder and the one who corrected the scales of the buildings,” shared the 19-year old Nobleza.

Aside from making sure that the virtual structures look alike with the real-life counterparts, immersive features were added as well. Students can have their game avatar wear their respective college uniform and use the ID system to enter the buildings, as usually done in real life.

Since its first version in 2009, Minecraft has firmly established itself as a creative and collaborative medium. Minecraft has its appeal of easy-to-grasp gameplay, open sandbox world, and multiple modes of play; people of all ages have come to enjoy its blocky 3D world.

It is this kind of functional flexibility from which the Minecraft UST team benefitted. For Nobleza in particular, “the creativity it gives to its players and the vibes of being in an alternate universe, especially in a virtual game,” was what made him interested in the game. His background as an Information Technology student was also advantageous in leading the virtual reconstruction effort.

“[The process of] implementing new ways of experiencing our tradition in the field of technology, having it through a game also helped me learn [more about] some aspects of programming as well as design,” said Nobleza.

Thanks to the Minecraft UST team, the Thomasian freshmen explored the iconic structures of the reconstructed Manila campus in a two-hour virtual campus tour. Each academic unit had its schedule with synchronous streaming of the tour available through the UST Tiger TV Facebook page.

Shortly after the media attention that the UST Minecraft map got, Nobleza’s team already floated the idea of a virtual UST Paskuhan experience. There had been Minecraft versions of the towering 70-foot Christmas tree beside the UST Grandstand with the famous fireworks display that adds color to the UST skyline. With Nobleza and his co-Minecraft enthusiasts at the helm, the Thomasian community will continue to experience decades-long Thomasian traditions in virtual reality, as part of the so-called new normal.