While the Elms community and the rest of the world made the transition to sheltering at home this spring, students enrolled in “ART 2102: Minecrafting Architectural Wonders” were busy traveling to Ancient Egypt, Greece, Africa, the Middle East, Victorian England, and 12th century Norway. How, you might ask, given all of the travel restrictions in place? By playing Minecraft, one of the best selling video games of all time.

Students’ recreation of Victorian London.

Minecraft was officially launched in 2011. The game is considered a virtual “sandbox,” where players are free to set their own goals and objectives. All of the action is dependent on the player’s imagination: Minecrafters have an unlimited collection of raw materials at their disposal, which they use to build, well, anything.

For years, Goose Gosselin, Ed.D., professor of graphic design, thought that Minecraft was the perfect alternative environment for learning to take place. Art history was a natural pairing with the game, as players can not only build structures that imitate real architectural styles, but also affix labels and descriptions to their creations, demonstrating the art historical terms and concepts they have learned.

Zoom meetings enabled the “Minecrafting Architectural Wonders” class to collaborate on their final project remotely.

When Gosselin pitched the idea of co-teaching the course to Cecily Hughes, M.F.A., lecturer in art history, he knew that he was onto something. Hughes took the lead on weekly lectures about the historical periods and visual cultures and acted as a consultant when students had questions about how builders and artisans went about their work. Gosselin provided support for navigating Minecraft’s gameplay, direction on the weekly assignment builds for the various periods of history, and executing the final exam. 

“How do you make history hands-on? By making it. Students learned the terminology and then had to build those structural elements themselves. They couldn’t just memorize everything.”

Goose Gosselin, Ed.D.

The end product was a cross-disciplinary course that offered students a new look at communication, art, design, and history. Gosselin and Hughes intentionally limited the number of graphics and technology majors to half of the class, reserving the remaining seats for students from other majors. This made for a mutually beneficial team dynamic, where students applied their individual strengths and expertise to further the group’s final project.

Reconstructing History Through Art and Architecture

Gosselin and Hughes presented art history as a cultural signpost of sorts, a collection of artifacts waiting to be decoded. By intentionally steering the subject matter away from North America and Europe when possible, Gosselin and Hughes also introduced their class to histories that run counter to the Western canon.

Students’ recreation of Middle Eastern architectural forms.

“We wanted to capture diverse cultural perspectives,” said Hughes, noting that she focused on art movements and concepts that could also be faithfully recreated within Minecraft. “We come from multi- religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and we see all of these different elements reflected in the art and architecture around us, so it’s important and often empowering to trace those interwoven histories.”

Students completed weekly lectures and two exams, demonstrating their comprehension by labeling their creations and conducting research on how different structures were actually composed throughout history. This included making everything from Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek friezes to neoclassical fountains and Nordic altars.

For their final project, students came together as a team and recreated the Heddal Stave Church, the largest wooden stave church built in Norway in the 12th century.

Heddal Stave Church. Photo courtesy of Micha L. Rieser
The class’ final rendition of the Heddal Stave Church.

Students were divided into four teams, so that progress could be made equally on the overall structure, interior details, and exterior landscaping. The class utilized a range of resources to make their building as realistic as possible, including consulting the actual building plans of the church; Google Maps, to obtain aerial frames of reference for the surrounding cemetery; and photos and videos of tourists exploring the inside of the space, posted to YouTube and Wikimedia Commons.

Julia Sarrazin ’22, a math major earning a minor in accounting and management, laid the groundwork — quite literally — for the group to begin its final build. 

“I was having trouble coming up with the dimensions of the floor plan since the church wasn’t just a rectangular shape,” she said. After contacting the staff of Heddal Stave Church and explaining the class’s final project, she obtained the building plans for the church, including the heights of the rooves and walls.

“With these blueprints, I used a ruler to convert all of the lengths into numbers of Minecraft blocks and worked with my classmates to build the entire structure of the church,” said Julia. They decided to make the exterior roughly twice the size of the church in real life, to accentuate certain details, like the dragon’s head ornaments.

An interior view of the church, as seen from the altar.

Ryan Shea ’20, a double major in history and English, acted as the group’s historian. In addition to authoring the “visitor’s guide” booklet posted near the entrance of the church, Ryan uncovered the history of the Holta monument, a towering obelisk located in the cemetery. He relied heavily on Google’s translation function to navigate a labyrinth of historical records and primary and secondary sources available online.

“My biggest takeaway is how interactivity can reinforce knowledge. I felt like what I learned was a lot more ‘real’ when I had to think about how to build it.”

Ryan Shea ’20

Nelson Morales ’24, a senior at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and an incoming first-year student this fall, said that the class gave him a quality introduction to the graphic design program at Elms.

“When we moved online, the class gave me something to focus on while my high school was figuring out how to switch to online classes,” he said. “It was a seamless transition. It made me excited for Elms in the fall because I really had the opportunity to feel out the campus and be comfortable with this next chapter in my life.”

A wider view of the virtual Stave church. Students utilized Google Maps to recreate the layout of the cemetery and to position structures like the gates and obelisk.

Mikayla Kenneson ’23, a graphic design and marketing double major, thought that her classmates made the best of transitioning to online learning in the middle of the course. “I missed being right next to my peers, and it’s a little harder to focus when online, but I had a pretty positive experience,” she said. 

Working within the virtual environment of Minecraft proved to be the ideal way to learn about art history, she added.

“Sure, you know what a pyramid or a Viking ship looks like, but being able to build it yourself and go through the steps to replicate it, and labeling types of parts, really helped me to understand more about these pieces of history.”

On April 30, the Architectural Wonders class presented their “final build,” as they call it, in the most fitting format: a virtual Zoom meeting. Faculty and staff tuned in for a tour through the Minecraft landscape, completing a circuit of the virtual globe and spanning hundreds of years of the past before seeing the Heddal Stave Church in all its digital glory.

This story was published in the spring 2020 issue of Elms Magazine.