Strolling the quad and chatting with friends in the Reg may feel like joys of the past, but they are far from gone. Enter Gather Town, an online experience that replicates the genuine human interaction that students, faculty and staff miss. Through a multitude of unique features, Gather Town simulates the real UChicago campus—from exploring the Quad, to coffee meet-ups with friends, to impromptu card games.
The UChicago launch of Gather Town was spearheaded by historian Ada Palmer, whose annual Italian Renaissance course has students reenact a papal election. Palmer’s friends suggested the platform as a way to virtually recreate Rockefeller Chapel, which serves as the reenactment setting for the Sistine Chapel.
“Zoom can't enable circulating through a space, ducking out for a private conversation or walking to the middle of the room and suddenly making a big announcement, but Gather Town can handle those things,” said Palmer, associate professor of early modern European history and the College. “As I looked into what it would take to make Rockefeller, I thought of how many other things—like receptions, dorm groups, RSOs, conference receptions, even a game like Humans v. Zombies —might be able to make use of it.
“So I thought: Why not make a whole campus?”
Palmer and a team of undergraduate students collaborated virtually through a Discord server to build the world from scratch. Tasks included learning the map editing software, brainstorming ideas, and designing and building rooms.
The final UChicago virtual campus is an easy-to-follow, web-based application. The site automatically connects to users’ microphone and video camera, and they can choose customizable pixel characters to represent themselves inside the campus. Users navigate with arrow keys, and the “interaction distance” feature will launch a video call between users who are five virtual feet or closer to each other. Together, students and faculty can reminisce in all of their favorite UChicago spots—like Ex Libris cafe—as well as discover hidden, imagined spaces like a fantasy castle and spaceship.
Ben Indeglia, a third-year molecular engineering major, kept in contact with Palmer after taking her Italian Renaissance class nearly two years ago. Indeglia was intrigued by a virtual space that resembled real life social dynamics, and he agreed to help and recruit others.
To Indeglia, one of the most unique features is the speaker view. A user can stand on a stage and see everyone in the audience. Audience members hear only the speaker, much like a real-life presentation or performance—but they can also interact with people sitting beside them, similar to whispering to a friend during a movie.
“Things like that are what I think is most critical for Gather Town because we're in a mental health pandemic right now, as well as a disease-based pandemic,” Indeglia said. “And one thing that's really, really important for everyone’s well-being is social interaction and not just being stuck in your room coding for 10 hours a day, or whatever your major is requiring of you.”
Witnessing students and faculty utilize the platform has been one of the greatest rewards for Palmer. She recently entered a new test room, where she ran into eight faculty catching up and playing cards. And days before while giving a virtual tour of the platform, she ran into a student asking for coffee shop recommendations.
“Serendipity has been almost erased from our lives for most of a year,” said Palmer, “But now, we can have those unexpected hellos and chance conversations again.”
First-year astrophysics and music double major Nikita Munsif was on the ExoTerra Discord server when Palmer asked if anyone wanted to help her work on a new project for the UChicago community to enjoy.
“Gather Town is a great resource that the community can use to build relationships during this time of remote learning and social distancing,” said Munsif. “It’s definitely not a replacement for in-person interaction, but I think its potential is nearly limitless, especially once we start adding in more cool spaces.”
Now, the team is taking input from Student Wellness, Rockefeller Chapel, UChicago Library and other campus groups in order to create custom details from their respective wishlists. They are also working to include more campus cafes like Grounds of Being; expand graduate student lounge spaces; and add more recreational areas like the lakeshore, Midway Plaisance and an imaginary labyrinth.
“I had an email last week from a student who's been unable to come to campus this year saying how happy it made them seeing the sunny quad, walking past the buildings we all miss,” said Palmer. “If that helps turn one gloomy day into a happy one, even for just a couple people who meet to chat in an old familiar haunt, those smiles are what it's for.”