Quarantined hundreds of miles away from Philadelphia, I meet Andrew Guo (C ‘21) in front of Van Pelt for a tour of Penn’s campus.
“Let’s start off on the eastern side of campus first and work our way west,” he says. He’s wearing a green onesie and sunglasses obscured by hair the color of a firetruck. He turns towards Meyerson Hall and flies into the air, high above Van Pelt.
I guess he doesn’t look like this in real life, but I’ve never actually seen him. We’re meeting for the first time on a server in Minecraft, where a group of students are building a replica of Penn’s campus to use for the Penn Relays, Hey Day, and graduation.
“Right here, we got DRL [David Rittenhouse Laboratory],” Andrew says. “A very special place in my heart as I'm a math major. I look at this building, and I immediately feel depressed again.”
We walk—or fly, a perk of Penn’s digital campus that sadly doesn’t transfer to real life—by the buildings we saw on a daily basis before spring break, from the Engineering Quad and College Hall all the way to Huntsman and the Tampons. At the center of campus is a pixelated Love Statue, standing amid cubic trees by Locust.
Andrew is a witty guide, poking fun at himself and the campus in classic Penn fashion. When we pass by the Chemistry Building, he mentions “fond memories of studying here at 2 a.m.,” and he jokes about the constant fire drills at Lauder College House.
But near the end of the tour, he’s more sentimental.
“I miss Penn’s campus sometimes,” he says, this time without a laugh. “Just being able to log on, and look at it again, and see some of the people you already know—it’s really quite nice.”
Penn’s decision to move classes online led thousands of students to leave Philadelphia without a goodbye. Weeks later, the dust has more or less settled, and students are continuing college in social isolation.
Loneliness can give us an ache as powerful as hunger or thirst. On campus, we were close to classes, clubs, Greek life, and dorm communities. Even the chance of running into a friend on Locust fed our need for interaction. But Penn is no longer centered in Philadelphia; it’s scattered across the world.
People everywhere have gotten creative, from hosting online parties to cooking classes to worship services. Penn students have been no different. Here are three narratives of students keeping Penn traditions and communities alive in quarantine—using Minecraft, virtual dance class, and Zoom Mafia games.
Andrew first thought of building Penn’s campus online during the extended Spring Break, when he found a video of a Japanese school hosting their graduation on Minecraft. The junior wanted to give his class the chance to celebrate Hey Day with a replica of Locust, as well as provide a venue for commencement.
He and his friends set up two Minecraft servers: a survival server, where players gather resources and fight mobs, and a creative server, where people have control of infinite resources to design complex structures like a college campus.
“We want everyone to be able to come on and take a virtual tour of Penn in Minecraft, no matter where they’re from,” says Makarios Chung (E ‘20), a builder on the creative server. He says there are 15–20 players actively working on the campus, using Google Maps and floor plans to gauge building measurements.
The students are well on their way to crafting a realistic experience of Penn. On one of my wanderings on the server, I walk into Kappa Sig and find dozens of vials of poison labelled “Natty” in the basement. (The next time I log on, all the beer is gone.) It might be a cheap joke, but someone cared enough about his frat to build the whole thing online, alcohol and all. The campus is filled with small tokens of appreciation, from the carefully placed flowers near the Love Statue to the "CHINES FOOD” sign on the Yue Kee food truck under the bridge.
Andrew says every student has a fundamental connection to Penn’s campus—a connection that’s missing now that most students are away.
“People associate location with emotions,” he says. “As soon as Hill was done [in Minecraft], I immediately walked in, walked to the fourth floor blue corner, and I'm like, ‘There is where my room should be.’”
“Part of the reason we’re also doing this in Minecraft is that it allows us to re–experience some of the same memories we might have while physically being on campus,” says Makarios.
“There's some parts of campus in Minecraft right now that have been recreated convincingly enough,” he says, “that if I cross my eyes a little bit...I can make it feel like I’m walking down 34th street to engineering for class, with all the same memories that come with it.”
“Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa blares through my speakers as I try to do jumping jacks in time to nine other people on my laptop screen. Erin Hayes (C ‘22) shouts instructions as we move to kicks, then squats, then leg stretches in our warmup.
Most instructors don’t have to worry about internet lag and faulty speakers in their workshops, but Erin, a dancer in the Arts House Dance Company, takes the difficulties in stride with a smile. She looks serene despite the circumstances, her blonde hair tied back neatly into a ponytail, with natural sunlight pooling onto the yoga mat beneath her feet.
The sophomore created the Penn Quarantine Dance Series event on Facebook to connect with her friends and replicate a dance studio experience. The workshop, an extension of a series of dance classes she organized on campus last summer, invited both new and experienced dancers to learn Erin’s contemporary choreography.
Erin plays “Bone Structure” by Ron Pope from her speakers before moving us slowly through the steps of her choreography.
“Draw your hand up the middle of your chest, and then over this way,” she says, pulling her right hand up her body until it cups her face. She turns her face left with her hand in one smooth motion.
Pope’s voice, effusive and grainy like sandpaper, leads us through the movements.
Your bone structure…
Erin kicks her leg up while waving her arms in a circle. She turns and dips her left arm to the ground, opening her body up before receding inwards, both arms now tight against her chest.
Was more striking to me…
Her left hand grazes her face, elbow jutting upwards. She moves to a lunge position, legs bent and both palms open.
Than all your lack of empathy…
Her movements are full of contrasts, high and low, open and closed. It mimics the turmoil of the song, which she rightly dubs “emo.” As I follow her, I become aware of how my muscles stretch and reach, something I haven’t had to think about in weeks.
A few days later, I call and ask Erin why she was motivated to lead an online class.
“I've been itching to dance for several weeks now, and I knew that all my friends were wanting to see each other and dance together,” she says. “I thought that it would be really cool to bring the Penn dance community back together through a fun workshop.”
As a dancer and active member of the Dance Arts Council, Erin has seen how quarantine has stifled the performing arts that are usually so prevalent on campus. Dancing with others during social distancing had seemed impossible, but she became inspired when she saw other dancers using Instagram and Facebook Live to lead workshops.
After leaving Penn for the suburbs of Philadelphia, Erin has also felt the social effects of being away from college.
“You're not seeing any friends, and that's a very different experience than being on a college campus where everyone’s so close by, especially in a city like Philly,” she says. “We’re all so close together all the time that not having people to just go and talk to has been a challenge.”
Depending on student demand, she’s open to holding more workshops during quarantine to keep dancers and non–dancers alike social and active.
“It's kind of a weird place that we're all in right now, especially college students being picked up and taken out of the environment that they're so used to being in,” Erin says. “Having things like this to come together has hopefully brought people joy. It’s definitely brought me joy.”
Later that day, I log onto my laptop and double–click the white and blue Zoom icon that’s become familiar to me through online classes. Luckily for me, I’m not attending a lecture, but a weekly meeting for the Penn Social Deduction Club (SDC)—digital edition.
A row of faces appear above me as I join the meeting, and a dozen people start speaking over each other in their excitement.
“Welcome to this meeting of Zoom Mafia,” Ian McCormack (C ‘21) says, stemming the flow of conversation. He splits all the players into groups and sends them to breakout rooms, bringing a night of murder and intrigue to students stuck at home.
“Mafia is a social deduction game where there are two sides,” Ian, the club’s founder, explains to me before the meeting. “The goal of the game is, if you’re town, to figure out who the mafia are, and the goal of the game, if you’re mafia, is to deceive people.”
The game, which sounds deceptively simple, has been the backbone of SDC since the organization’s start at Penn. Members have met to play Mafia every Friday night in Houston Hall for the past three years.
But Penn’s move to online classes made it impossible to continue Mafia in person. Ian and other board members were determined to continue their weekly meetings and decided to transition to Zoom.
I ask him why he thinks it’s so important to keep the club active during quarantine.
“There's no more profound answer than to stop people's loneliness,” he says. “We are a center of social life for a lot of people in the club, and there's a lot of people who make it out every single week.”
Since most students are separated from traditional social outlets, he wanted to preserve the “tight knit community” many members of SDC have come to rely on.
Sam Scott (W ‘22), an SDC board member, believes Mafia creates a unique sense of intimacy among its players, who have to closely examine each others’ body language, facial expressions, and habits to win the game.
“There’s a focus on understanding and cooperating with the people you’re playing with, so by playing the game, you get to know the other players better too,” he says.
“The fact that we've played with each other for so long... We start to get to know each other's tells. It gets intense."
Since I'm new to playing Mafia, I decide to sit back and listen over Zoom until I can get my bearings. Every night in the game, the mafia chooses to kill one townsperson. Within the town, there’s a cop, who can investigate one person a night and learn their role: a doctor, who can choose to save one person, and a gunsmith, who can give anyone a gun that can be used to kill one person during the day.
I get a notification from Sam, the narrator, telling me I’m “town.”
Over the course of two hours, players grill each other as accusations fly left and right. Hand gestures, stutters, and pauses are all evidence that someone’s suspicious.
More people die every night, but I miraculously make it into the final three with a gun in my hand. Based upon some expert sleuthing by the cop, now dead, I go into the last day knowing that one of the remaining players is mafia. Both are dead set on convincing me they’re innocent.
“One of us is telling the truth. One of us is lying,” says Maddy Adams (E ‘23). “We’re both going to try to spin the events in a way that makes it look most favorable to us.”
Maddy lays out all their past actions from the first night until now, emphasizing each point with a wave of their arms. They seem desperately earnest, loading everything on Joe Innace, Ian’s friend.
“Are you convinced by any of this, or are you just enjoying this, or what?” Joe asks me. He’s calm and confident. He says he’s the doctor, not mafia, and he’s been saving people, not killing them.
It’s not clear to me who’s lying. I’ve only known Joe and Maddy for two hours, but something seems off about Maddy. They’re too emphatic, like they have to work twice as hard to be convincing. Joe presents his evidence and lets it speak for itself.
Everyone who’s already died is still watching on Zoom, and I have no idea if I’m about to disappoint them. I decide to trust my gut.
I type “BANG Maddy” into the Zoom chat. I hold my breath.
“Good job, Maddy was mafia,” Sam’s voice booms. A cacophony of voices flood the room as the townspeople celebrate, dissecting each action in the game like it’s a sports play–by–play.
“Well done by town! Good save.”
“The mafia threw it for themselves!”
“Oh my God, Maddy, that was impressive, but super annoying.”
“You just bullshitted that to the ground, my God!”
“This is why you don’t give up early,” they say. “Even if you don’t win, you get moments like this.”
That's what we're all searching for—whether we find it on Zoom or a virtual Locust Walk. Penn is more than a place. It's moments like this.