By Mohammad Basit Khan
How the O’Week Co-ordinating Committee brought the campus experience to first years
How can a proper welcome to university with all its vibrant culture be emulated online, a space that has become infamous among 2020’s students for bleak interactions through LCD screens? Being on campus is itself a rite of passage, but what alternative could possibly inspire the same feeling with a new batch of students who have never stepped foot on campus grounds? As the 2020 LUMS O-week Co-ordinating Committee came together in late May, the prospective juniors and seniors quickly realised that they might have to completely reinvent the wheel in preparation for a fully online fall.
Madeeha Akbar ‘22, Junior Coordinator and friends, Ahmed Farid Khan ‘21 and Saad Siddiqui ’21 were looking for a fresh experience to add to the long-held tradition of orientation week, which was to go online for the very first time. Keeping in view the possibilities an online O-week could offer, Akbar came up with the idea for a virtual campus experience and suggested it in an internal committee meeting. With a go-ahead from Aadil Javed, President O-week ’20, the trio got down to developing a rough image of the plan they would pitch.
However, arriving at a suitable virtual platform was a process in itself. “We basically researched into how we could do it, and obviously, there’s Minecraft, but Minecraft is paid. So even if LUMS paid us to develop it, how would everyone else access it?” says Akbar. With Minecraft out of the picture, the team searched for alternatives. “The main thing was: even if it wasn’t free for us to build it, it had to be free for everyone else to use it.”
Exploring options of other online multiplayer games like popular first person shooter CS:GO, the group came across Roblox, a free-to-play online multiplayer game platform that, like Minecraft, allowed users to build and share their own maps, game modes, and more. For Akbar, Khan, and Siddiqui, it checked all the boxes. “So, we downloaded Roblox Studio, which is like the back-end of it,” says Akbar. “We were very new to this and the very, very first thing I made was a Khokha table, just the table – no benches. It was honestly a very long process learning how to use it.” However, with the help of videos and tutorials, in the span of a couple of days, the Khokha, superstore, and a small bit of the surrounding area were up and running on a server titled ‘Khokha funz’.
The pitch at the next Coordinating Committee (CC) meeting was an instant hit.
Everyone on the team was missing campus, according to Akbar, and the virtual Khokha was a pleasant surprise. “We were on Zoom, and that’s when we realised we would need Zoom for this, because everyone was excited and shouting things like ‘main idhar huun’,” says Akbar, describing the scenes from the pitch.
The yet tiny Roblox map had quickly made a place for itself at the CC but now it was time to initiate the formal procedure of approval from the LUMS admin. “It took the admin a bit because we were just showing them pictures. We told them to download it but they wouldn’t do that,” says Akbar. The team of three continued to work, however, and in the start of June as Javed announced the approved virtual events at a CC meeting, it was official: Roblox LUMS was happening.
With Akbar and the two non-CC developers Khan and Siddiqui, the O-week Roblox team came together with Senior Coordinator, Aamna Nasir ‘21, and Junior Coordinators, Zehra Ahmed ‘22, Rajveer Ahuja ‘22, and Shahbaz Asif ‘22.
“We had been thinking of ways to give students a holistic experience with a fully virtual project,” says Ahuja, “but we didn’t do much with it because things like connectivity issues and incompatible devices would make people feel excluded.”
However, when Ahuja and the other CC members were asked at the pitch to simply download the app on their phones, it was a game changer. “We didn’t know it could be done on a phone so easily. So, we looked into the requirements again and realised if even 95 percent of people could play the game, it would be a great hit.”
A group chat was quickly set-up after the first meeting and the group got to work on laying down the foundation of each building on campus. “The goal was that we make the outside very accurate,” describes Akbar, “but the inside as much as possible.”
With the campus shut down and out of access, visiting the buildings and getting an accurate view was impossible. “It was 100% off of memory,” says Akbar. “So, we looked at old pictures or videos for the tiny details. I remember when I was building the Pepsi Dining Centre, to get all the lawns and little bushes, there was a video one of us sent (that I used).” However, the process wasn’t only about reconstructing the brick and mortar virtually – recreating the experience was important. “Saad and Rajveer did the School of Science and Engineering (SSE),” says Akbar, “and then they added the whole batch night thing to it. It was really cool, and everyone was pumped.”
“I wanted to show the nightlife at LUMS and so the DJ setup at the batch night had to be in the game,” Ahuja says, explaining the process. “I mainly worked on the cricket ground, the football field, the library and its lawns, and I also thought about leaving some easter eggs, so I hid a cat in the gardens at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), a deck of cards at the Khokha – just to tell people what these specific places are known for. The creative freedom was very exciting.”
For Nasir, going out of bounds on the playable map resulted in a glitch that the team could shape into a fun experience. “Basically, if you went at the back of SSE, you could jump off the map and it would take your avatar to the sky. So, we played the Zindagi Na Milegi Dubara monologue at that point when we did the coaches’ training session,” says Nasir. “The idea was to make it not just another campus tour but also to have them (the first years) actually feel what it is like to be on campus. We felt adding (pop-culture references like) this would help them relate to it.”
However, the project wasn’t completely immune to hiccups. “We actually ended up making Khokha very big,” laughs Akbar. “Everything was much bigger than what the end product was. We tried scaling it down, but it wouldn’t, and we ended up having to delete all of Khokha and rebuild it again, smaller. It was still a little big but that was the point and we were like, okay this works.” Using readymade objects within the game environment was also prone to bugs and viruses, according to Akbar. The team ended up losing the Academic Block fountain to a similarly broken script that threatened to disrupt the entire project. “We took a minute and said, okay let’s be more cautious and every time we use something new, we have to check if the game is working,” says Akbar.
With a plan to allocate each group its own server in a given time slot at the event, the team prepared to kickstart O-week with a release trailer after keeping things under wraps for months. As the events began, the Roblox team went around making sure everything ran smoothly. However, the excitement and enthusiasm they saw from the first years was overwhelming.
The CC’s WhatsApp groups started flooding with videos and pictures of animated Roblox avatars having a good dance session at the batch night to a group prayer at the mosque for campus reopening. For Akbar, the idea of creating the charged atmosphere of any regular O-week was more important than just the virtual campus. “Yes, we built it but it all comes back to the coaches. They were very open and told them things like this is what we do over here and this is what the culture is in this particular spot. So, it comes down to the person who’s giving the tour, because for a lot of students this was the first time they were seeing anything remotely similar to campus.”
Describing the contagious excitement of the participating first years, Akbar recalls a particular voice note that a coach forwarded to the group, “It was from his kid and this kid was just so hyper, and he’s like this is so cool, I’ve seen many orientations from abroad and ‘LUMS chaa gaya’. I literally showed it to my parents, I was so happy about it.”
For Mariam Ali ‘22, this was her third O-week: first as an attending first year, then as a deputy member the year after, and this time around as a coach. “Being on-campus, the excitement levels and the connections you make is obviously a different experience. Although it’s hard to replicate it entirely, this was definitely a great way to simulate it to a large extent.” However, she had high hopes for an eventual welcoming on campus for the first year batch, “Hopefully, we can recreate that too if campus reopens in spring and we get to have a physical O-week!”
With the commencement of a fully online fall right after the O- week, there appears a need within the wider LUMS community for a return to the place that many called home. When asked about the future of the virtual map the O- week team built and the possibility of opening it to the wider public, Akbar says the game still lives. “We haven’t really finalised it in a particular sense but it’s in our minds. It’s not abandoned and it will be used, for sure. Let’s see.”