When Griefers Strike: Community, Citizenship and Rebuilding

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What does it mean to be a community? When disaster strikes, how does a community respond? What does it mean to see real-world consequences of digital actions? When one group’s project was digitally vandalized just a day before it was due, a class of 6th graders demonstrated U Prep’s commitment to community and social responsibility by jumping in to help rebuild.

As an interdisciplinary project in 6th grade, students explore the effects of damming (and releasing) the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Students choose to focus their research on a particular discipline such as Literature or Social Studies. In the Science track, led by 6th Grade Science teacher Quynh Tu, students build recreations of the Elwha River valley before, during and after the dam phase in Minecraft. Working with creations of the Elwha River basin pulled from satellite mapping data, students label the effects of the dam and removal on the geography and ecology of the basin. Using a school-run Minecraft server, customized with an educational version called MinecraftEDU, all of the teams create their models in distinct areas of one shared digital world.

The day before the projects were to be presented to their peers, one team logged in to find their work had been extensively vandalized (called “griefing” in gamer culture) using the same tools that students had been using to build their environmental models. Trees were burned, a dam destroyed, a valley was flooded, and the valleys were filled with creatures called Golems which had been created by the vandals. In addition to one group’s models, the common loading area and instructions were destroyed as well.

The affected group took pictures of the damage, and reported it to Ms. Tu. When the class met for their last work session that day, Ms. Tu, Middle School Director Marianne Picha, and Director of Academic Technology Jeff Tillinghast asked the targeted group to describe what happened to the class. The students described how hard they had worked on the project, and how sad they were to see their work destroyed. They were obviously nervous about the deadline to present the next day, and weren’t sure how they would be able to make the deadline.

Without any teacher prompting, the conversation evolved as the class began to brainstorm solutions. Could the server be restored from a backup? The server backed up daily, so the server could be restored to the last image before the project was vandalized. That would mean that all the group’s work for the last day would be lost, though. The targeted group thought about that for a minute, and said that they didn’t think it would be fair for all the groups to be penalized just to save their work. Can the deadline be moved? It might be possible, but with the entire 6th grade ready to present on Friday, and with camping trips and beach day coming up the next week, it would be very doubtful. Finally, one student suggested: Most of us are done and ready to present. Can we help them rebuild?

The class moved into action as everyone logged into the world and begun to build–some finishing their own projects, and others helping the targeted group clean up and rebuild their work. The three students who had originally built the world shifted into project management mode, deciding what could be delegated to others (“There were trees all along this stretch of the river,” or “Drain out all the water,”) and what they had to rebuild themselves (such as their original dam design). As other groups finished their work, they moved over to help the class-wide rebuild. The period ended and moved into lunch, and students ran out to get their food and brought it back to the classroom to continue working. Throughout the rest of the day, whenever students finished work in other classes, they returned to help out, and a large group continued working after school. Finally, by the time the afternoon ended, the project was rebuilt and all the groups were ready to present their work the next day.

The nature of Minecraft, being an open space in which all students build freely, presented a calculated risk that someone would abuse the project or another student’s work. Responsible citizenship is a core value of the University Prep academic program, and these students demonstrated that value in action with their response as a class to this situation.

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