Game Town UChicago

In the Gather Town version of UChicago, users can choose their own avatar. Then they can move around campus like it’s a ’90s video game. (Screenshot by Michael Vendiola)

“It’s-a go time!”

The Gather Town version of UChicago re-creates campus in 2D, 8-bit glory.

It’s UChicago, only flatter.

Unlike Zoom, the Gather Town version of UChicago’s campus works more like the real-life one—a shared space where you can move around and run into other people. This allows the spontaneous, low-key human interaction that students, faculty, and staff missed last academic year: hanging out on the quad or in the Reg, meeting up in a coffee shop, playing impromptu card games.

The project 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 Memorial Chapel, which serves as 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,” says Palmer, associate professor of early modern European history. “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. The result includes favorite UChicago spots as well as hidden, imagined spaces like a fantasy castle and a spaceship.

Users choose customizable pixel characters to represent themselves. The “interaction distance” feature launches a video call between users who are five virtual feet or closer to each other.

Another unique feature 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 whisper to people sitting beside them.

Soon after Gather Town went live, Palmer entered a new test room, where she was delighted to discover eight other faculty members playing cards. “Serendipity has been almost erased from our lives for most of a year,” she says. “Now we can have those unexpected hellos and chance conversations again.”