Archives inform a Royal Roads appearance in Minecraft

Hatley Castle as rendered in Minecraft
Chis Tang surrounded by lights

As archives manager of Royal Roads University, Jenny Seeman’s job is to preserve and manage the collective documentary heritage of the institution and the century-old estate on which it sits.

But she can’t always foresee quite how those aged documents and photos and maps will be used by people outside the university, from historians, authors and artists to people with a variety of other interests.

One inquiring fashionista, Seeman notes, wanted to source photos in order to recreate Edwardian clothing. A music student aimed to find unpublished musical scripts by Eleanor Dunsmuir, daughter of the estate’s original owners. Someone else sought floor plans for Hatley Castle in order to use them as the basis of a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Then there was Chris Tang.

Tang, a West Vancouver resident currently living in Halifax, N.S. and attending Dalhousie University, reached out to Seeman for original maps and plans for the estate so he could create a virtual version of Hatley Park for the hugely popular and critically acclaimed online game Minecraft, which allows players to take blocks, textures and environments, and shape them to their own vision.

Working not with the hammers, trowels and stones of the old-world craftsmen who built the castle in the early 1900s but with a keyboard, a mouse and pixels, he reimagined the Royal Roads grounds by removing some features, even moving the castle closer to Esquimalt Lagoon. And while he created Hatley Castle at 1:1 scale in his virtual world, he made changes there, too, rendering the iconic structure more top-heavy than it is in real life, including increasing the size of the Norman tower at its centre, to be “more pleasing to the eye.”

Which begs a question: Why Royal Roads?

A virtual depiction of Hatley Castle as seen in Minecraft.

Now 26 and working on a Master of Science in microbiology and immunology, Tang enjoys a love of revivalist architecture in Canada that predates his introduction to Minecraft as a teenager about to graduate from high school. As well, the RRU grounds made an impression on him when, as a kid, he attended a cousin’s wedding there and recognized the castle from the X-Men movies.

He says he spent two months this past summer building his Hatley Park, a creation of his own doing supported by a small but enthusiastic community of Minecraft builders called WBC Builds.

Tang, who will graduate at the end of 2021, says he sees nothing incongruous between his studies — he’s researching the relationship between humans and the microbial species that live in and on us — and his gaming passion. The limitations the game imposes on players force them to be creative and to think outside the bounds of normal game play, he says, noting those qualities are also valuable in scientific research.

“The work is really complementary,” Tang says. “When I feel, sometimes, that graduate work is being frustrating and I feel as if I’ve hit a bit of a snag… I find it relieving to pivot from real-life work to building in Minecraft.”

A depiction of Hatley Park as seen in Minecraft.

Says Seeman of Tang’s work: “I was struck by how pretty [the renderings] were, what a detailed recreation he’d done.

“This is a really good example of the marriage of arts and archives, creativity and bringing in historical records to create something new,” she says, noting many people access Royal Roads’ archival records through an online database.

“I’m always really fascinated by the ways archives get used because my principal raison d’être is to make records available long-term and provide access to those records.

“As an archivist, you can never predict how records will be used in the future. And that’s part of what I enjoy so much about my job… seeing how people will reinterpret the records and give them new life and new meaning.”