While colleges around the country have cancelled their graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors and graduating master’s students from the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) games program held their convocation in the best way they knew how – in an online video game they built specifically for the ceremony.

On Friday, May 1, EAE’s 2020 graduating class logged into a virtual 3D recreation of the program’s campus studio and participated in a first-person, interactive version of a graduation ceremony. Unlike popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) games where players solve puzzles and collaborate on quests, these graduating students – more than 200 of them – walked in a procession, listened to speakers and received their graduation cords like they would in a real-world convocation. The event was streamed live on the University of Utah’s Twitch channel at https://twitch.tv/UniversityOfUtah so family and friends could watch. A ceremony was held each for the graduating seniors and the master’s students.

“We needed to have something special for the students because this may be the end of their academic careers, and we wanted them to leave on a high note,” said University of Utah School of Computing professor Robert Kessler, who is also EAE’s co-founder and executive producer of the virtual event. “And we’re games people, so we said, ‘Let’s make a game.’”

Graduates walked their in-game avatars through a faithfully recreated 3D version of the EAE building where they took most of their classes – located just north of the U’s new law school – that included meeting rooms, tables, chairs, poster art, TV screens, even the building’s bathrooms. There were speeches from EAE leadership, students will be individually called up, and they will be recognized for their incredible achievements from their years at Utah.

Kessler and three students, Light Bates, Doug Hawthorn and Jacob Nielsen, worked tirelessly over two weeks, leveraging their expertise in the Unreal game engine, 3D modeling and animation, and game design that the students learned from EAE’s program. One student built the 3D version of the EAE building using the video game engine Unreal Engine 4, the same software used to make games like “Borderlands” and “Fortnite.” EAE’s esports production team that streams the U’s esports matches on Twitch produced the live stream of the event. The EAE development team leveraged the SpatialOS multiplayer networking tool to quickly support hosting of the large numbers of students, faculty and staff that will be live in the game.

“So much of what we teach students is about community and being part of teams, being part of the EAE family,” said R. Michael Young, director of EAE. “To have something where we came together to acknowledge our students’ accomplishments was important. It was so natural to put it into a game.”

Entertainment Arts and Engineering, under the U’s College of Engineering, launched in 2007 and has quickly become one of the most highly regarded video game development programs in the world. This year, EAE was ranked the No. 1 public university in games worldwide, according to the latest rankings by The Princeton Review. The program is known for graduating top-notch students that are sought after by the games industry.

Click below to see videos of each ceremony.