We went inside Sunderland’s virtual ‘Sims University’ and saw the future of uni

Unfortunately there’s no option to put someone in a pool and take the ladders out

When Sunderland Uni innocently tweeted the words “Not long now til the doors open to your Virtual Campus”, they surely should have known what would come next.

What might have been a valiant attempt to give students some light during these dark times inevitably got rinsed. The bamzooki-esque avatar, the crunchy blue carpet, the weird fake plant – it could only be Sims University.

But that was just a single screenshot. How could anyone possibly judge without walking a mile in the pixellated shoes?

It should be very obvious where this is going: we took a trip inside Sunderland’s “Sims Uni”.

My tour guide Ste has just started his masters. He’s not seen Sunderland’s campus in the flesh before, so the virtual uni was his first introduction.

First up, you get to choose what to wear. Naturally, a fedora was an option, so I asked Ste to cut around campus in the manner of Simon from the Inbetweeners searching for someone to play Wonderwall at. “This is worth the five grand on its own,” says Ste.

Outside, the “Virtual Campus” is, presumably, an approximation of Sunderland’s campus. And it’s a nice looking campus. Just like any good video game, there’s a mini map in the corner, showing a fraction of the 122 users currently online. Everyone’s got their name floating above their heads, and you can hear crackly talking break out. Someone’s wearing a pirate hat. Movement, sadly, is limited to a walk. “I wasn’t expecting like Call of Duty or anything like that,” says Stu.

From this hub, you can enter any number of environments. We go inside the SU. It looks like an exact replica of a standard SU interior – which begs the question why you’d want an exact replica of an SU. The first thing I did as a child on the Sims was not to build a faithful recreation of a fancy admin building – I typed motherlode until my fingers bled and then made the most incoherent mansion imaginable. So I’m a tad disappointed that there’s no fire or weird Roman pillars.

All the people in the rooms appear to be real people, who apparently can talk to you. “I went in and they said hello, and I felt rude because I didn’t say hello back,” says Ste.

The SU was buzzing yesterday with the Freshers’ fair. Ste had to wait ages to get in, but it did have a Domino’s stand. Different societies have different rooms – the rowing room looks the same as every other room (weird light blue walls with no corners, blue carpets just like the ones at school), except that when Ste enters a YouTube video starts to play on the wall.

Next up on the tour is a big lecture theatre. Ste says there were 1,000 people in here listening to talks the other day. The Chancellor did a welcome talk yesterday, “but he actually kept freezing so nobody ended up seeing anything”, Ste tells me.

Instead, from the safety of their rooms, people were using their avatars to ask stupid questions. “Everyone was saying ‘ah this is shite, let’s go to the pub’,” says Ste.

I can see quite clearly that whoever is projecting onto the right-hand screen right now is yet to accept Google’s cookies. Apparently lectures are going to happen in here if the uni’s first choice app doesn’t work.

When it comes down to it, you could just describe a uni campus as a collection of rooms with screens seemingly playing at random. It’s reductive, though. Uni’s nothing without things to do. So what, I ask, is there to do? The invisible path game! Perhaps it’s meant to be a team game, but Ste just ends up walking on some desks.

Yes, it’s a weird experience. You can’t pull on here, and you can’t trap someone in a swimming pool, so in a way Sims Uni is neither uni nor the Sims. But Ste sees the bright side: “I think they’ve tried to make the best of it. It’s obviously not a proper alternative to Freshers’ is it, but it’s nice they’ve put something in place.

“On the whole, it’s worked pretty well. There’s obviously been some teething problems but when  you haven’t used something like this before as a university, and on the first day there’s  thousands of people trying to get in, I think they can  give a bit of leeway.”

And now I’m regretting not putting the Matrix on my UCAS form.

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