I’ve been producing in-person summer coding camps for kids aged 6-16, using Minecraft, since 2014. My business partner had long been running camps at private schools here in Dallas, and upon hearing from me about the way Minecraft gameplay correlates to the basic skills required for software engineering, he suggested we put together a camp to teach coding through Minecraft. He had just started a partnership with The Hockaday School’s co-ed summer camp program. I led the development of an open-source curriculum. This has been a fun and fulfilling “side hustle” for me. I’ve had the privilege of watching several kids work their way through from beginner to becoming a camp instructor to applying for computer science programs at university.
COVID-19 threw a wrench in any in-person camps this year. Hockaday waited until very late in the game to cancel camps. And while they gave us the go-ahead to offer our online camps under the Minecraft U name, that did not give us much time to pull something together.
But we did. We already run year-round Minecraft servers. We combined the collaborative aspects of Minecraft server play with a Discord server that allowed us to communicate in real-time with campers, as well as break them up into separate voice channels, just like how we break up larger in-person camps by age, ability, and interests.
Without the social capital and marketing effort from the Hockaday school, and with the technical challenges parents had to overcome, attracting campers and executing successful camp experiences was a significant challenge. I spent many Sunday nights on Zoom calls with parents helping them get set up with the necessary version of Minecraft and Discord.
The fact that camp attendance was lower did allow us to learn in a more controlled environment. At Hockaday, we fit 18 kids into a computer lab, managed by two or three instructors. On Discord, one instructor can only reasonably manage four or five kids at a time.
By being remote, we were able to have campers from all over the country. In fact, our star camper from this year lives in California.
Running camps on our own allowed us to continue offering camps throughout the entire summer. Hockaday’s program only goes through July. And this winter we have run a special winter camp, designed by our instructors, and it has gone very well despite having 11 kids present. The camp is focused on building, and our instructors are teaching different architectural styles as well as the basics of how to simply make things look nice in Minecraft, which is much harder than you might think.
I had unreasonable expectations going into this pivot, but I adjusted those expectations very quickly once we got started. We ended up breaking even for the year. Not great, but also not terrible. We certainly learned a lot.