Moloch’s Gauntlet / CGSA 2023

This is the video and transcript of our 2023 CGSA demonstration.

If you would like more information or to find out how to play this experience, please visit our visual essay.


Hi everyone, we are the TAG Minecraft Bloc Student Cabal from Concordia University, and we’re demoing our project Moloch’s Gauntlet, which is an escape room built within the game Minecraft. Before we show you our project and dig in to the ideas about pedagogy we developed around it, a super quick introduction: 

Hello, my name is Nat and I’m a graduate of Concordia University, with a degree in Computation Arts.

Hello my name is Andrew. I’m an undergraduate student at Concordia University pursuing a major in Philosophy and a minor in Computer Science.

Another integral member of our team, Theodore Fox, couldn’t be here today. Theodore is an undergraduate student at Concordia University studying English and Creative Writing.

And my name is Angelica, I’m an independent undergraduate student with a previous BA in Communications from Concordia. 

We initially came together in January 2021 when, with COVID-19 restrictions fully in place at Concordia, we were enrolled as students in a class that we would soon discover would be taught entirely within the game Minecraft. The class used an inverted or flipped classroom structure, and centered around what Darren Wershler and Bart Simon, our instructors in that class, call the allegorical build, in which in-game experiences are used to think critically about non-game material and topics, and which shifts, in their words “the responsibility for learning from the teacher and educational designer to the students”.

What we’re going to show you today is our attempt to create a collaborative learning experience for the students in the class that followed us, who we saw, in the post-lockdown return to campus, as far more individualistic and outcome-focused than our class had been. We wondered whether we could help create an in-game experience that would connect with the class material while also promoting relationship-building and cross-team collaboration and that brought us to further consideration of Minecraft’s wider potential as a pedagogical tool, and the reframing of how games are used in the classroom. 

A quick note about our project’s theming before Nat takes you through the puzzles: The teaching team on the original course uses Moloch, the baby eating demon that is a popular allegorical figure in modern literature and culture, as the central figure in the class’ narrative, so it was natural to us to continue that worldbuilding, which is why the escape room is called Moloch’s Gauntlet, and uses some of the established course theming, such as blackstone blocks in the puzzles and Moloch sends messages to the players upon the escape room completion, so we wanted to continue that atmosphere for the class that followed us.

In this first sequence of footage, we will walk you through the puzzles we developed for Moloch’s Gauntlet, as well as the thinking that informed their creation and the project as a whole.

We chose puzzles and an escape room because escape rooms provide players with what Mark Pearcy, Eric Guise, and Dana Heller call an “ill-structured problem”, where there may only be one solution, but the path to the solution requires group experimentation. This experimentation encourages students to take initiative as a group and to learn how to communicate and work collaboratively.

In the first puzzle, which we dubbed “the maze puzzle”, one player must navigate a room full of booby-trapped pressure plates while the other two players must instruct them through it using their own room as a guide – which is a labyrinth that reveals the safe path through the maze. This challenge establishes the importance of teamwork and verbal communication for the students, two things that recur throughout Moloch’s Gauntlet. It hinges on the group of three players communicating precise information to each other, back and forth, until the group discovers the path to the exit.

In the second puzzle, which we call the “bomb puzzle”, each player starts off in a different room. Together the three must try to solve a series of short challenges and with each one the area opens up more and more until the path forward is revealed. Having each of the three players separated into different rooms gives them each an opportunity to take on a leadership role. Each player has a piece of information that only they can provide, or an item that only they can pass on to the rest of the group, therefore if the group dynamic was unbalanced in previous rooms, then this one ensures that every player will end up participating. In addition, this puzzle is where we reference the Red Room from Twin Peaks, as a nod to one of the first prototypes we created for the project. This prototype was a room decorated with a fuzzy red texture that was painful on the eyes, and though it wound up unused, it was instrumental in our development process. Throughout this project, we were constantly reflecting on our progression from the role of student to the role of researcher, and this was part of that process.

Final puzzle, the “Death Bridge”, the players must kill their avatars by jumping down into a large pit and succumbing to the damage caused by the fall. At the moment of death, a gravestone is created. The gravestones take up the same amount of space as a regular Minecraft block, and can thus be used as platforms. Once they have stacked enough gravestones on top of each other, the players can use these gravestones as a bridge to the other side. However, once the stack becomes high enough, fall damage is less effective, so players can opt to strategically kill each other by pressing a button that shoots arrows over the top of the stack. Out-of-the-box thinking is required to discover that dying is the path to success in this puzzle. 

In creating Moloch’s Gauntlet, we used the methods and techniques of the class construction, that is, we used only modded Minecraft, to inform the nature of the experience we sought to create and in doing so, the same process of group collaboration that we sought to create for the students took place within our group. However, instead of being facilitated by something provided by the game, our collaboration was facilitated by the game design process. Creating the Death Bridge puzzle required out-of-the-box thinking as well, and this is because of how many issues arose during its development. By working on it, along the rest of this project, we designed, tested, iterated, experimented, failed, succeeded, and failed again numerous times together, and this brought with it a challenging process where critical thinking in a collaborative mode proved invaluable. This collaborative, failure-centred aspect of the game design and development process points to potential avenues for pedagogical exploration. In education, the focus is often on success but the iterative failures of game development promote a collaborative approach and creative problem-solving that can deepen student relationships and strengthen peer-focused learning. Thus, we believe modded Minecraft can function as an “open platform” that makes this iterative game design process accessible.

These next few clips highlight the contraptions and inner workings of our escape room. We used a combination of command blocks, redstone circuitry, and contraptions to build the experience. 

Command blocks are special objects that can be placed in-game and edited in order to execute simple lines of code. We use these blocks to play sounds, send messages and apply special effects to players. Most importantly, they’re used to teleport players. 

Moloch’s Gauntlet is modular, which allows us to modify the order of the rooms and what happens in between them. The modularity lets us space things out, because in the class server we originally built it for we ran into some problems with lag. Having a lot of game entities crammed into a tiny place is taxing for the server. The teleportation of players is seamless, allowing the player to remain immersed and not distracted. 

For the most part, we wanted the escape room itself to be more material and kinetic, like a living being, which is where the mods came in. Of all the mods we use to create our escape room two of them stood out quite heavily: Supplementaries by MehVahdJukaar which granted us more freedom in where we place our redstone and most importantly, the Create mod by Simibubi, which adds to the tangibility of Minecraft construction by allowing blocks to be connected and moved together with new and complex mechanical systems. By providing motors, pistons and drive shafts, blocks can be moved in ways unmodded Minecraft won’t allow without relying on the invisible coding of command blocks. That’s what you’re seeing here with the walls shifting in the background. Using the argot of Create players, we call these connected blocks systems contraptions. 

John Jagersma highlights the importance of participatory design in his paper “Empowering Students as Active Participants in Curriculum Design and Implementation”. We have had first hand experience with this in our journey from students to student researchers. Designing these contraptions was a back and forth process between us elaborating on each other’s work, and is something we decided to extend to the player. By revealing the contraptions and how they function, we hope other students might add to or adapt this project and are inspired to use their student voice. What you see on screen now is the whimsical looking contraption used to rain rewards onto the players at the end of the gauntlet. It remains hidden while you receive the rewards but as you enter the credits section soon after, you’re offered a glimpse behind the curtains. The contraptions allow us to share our experience and show how it works in a way that is not as evident in code. More advanced contraptions appeared like Rube Goldberg machines. They’re performative in nature and symbolically modern, like a fantastical steam locomotive. This helped us learn exactly how to work them, since what you see is often what you get, for example, the giant pointing fingers press buttons. 

Out of all the contraptions we built. The one that encapsulated our role as both participants and creators of the experience is what we call the unlidder. The unlidder is the contraption you see on screen now, opening and closing the roof of our multi room puzzle. Most games require those who wish to make custom maps and experiences rely on external tools. Minecraft, a creative game by design, lets us make our experience within the confines of the game itself. In order to quickly jump between rooms for testing, we decided to make the Unlidder a contraption that is built exclusively for us. It was a solution to our own puzzle, making us rethink ourselves as not only creators of the escape room, but also players, teachers and students. In Reassembling the Social an Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Bruno Latour writes, “to say something is constructed means that it’s not a mystery that has popped out of nowhere. Or that it has a more humble, but also more visible and more interesting origin… The same is true of artistic practice”. In our escape room function is also the form and by showcasing how it works we hope to inspire others to create.

This next sequence of footage captures what we call our liminal and interstitial rooms, which are spaces between the puzzles that are designed to reinforce one of our fundamental research questions, which is whether the “Minecraftiness” of the game could be dismantled with limited intervention in order to reframe the representational and accumulative nature of the game. In other words, we sought to create an aesthetic experience that mirrored the defamiliarization of modernity, so, for example, a farm worker might have seen a steam engine for the first time. So far you’ve seen some of the visual references we connected with, such as Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares from 1961 in the entrance lobby, and elements of op art and WWI dazzle camouflage. We were also inspired by James Turrell’s work as you see here, and of course you saw the nod to Twin Peaks earlier on.

Minecraft is by default, kitsch and representational, and we were really looking to unsettle that, but even in leaning into these references, the goal wasn’t mimesis, or the kitsching of modernist art; all of it is really meant to echo avant-garde artistic practice in which as some works are “understood as anoriginally heterogeneous” in the words of Andrew Benjamin, or in other words, the repetition of these visual ideas in Minecraft is something “repeated for the first time”. We connect that to Mark Fisher’s ideas around hauntology, and we essentially sought to mine the past for imagined futures that could force a reframing of how Minecraft is understood. We inserted elements designed to inspire awe and evoke the sublime, using light and shadow to create environments that are decidedly “not Minecraft”, including experimenting with anamorphosis as you see here and other techniques. We also created spaces that connect back to the original course materials. You saw Moloch’s office, which is a nod to the fact that a modern demon would be a faceless bureaucrat watching players over surveillance camera, and this extended sequence which leads up to the Death Bridge puzzle that Nat described earlier, and this whole segment here really connects the escape room to the course readings on the mechanization of death and really gives a lot of clues and hints as to the puzzle solution as Nat described it.

The process of constructing these spaces, and the technical challenges that faced us saw us oscillating between failure and iteration, and created a collaborative critical thinking process that Frederic Jameson sees “as a kind of scanning that, moving back and forth across the text, readjusts”, a “dialectical” experience that mirrors Nic Watson’s idea of procedural elaboration and really speaks to the kind of collaborative deepening, both with the original course material, our own experimentation, and our own collaborative learning that took us from students to researchers..Coming up you’ll see a room directly inspired by an artist named Esther Stocker who works with geometric full room installations, and the creation of this room, and the way it’s designed to dismantle Minecraft’s own rigorous geometry really kicked off this thread of this project.. We connect all these visual experiments and the process of creating and iterating them to a wider body of knowledge around Minecraft, and the way in which the metagame in gaming culture can function as an affinity space. In other words, the wider Minecraft community functions as an alternative academic space, and this is an idea that really reframes our idea of what a classroom could be, should be. Harnessing a game as a discipline other than as simply a text allows for exploration into other disciplines, and critical thinking about Minecraft in this affinity space functions as its own body of knowledge, but also operates as a way of engaging with other bodies of knowledge.

We hope you enjoyed this demonstration of our project, and this overview into some of our thinking around it. There is a lot you saw that we didn’t have the time to describe or explain, but we’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. As for our further reflection on this project, we’ve finished a paper that really digs into and expands on what we discussed today that we’ve submitted for publication. We’re also currently working with the TAG Minecraft Bloc on our current year long project which is about Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, which we prepared for by conducting extensive research with first hand materials thanks to the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Cedric Price archive here in Montreal. The Fun Palace was planned to be a large temporary structure in London in the 1960s that was to use cybernetics to respond to the needs and desires of its visitors. It unites the worlds of revolutionary theatre and avant garde architecture, and though the project was never realized, our group is building it in Minecraft, in fact, the main superstructure is where we’re standing right now.

With regards to Moloch’s Gauntlet, we’d like to thank Darren Wershler and Bart Simon, and the entire TAG Minecraft Bloc for their guidance and inspiration, and Remi Arora and the Concordia University Lab for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for their generous support.