By Chiara Evans
Two East Chapel Hill High School students found a way to safely help children celebrate birthdays amid social distancing measures. Siblings Harrison Stanley, 17, and Sophie Stanley, 14, created DigiCraft, where they host virtual birthday parties through the online gaming service Minecraft.
The idea for DigiCraft started in June when Jennifer Stanley, Harrison and Sophie’s mom, saw a parent’s post on Nextdoor seeking help to create a virtual Minecraft experience for her son’s upcoming birthday. “I was putting myself in her shoes and thinking, if I had a younger kid right now, and they were having a birthday, it probably seems pretty lackluster when you can’t get together with your friends, and no one’s coming over to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or cut a cake with you,” Jennifer says.
She asked Sophie and Harrison if they could attempt to build a party, and they agreed to try. On Minecraft, players build with blocks, creating buildings and whole worlds. Advanced builders can overcome challenges, like zombie attacks. “At its core, it’s more just a game of creativity,” Harrison says.
After nearly 20 hours of building in Minecraft, the duo completed their first customized realm. During a party, up to 10 guests join a server where Harrison and Sophie moderate a series of challenges for the players. They’ve built 10 more realms since their first; once inside, players find scavenger hunts, quests and roller coasters and can choose to play in a haunted amusement park or a zombie town. To mimic a typical birthday party, they end the game inside a virtual party room where players’ characters eat cake and watch fireworks.
Sophie primarily handles communication with parents to explain how the game works. Harrison focuses on designing the game, integrating entertaining challenges throughout the realm. Both say they look forward to creating the parties and enjoy seeing the recipients’ reactions. “It really teared us up, and we think it cheered the kid up, too,” Sophie says of their first DigiCraft party. “It was a really great feeling to experience, and we wanted to try and help more kids feel that way.”
Jennifer says it’s rewarding to see her children create joy during a time when socializing is more difficult. “I can hear the kids playing when we’ve done video chats and hear them laughing,” Jennifer says. “Or if they’re in the chat box, I can see them saying, ‘This is amazing,’ and ‘This is so much fun.’”
In September, Sarah Koplar heard about DigiCraft in a Facebook group for Chapel Hill moms and thought it would be a perfect fit for her son Connor’s upcoming 10th birthday. “We planned on doing a big event for him, which we weren’t able to do this year due to the circumstances,” Sarah says. “When I saw [DigiCraft], I thought it would be kind of perfect and easy on my end.”
Sarah decorated their home and then set up a Google Meet where Connor and his friends socialized during their Minecraft experience. “[Many of the other] mothers said that they definitely wanted to consider something [like our party] in the future because it still gave our kids a social outlet while adhering to the strictest of guidelines for those in our crew who have immunocompromised people in their families and things like that,” Sarah says.
Jennifer admires her children for using video games, which often receive a bad rap, to unite kids of various ages. She says she is proud of the positive impact they made during a difficult time. “It’s also been a way for social distancing to be less painful for kids who are celebrating a milestone [and] just want to be with their friends,” Jennifer says.