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3D world-builders

Computer science students take first place in Minecraft competition

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

A team of Memorial students has won first prize in an international artificial intelligence (AI) competition in procedural content generation.

Screen captured images from an AI-generated settlement that won Memorial students first place in the 2020 Generative Design in Minecraft Competition.
Photo: Submitted

In Winter 2020 Dr. David Churchill, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science, taught a new course, Computer Science 4303 – Artificial Intelligence for Video Games.

One option for the course’s final project gave students the task of writing a computer program that used AI to generate villages in the game Minecraft – the bestselling video game of all time.

“Normally humans do that sort of content creation, but if you can use AI to generate settlements in a variety of different environments automatically, then game designers don’t have to sit down and do it manually,” he said.

Infinite world

Troy Pfinder and Trent Hancock, currently in their final semester; and Donald Ryan, who completed his program in the spring, aced the course project and, at the advice of Dr. Churchill, submitted their work to the 2020 Generative Design in Minecraft Competition (GDMC).

In late September the students learned they had beat 10 other teams of AI researchers from around the world to win first place.

“We were one of only two teams that actually used our own names in the competition,” said Mr. Hancock. “So, we have no way of knowing who the other competitors were. They could have been 15-year-olds or they could have been PhD students.”

The AI algorithm must be able to generate settlements that can fit into whatever randomly generated environment they are given, and be functional and aesthetically pleasing.
Photo: Submitted

The 3D Minecraft world is virtually infinite, with terrain divided into biomes ranging from jungles and forests to deserts and snow.

Those biomes can contain plains, mountains, caves, lava, water or other random features. Entrants to the competition must write AI algorithms that create settlements that integrate seamlessly with whatever randomly generated environment that gets thrown at them.

Competition entries are judged by a panel of human experts in four separate categories: Adaptability; Functionality; Narrative; and Aesthetics.

“Productivity for computer scientists can actually flourish during this time due to their ability to work remotely.” — Dr. David Churchill

The challenge in the settlement design competition is to create an algorithm that can adapt to a randomly provided map, creating aesthetically pleasing settlements that are not only functional, but can also tell a story about the surrounding landscape.

“For the competition, they tested our algorithm against three different maps,” said Mr. Hancock. “It scanned the terrain, determined what type of building, for example, was best suited for a particular spot, and then generated it, coming up with something different for each terrain.”

Pandemic preparation

The chosen environments often had interesting features – such as big hills in the middle of a map – as an extra challenge for the AI programs.

The team took the extra time they were given by the COVID-19 lockdown to add a few extra features, including a wall surrounding their settlement.
Photo: Submitted

“They want to see what your algorithm does with that,” said Dr. Churchill. “Does it flatten the hill like a parking lot and build a settlement on top? That’s easy to do, but you’d lose style points. Or does it build around those features, and incorporate them into the settlement, by doing things like building paths into the hills, bridges over rivers, etc.?”

The students used the Python programming language to build their algorithm and benefited from the extra time the COVID-19 pandemic provided to develop it.

“The pandemic shut everything down on campus, but productivity for computer scientists can actually flourish during this time due to their ability to work remotely,” said Dr. Churchill. “After campus shut down, I cancelled the last few lectures and told the students to spend all that time working on their projects instead.”

Bragging rights

The team took advantage of the opportunity, and at the last moment added a few features, which they feel put them over the top.

“There was no tangible prize for winning the event, just bragging rights,” said Mr. Pfinder. “But it’s certainly something to put on a resumé.”

“Winning this competition has way more value than just money,” agreed Dr. Churchill. “When you apply to a company and they ask ‘What have you done with AI?’ You can say: ‘Well, we won this international competition!’ If they are interested in programming games or applying for a master’s, it will certainly put them on top of the pile. This is something for them to be really proud of, and I don’t say that very often.”

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