Do you recognize the El Bar in virtual form?

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Jennie Burd misses her neighborhood bars.

It’s been two months since the city’s watering holes closed their doors. For this East Kensington resident, they were places of spontaneous social magic, and like so much else from the Before Times, the pandemic has cast the corner bar in a new, admiring light.

“I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how amazing it is that you can sit down and have a drink with people coming from very different places,” Burd said, “and over the years, I’ve formed some really meaningful relationship from talking to strangers at bars.”

When the city shut down, the 31-year-old PhD candidate at Temple also found herself with a lot more downtime than usual.

One of quarantine activities she ramped up: playing the Sims, the popular life simulation game that lets you build ridiculous dream houses and flirt with virtual cuties in the game’s gibberish language.

Burd took the premise another direction: recreating her old favorite local dives.

Sims recreation of the El Bar Credit: Jennie Burd / The Sims

She started with the El Bar, worked up to the two-story Monkey Club on Coral Street, and is now finishing up a Simsy simulacra of Atlantis The Lost Bar on Frankford Avenue.

The game’s construction and furniture portfolio doesn’t naturally capture the dinge and grime of these establishments. So Burd custom-built ashtrays, shot glasses, pool tables, ATMs, neon signs and old gig posters, first from memory, and then from using old photos.

Sims recreation of the Monkey Club Credit: Jennie Burd / The Sims

Some features — like the painting of the redheaded nude that presides over Atlantis — have been harder to emulate. But that’s only half the point.

“The Sims doesn’t have bus stops or grocery stores, but at least I can hang out at Monkey Club whenever I want,” Burd said.

Sims recreation of the Monkey Club Credit: Jennie Burd / The Sims

From Minecraft campuses to ‘Boy Meets World’

Recreating your familiar world in video games is nothing new, even before the quarantine. But anecdotally at least, the practice seems to have picked up in the last two months.

In late March, Aubrey Nagle, an editor at nonprofit Resolve Philly, posted her detailed Sims homage to the set of Boy Meets World. The ’90s sitcom takes place in the Philly area, even though the Mathews family’s physical house is in California. (It actually went on the market in 2016). Nagle did up one of the show’s downtown apartment sets, too.

“This kept me sane all weekend, happy to have a comforting show to turn on [right now],” Nagle tweeted.

She ran out of game space to build Mr. Feeney’s house next door, unfortunately.

Meanwhile in University City, as the coronavirus shut down school and sent college courses online, Penn students took to Minecraft.

More so than the Sims, the 2010 game allows users to rebuild whole environments in blocky but recognizable form. Using Google maps to match the scale, the Penn cohort began building out the entire 300-acre campus, starting with Locust Walk and moving on from there. Over a dozen students got involved in the effort.

Penn junior Andrew Guo, one of the brains behind the project, told the Inquirer he hopes they can hold the now-postponed commencement on the virtual Franklin Field. “I think a virtual one would be a nice farewell to the seniors,” he said.

Others have taken up the idea. Students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa mapped a replica of their campus stadium, where they hope to hold an e-graduation ceremony later this month.

Over on the Minecraft subreddit, another user has been working on a rough outline of Philadelphia City Hall — just for fun.

Philadelphia City Hall recreation that i finished today from r/Minecraft

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For Burd, it doesn’t quite replace the day-to-day conversations over drinks after work, but it’ll have to do until life resumes to normal — slowly but surely.

Said the Sims dive bar designer: “I feel lucky that we’re experiencing this in a time period with technology that allows us to talk to friends and family, but I miss interacting with people I don’t know on a day to day basis.”

See any other Philly spots getting recreated on the digital planes? Give us a shout and we’ll include them.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...