By Aviva Rutkin
LIKE many constructions, it started small. But now thousands of children with autism are making friends and learning social skills by playing a version of online building game Minecraft.
Stuart Duncan got the idea through a popular blog he ran about his own experiences with autism as well as bringing up a son with autism. Other parents with autistic children started telling him that their kids were crazy about a game that let them explore a randomly generated wilderness. However, despite loving the game, many of the children were being bullied by other players.
So, in 2013, Duncan, a web developer in Timmins, Canada, set up a server to run a version of Minecraft exclusively for children with autism and their families. He thought the invite-only server would attract 10 or 20 people. To his surprise, hundreds requested to join in the first few days.
Now, almost three years later, running “Autcraft” is his full-time job. The community boasts nearly 7000 members, along with a team of admins to help manage its many activities. “Parents see such a benefit for themselves and their children,” says Duncan.
“Minecraft strips away the pressures and distractions of the real world. You can really just be yourself“
The server caught the eye of Kate Ringland at the University of California, Irvine. She has spent 60 hours inside this virtual world, watching how the kids play and chat to one another. Ringland sees Autcraft as not just another online community, but as a tool that helps autistic children practise social skills. She will present her work at the Human Factors in Computing conference in San Jose, California, next month.
In Minecraft, you manipulate blocks of materials like wood and stone to build whatever you like – from painstaking recreations of cities to simple computers. “This is a great way for them to play a game they love, but also have a social experience,” says Ringland. “It’s giving an alternative way for these kids to express themselves and communicate without the stresses of the physical life stuff.”
Everyday social situations can be challenging for autistic children, who may struggle to pick up on social cues or understand another person’s perspective. Duncan thinks Minecraft strips away the pressures typical of the real world. There is no noisy or unfamiliar environment to distract you, no pressure to track the other person’s facial expressions or worry about eye contact. “With Minecraft, you can really just be yourself,” he says. “The social interactions, the relationships, the communication – everything just boils down to you and your keyboard.”
To join Autcraft, you must fill out an application. Once approved, you are free to roam the landscape and build your own structures. You can also take part in group games – like massive battles against “withers”, a kind of ghostly villain – or build things as a team. But you have to stick to some rules. Harassing other players or destroying their property can get you banned. A spin-off server for teenagers is slightly more permissive.
Ringland observed players on Autcraft and combed through discussions on related online forums. She saw people build friendships and have fun together. She also saw kids expressing their feelings – joy over a good time in the game, and anxiety or sadness about problems in the real world. “There’s a lot of reflection going on,” she says. “Minecraft is supporting a lot of these social behaviours.”
Joining a community like Autcraft could be a good first step to feeling less socially anxious and more engaged, says Elizabeth Laugeson, director of the PEERS Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, which teaches young adults with autism how to build relationships. But it shouldn’t be the only outlet for learning these skills, she says. “Minecraft is not necessarily teaching the social skills they need to navigate the real world.”
Yet where it works, Autcraft shows how powerful it can be to create social environments centred on a common interest, says Matthew Lerner at Stony Brook University in New York. “It builds from the interests and passions of people with autism rather than trying to redirect or surprise them.”
Minecraft has helped Keith Stuart, games editor at The Guardian, build a relationship with his autistic son Zac, inspiring his forthcoming novel, A Boy Made of Blocks.
“Most games have missions and objectives, pushing you in certain directions. Minecraft presents you with a world and a bunch of tools and you can do what you want. If Zac just wanted to roam the landscape hunting sheep or digging holes, he could. He is free to express himself. There are rules but they are very clear and don’t change. The powerful combination of openness and clear rules definitely appeals to my son.
“I’ve written about this for The Guardian and had a flood of parents saying it is exactly what happened with their son or daughter.
“As a parent of a child with autism, I worry about putting him in social situations. Autcraft and similar servers [see main story] try to create an environment in which people can express themselves without fear. That’s important to parents who are nervous about what their children will encounter in multiplayer online games.
“Parents often have a managerial relationship with video games, but far from potentially being damaging to children, they can give us a new way to communicate. We learned so much about Zac and what he liked and what he wanted to be through talking to him about Minecraft.”