I was first exposed to Minecraft – the open-ended video game about digging earth and building things – when I was working at the Institute of Play about two years ago. I played on a server which allowed for multiple players, so my blocky avatar had some company. I found the world a bit hard to navigate as a newbie – there are no instructions, so you must learn from those around you. While I only played a handful of times, I did see the appeal of the game to the middle school kids I was working with. It was as if we were the first people on Earth, and we had to use the resources we had to work together and build a world. We just had to be careful of the monsters, who came out at night to try to kill us.
In the past few years, Minecraft has become an extremely popular game with kids and parents alike. I was aware of this, but had not given much thought to it. Then I heard about Autcraft, a Minecraft server for people with autism. Suddenly, I was excited about this game again. I had to learn more! I contacted Stuart Duncan, the creator of Autcraft, for an interview. Stuart, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult, has two sons, Cameron – who has autism, and Tyler – who does not. He also has a blog called Autism from a Father’s Point of View.
Q: What inspired you to create Autcraft?
Stuart Duncan: I love Minecraft myself and often see others talk about it on social networks. Particularly that their children love it too. And most people in my social networks are autism parents or autistics. Usually what it boils down to is them playing single player only though, having tried to play on servers only to have it be the worst experiences you could imagine. People are cruel. And they’ll target anyone that’s different, even in a game like Minecraft. So these parents and players feel terrible and secluded. They still love the game but have such terrible things to say about playing the game with other people. And that’s a shame because playing with other people is incredibly fun. Going on adventures and mining together and building together… it’s awesome! I wanted to give these people and the kids somewhere that they can play with other people but not have to worry about their stuff being broken or taken. Where other kids just like them would be playing and wanting the same things they do. No bullies, no swearing, no “griefing” of any kind. Somewhere that they can feel safe but still get the experience of playing with other people.
Q: Do you ask for players to provide proof that they have autism in order to play?
SD: No, no proof is required. Nor is there any fee or requirements beyond having Minecraft (computer version). Some of the other admins have pleaded with me to stop letting in “self contacts” only because, if something does happen, we have no way to communicate with them other than a direct email. Which sounds like it would be enough, but what we’ve found is that contacting the parent and explaining things to them so that they can explain it to their child works so much better. A lot is lost in text on a screen and their parents know how to phrase things and say things the way they need to for the best understanding possible. So we do prefer that a parent registers their child so that we have a point of contact where we can say, “Listen, this happened. Everything is fine but we just wanted you to know.”
Q: How is playing Autcraft different than playing regular Minecraft?
SD: We try to keep Autcraft as true to Minecraft as we can. We have everyone play in survival mode (you have to gather resources before you build and you can die) but we have added some plugins to provide added protection. For example, we can designate regions around a person’s house so that no one can take or break anything within that region. We also have a way to be able to track blocks that are placed and removed so if we do miss something and someone does something, we can see who did it and when. A few other changes includes removing PVP (player vs player), monsters and the placement of lava and fire. These are all to help protect the children that are scared of these things. However, they’re not removed entirely. PVP is still allowed in one place, our arena. Players can go there and battle if they so choose. Also, we placed a wall around the main city that is 4000×4000. So within those walls, there are no monsters. But outside of those walls lies real danger. This gives players the best of both worlds as some crave the danger while others are still very truly scared of monsters.
Q: How old are Cameron and Tyler now and do either of them play Autcraft or Minecraft? What do they think of it?
SD: Cameron (with autism) is now 8 and Tyler (without autism) is 5 and a half and both love Minecraft. Tyler loves it more than Cameron, though. Tyler is beginning to grasp the basics of building things and being proud of his creations, whereas Cameron still just likes to run around and see what he can find. It does go to show though that just because a child has autism, it doesn’t mean they’ll instantly take to Minecraft. In my own house, the guy who started a server for autistics, it’s the non-autistic one that loves it most.
Q: How do you think playing this game can help kids with autism?
SD: Well, as with all video games, you get the basics in learning problem solving skills, hand-eye coordination and so forth. But since having started this server, I’ve heard so much from so many parents. One mother explained how she took her children to speech therapy and they talked and talked about Minecraft and what they were building and giving each other advice. The therapists looked on with a smile as though their hard work was paying off. Other players have friends for the very first time. Sure, they’re avatars in a game, but they’re real live children somewhere that they’re playing with. They go and do things together and share things. Another mother told me that when her son joined, someone ran up and gave them some stuff and then ran off. Her son then, in turn, gave something to someone else. He said he didn’t really want to but did it anyway and wanted to do it more! This made her very happy, as you could imagine. Others have younger players that couldn’t spell much more than the basic 3-letter words but now, due to in-game chat and signs all over, they are actually typing out entire sentences to other players and posting their own signs. Keep in mind, this server has only been online for one month. That kind of progress is incredible!
It gets even more advanced than this. One day, we were talking about how one younger player broke some glass in someone else’s house. A more experienced player exclaimed “I don’t understand why people would break other people’s stuff.” At this point, I began a rather deep discussion with many of them into “theory of mind” and how younger children and even some that are older, are unable to imagine that other people have different thoughts, beliefs and feelings than they do. They don’t understand that breaking that glass would affect someone any different than it does them. In the end, the more experienced player, learning something new, said “I feel like a jerk”. But of course, he isn’t a jerk, he just didn’t know. So now they know not to get mad at them but rather to just get an admin to come and fix it up and talk to the chlid’s parents to help them understand why breaking the glass is not ok. Everyone has a better experience. These children are learning about autism, each other, and even themselves as they play on Autcraft on top of the social skills, reading, and writing.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received?
SD: The feedback has just been amazing. The very first day I shared this with anyone, I avoided my Twitter and Facebook pages where I have larger numbers and only shared it on my profile, with just my friends. I received over 700 emails that first night. Parents praise me daily, thanking me for this server. They share with me how much their children have progressed socially, academically or even just that they’re happier. A few have stated that their child hasn’t had a meltdown since joining. The truth is though, yes, I did start the server, but it’s success has been in large part due to those very children. They greet every new player with a big “Welcome!” and eagerly share the things they have. They try their best to help each other and do things together. Many in society think that this sort of thing is impossible for autistics. That they shouldn’t be making friends and working together the way they are. That their rage should be in full swing all the time and that everything should just be a disaster. But it’s not. And yes, a large part is because we have some great admins in game to catch the sparks before any flames might ignite but for the most part, it’s because the children are great and the parents work closely with us. The parents used to love that they have a safe place for their children to play, but now they love that they have somewhere that their children are happy and learning new things and making new friends. That makes me as happy as can be.
Q: Do you know of any non-verbal or minimally-verbal players using Autcraft? Have you had any feedback on their experiences?
SD: Yes, actually. I had heard from one mother that her son was almost “mute” and had to be removed from school and home-schooled. She said that since he had started on Autcraft, his self confidence was starting to return and he was beginning to say some words. Others that I had been told were non-verbal in their request emails are in game and typing to others. It’s not much, usually just “follow” or “hi” but it’s something. It’s giving them an equal footing with everyone else as they’re able to talk to others just as well as anyone else. Sometimes we have to remind the older children that not everyone will spell perfectly, as younger players will likely spell things out phonetically, which is to be expected. But we can usually figure out what they mean and again, help them with their spelling all the while having fun.
Q: Is there such a thing as too much Minecraft? Do you set any limits for your kids, or yourself?
SD: Oh yes, too much of anything is rarely good. And video games can be quite over stimulating even when they’re going smoothly. I have seen some parents praise Autcraft and then go on to say how they have no problem with their children playing for 6+ hours straight because it’s such a great experience. I appreciate that thought, but at the same time, I could never do that. My children need to get some sun, kick a ball around, ride a bike… something else. That’s not to say that I think those parents are wrong or that anything bad will come of prolonged game time. If it works for them, great. Their children will likely grow up just fine. But for me, I like to encourage my children to have as many experiences in life as they can. Video games are great when you use them as a tool. A learning tool that is both enjoyable and promotes growth and development. But when I start to use it as a way to get the kids out of my hair so that I can have some time for myself, I realize that it’s time to move on to something else.
Q: Right now this is a free server for anyone who wants to join. Will it always be free?
SD: To be honest, I’m not sure how I will maintain this for very long without it generating any income, but I made a vow when I started it that I would not exclude anyone if I could help it. That includes children that can’t read and parents that can’t afford it. I mean, you have to buy Minecraft itself and you have to have a computer to run it on. So right there, it’s costing these people a lot. It’s already not available to so many children because of that reason and I don’t think it’s fair that children are missing out because mom and dad can’t afford it. I’m desperately seeking sponsors to help keep this server alive because I refuse to take a single cent from a family that doesn’t have a cent to spare.
Q: What are your thoughts about the future of Autcraft? Will this server continue indefinitely?
SD: Well, if we do receive funding from sponsors or something, I foresee a future where we will have multiple servers. We have over 650 names on our list of approved players and we’re only 4 weeks in. That’s a lot for any one server to handle. Also, we have varying degrees of players. Some want creative, some want survival, some want monsters everywhere, some want no monsters at all. We’re doing our best to accommodate all of these players in one place but ultimately it would be great if we could have separate servers where players could find the experience that they are craving. While at the same time, keeping server loads down as not everyone is in one place. Without funding though, I fear we’ll be limited to just this one server which I most certainly am determined to keep going for as long as I can. It isn’t easy though as most people assume it’s just a server fee that I have to cover. But there are also 4 admins (including me) to consider, who volounteer their time to be there as much as possible to answer questions, protect regions, help others, and so much more. We all have families and jobs. Without those admins though, Autcraft would have been a failure from day one. Keeping this server alive means having to keep admins around and growing to more servers means having to add even more admins. I can’t promise that this server will continue indefinitely at this point although that is certainly my goal. I can see very big and wonderful things for the future. But I’m going to need your help to get it there.