Minecraft has ensnared millions of gamers in its textured, cubic world of gathering, mining and creative building — an exercise which autistic children find particularly alluring. But bullying on some servers led one developer to build a unique space for the autistic community to play in peace.
“I know a lot of autism parents in my social networks. And for a while I watched as they wrote funny posts about how their children were obsessed with Minecraft because I know that feeling well,” said Stuart Duncan, known as ‘Autism Father.’
Within a year, Duncan, who has an autistic child, watched these messages change “to despair and frustration as their children were bullied on every Minecraft server they tried.”
They reached out to each other to see if they could find other autistic children to play with “where they could make friends in peace.”
The answer was Autcraft, Duncan’s dedicated Minecraft server for the autistic community. He discussed it in an email interview with TECHtonics.
Q. Are children being bullied for their autism on some of the Minecraft servers?
DUNCAN: … People can very quickly pick up on how they’re different. Autistic children won’t understand the sarcasm or when a person might say something mean but actually be joking.
Also, on average, they’re more prone to full blown rage much more quickly rather than just being upset by something as others might be. All it takes is a little bit of social awkwardness or communication struggles to make someone a target for bullies very quickly. Unfortunately for children with autism, it’s all but a guarantee.
… On the XBox or PS3, you can just add a friend and play. But on the computer, you need a server to play on together. And as they had discovered, there were none where they felt safe. So … I started Autcraft.
Q. How was the idea received?
DUNCAN: … I shared it to my private Facebook profile first, just to see if anyone would be interested … Within two days, I had received over 750 emails asking for access.
Q. How has the experience benefited players?
DUNCAN: We are always hearing from parents and even the children themselves about how much better they’re doing in their lives, thanks to Autcraft.
Some are making friends for the first time. Some [are] even talking to people for the first time. And even the parents are bonding with their children in ways they never had before. I’ve even had a few parents tell me that they’ve seen greater progress in their children with a few months of Autcraft than they have with years of therapy.
… Once a child is no longer afraid to be judged, bullied or even embarrassed, they will more freely interact and ask questions and learn from the answers and take chances at making mistakes. No one laughs at [others] on Autcraft or tries to make [others] feel stupid for liking silly things or for doing something wrong. That, to me, is a pretty powerful thing and it’s led to some very startling and amazing results.
Q. Are therapists part of this engagement?
DUNCAN: … We do not have any therapists on the server and certainly don’t attempt to do any sort of real therapy or counseling.
… All of the people who help to maintain and run the server are former players. Parents, aunts, uncles and even the children themselves are given roles of responsibility if they show maturity and respect.
Q. There are many games that target autism impediments. Minecraft is not one of them. What makes Autcraft different for these gamers?
DUNCAN: Minecraft is quite unique in that there is no real structure or set of rules and certainly no definitive end … If they obsess over something, they’re free to do that in this game.
… If your child obsesses over anything in their life at the moment, chances are they can recreate that or indulge in that within the world of Minecraft. If they like castles, they can build castles … .There’s no leveling up, no bosses, and no way to do it wrong. You just do what you love.
Q. Is it a problem separating the Aucraft world from reality for these kids?
DUNCAN: … Once a child walks away from the keyboard there is a very clear separation. In fact, many children are actually entirely different online compared to how they are in real life.
We’ve had many children on the server with troubling behaviors that come as a complete shock to their parents … For example, their parents might teach them kindness and manners in real life. But in the virtual world, they may be bullied every place they go. Thus, it’s all they learn of that world.
So what will happen is that when they get to a server like mine, they’ll start to bully the other children … because it’s the only sort of behavior they’ve ever known. Then once they log off, they go back to being kind and well mannered, their parents have no idea that there’s a difference.
… The toughest thing for a child with autism to do is to stop talking about it after. They know it’s a separate world. But when you’re that obsessed, it becomes the only thing that you want to talk to people about.
Q. Autcraft has been described as “the best place on the Internet.” What kind of reaction do you get from newcomers?
DUNCAN: … For anyone that has ever visited the server to see for themselves, they see that it truly is incredible.
… No one ever expects just how overwhelmingly kind and supportive and friendly and happy everyone on the server is.
From the moment you first sign on and get over 30 people welcoming you by name to the offerings of tours and free items and help finding places to build, everyone on the server has a hand in making Autcraft what it is.
These children [and adults with autism too] are some of the nicest and wonderful people I’ve ever played with. And anyone that visits agrees with me. It breaks my heart that people would treat them so poorly just because they have some struggles that they never asked for.
If only the bullies and society in general really could come and see what I see, their opinions and their attitudes would change pretty quickly.