The popular video game Minecraft isn’t usually considered a tool that can help people improve social skills and learn how to build relationships—in fact, many people consider playing video games an antisocial activity. However, the opposite is true of Autcraft, an online version of Minecraft developed specifically for kids with autism.
What is Minecraft?
Minecraft, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a game that randomly generates a variety of landscapes and environments for players to explore and build upon. Within the game, it is possible to create anything you want, from magnificent castles to humble shelters, and even recreations of real places. Players can also interact as a team or battle against each other.
Many kids (and adults) are huge fans of Minecraft, however, children with autism are often targeted by bullies while playing the game.
Stuart Duncan, a Canadian web developer, and blogger who writes about his personal experiences with autism as well as what it’s like to raise a son with autism, decided to circumvent this issue by setting up Autcraft, a version of Minecraft exclusively for children with autism and their families. He was inspired to do so by other parents with autistic children who had been messaging him about their kids’ experiences of bullying while playing Minecraft.
How does Autcraft help children with autism?
When Duncan set up the invite-only server Autcraft in 2013, he expected to catch the attention of only about 10 to 20 people. To his surprise, he received hundreds of requests to join in the first few days. Today, the Autcraft community is over 8000 members strong and has become Duncan’s full-time job.
Kate Ringland, Ph.D., from the University of California, Irvine, became interested in how children with autism benefit from Autcraft. She watched how the kids would play and chat with one another, and saw that it was much more than just an online community. According to Ringland, Autcraft “is a great way for [children with autism] to play a game they love, but also have a social experience.”
She adds that it gives these children “an alternative way… to express themselves and communicate without the stresses of the physical life stuff.”
For people with autism, everyday social settings can present certain challenges. For instance, some people with autism struggle to interpret social cues, see things from another person’s perspective, or handle unpredictable distractions like loud noises.
Duncan believes that his version of Minecraft removes the typical pressures of the real world, like tracking facial expressions or worrying about eye contact. “The social interactions, the relationships, the communication—everything just boils down to you and your keyboard.”
As Ringland studied player behavior and the discussions that would pop up on related online forums, she witnessed friendships being built, feelings being expressed, and a sense of overall self-reflection being facilitated by Autcraft.
How can you join Autcraft?
To be admitted into this exclusive online community, prospective players must fill out an application and await approval. Once approved, players can roam around the generated landscapes, build structures, or take part in group games.
However, there are some ground rules. Harassing other players or destroying their property is enough to get players banned for good. For older kids and teenagers, there is a spin-off server that is slightly more tolerant.
Elizabeth Laugeson, director of the PEERS Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that joining a community like Autcraft could be a great first step for those wishing to engage with others more and feel less socially anxious. However, Laugeson stresses that online communities shouldn’t be the only outlet for learning these kinds of skills, as it doesn’t necessarily teach all the social skills needed to navigate the real, physical world.