The Bridge spoke to Stuart Duncan, who has developed Autcraft – Minecraft for young people with Autism
In June 2013, Stuart Duncan, a Canadian web developer and blogger, posted on his Facebook page the idea of having a dedicated place on the internet for children and young people with autism to play.
Stuart was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 36 and has two sons. His eldest, Cameron, also has autism.
Stuart and his sons have enjoyed playing the computer game Minecraft together for many years, but for other Minecraft players with autism, trying to play with others can often result in insults and death threats from strangers online.
“Kids with autism would go onto public servers to play Minecraft and they would just be bullied,” said Stuart. The wildly popular sandbox-style game is often described as digital Lego, and has proved a hit with adults and children worldwide, including those with autism.
“I’ve often heard it said that people with autism gravitate towards it because all the rules of the world are set and predictable,” said Stuart. He thinks Minecraft also appeals to children with autism because they often become discouraged by the prescriptive nature of other games. “There are no guidelines – you’re free to do whatever you want” he said.
Stuart set up the server, known as Autcraft, with a ‘whitelist’ which limits access to those with autism diagnoses and their families. “I got 750 emails in the first 2 days,” he said. Four years on, the whitelist now includes over 9000 members, with around 1200 signing in to play each month, and around 30-40 players playing together at any one time.
Since its creation, this world has been gently policed by a team of volunteer moderators, recruited from Stuart’s friends.
Swelling membership has called for new recruits, with all volunteers coming from the global community of Autcraft players. “There’re kids with autism, siblings, adults with autism, adults without autism, I’ve even had grandparents get involved,” he said. 3 days ago we had 3 sets of kids playing with their parents at the same time” said Stuart “a few parents had never played before and have since become admins.”
These admins can mute people, temporarily jail them in an inescapable room in the game or even ban players from the server outright for serious violations of the server rules. These are fairly mild, and mainly focussed on creating a safe, friendly environment for younger players.
Stuart actively recruits parents to join the server and play with their children, both directly and by posting invitations on social media. “It’s a terrific bonding experience,” he said, explaining that a child’s previously incomprehensible Minecraft chat can become a shared source of fun, if parents give it a go.
Stuart said one of the big criticisms of the server has been that autistic children should be interacting face to face, not online. His response is that something is better than nothing “at least they’re socialising and making friends,” he said.
In addition, the Autcraft players have had a few physical meetups in the US, where events draw up to 50 players and their parents, who go on outings, and of course, play Minecraft. “There are these two girls in Australia – they live 14 hours’ drive away from each other” Stuart said “one had a wicked temper, the other was more
“2 years later one of them took the drive with her parents, just to meet the other face to face. They came back and told me they’d never had a friend before,” he said. Stuart believes the Autcraft server has helped a lot of players to socialise more, and he has received messages from parents saying exactly that.
“When they first join they don’t talk much” he said, “then they realise there’s nothing to be afraid of and they start to feel more confident and talk more.”
Stuart sees the server as a place where children with autism can “practice how to be a friend and talk to people.”
“When they go to school they can talk to somebody – probably about Minecraft,” he joked.
Asked whether he thought having a virtual community like Autcraft would’ve changed things for him, growing up with Asperger’s he responds “absolutely”.
“It was much worse not knowing – because you always know when you don’t fit in,” he said.
“For these kids, a lot of them don’t even know they have autism” he said, explaining that some parents hide their child’s diagnosis to avoid stigma “but they get to share with people having the exact same problems.”
There have been battles within the autism community about who has the right to talk or write about autism, Stuart said the Autcraft community has rejuvenated his faith in the wider autistic community to work together and support each other.
His two sons, Cameron and Tyler, think he’s famous now, and say they want to set up servers of their own.
It hasn’t always been easy though. At one point, Stuart was speaking to two or three players a week about suicidal feelings they were having. Players would contact him from all over the world saying they didn’t want to live anymore, such cries for help could come at any hour of the day or night.
“I would have to go to bed and get up in four hours” said Stuart “now it’s better as there are more people willing to have those talks” he said.
“In the beginning there were a lot of apologies to my kids where I had to say ‘I’m sorry, this kid needed me and it couldn’t wait’,” Stuart said.
He insists the success of the server is down to teamwork and hopes others will copy his approach. “I hope people can learn from what I’ve learned and help more kids” he said.
He hopes mental health practitioners move away from seeing video games as a “mind-numbing source of violence” and instead view them as an opportunity. “It’s not all about what you can do in a classroom or therapy room,” he said.