Making in Minecraft: A Means of Self-Expression for Youth with Autism

Preview: Maker culture values fabrication and production in both the digital and physical realms as well as the sharing of resources. As such, maker culture provides an opportunity to be democratic and inclusive. Likewise, spaces that stem from maker culture, such as makerspaces, provide the same opportunity for inclusion, even for those with disabilities. In this paper, we explore design implications for the creation of inclusive spaces for making and self-expression in the future based on intensive fieldwork in the Autcraft community.

Paint tubes and paint brushes on a wooden table covered in different colored paints.

What if makerspaces could be made inclusive and accessible for children who prefer virtual interactions over physical interactions? Stemming from arts and crafts communities and originally focused on physical engagement with materials to be formed and “made” into products, prototypes, and projects, maker culture has evolved to include hacker culture which uses a wide variety of software, hardware, and craft materials. Present-day maker culture includes online and offline fabrication and production, sharing of resources, and social norms around the act of making. Communities of makers inhabit spaces that are built to have a low barrier to entry, support those interested in learning to be makers, and encourage sharing of resources.

In this paper, we explore how “mixed-ability maker culture” supports self-expression in children with autism through an online community centered around the popular game, Minecraft. Autcraft is a community that supports children with autism and is centered on a Minecraft virtual world that embodies maker culture. The Autcraft community’s unique form of maker culture supports self-expression, sociality, and learning for children with autism by providing structure in a virtual space, allowing for and enabling creating and sharing. Our results show how the “mixed-ability maker culture” found within the Autcraft community, supports children with autism in imaginative making and self-expression and we provide design implications for creating inclusive spaces for making and self-expression.

Autcraft is a Minecraft community for children with autism and their allies run by parent volunteers. The goal of the Autcraft community is to have a safe space for children with autism to play Minecraft free from harassment and bullying (for more information visit the Autcraft website). As part of our study, I have been conducting an on-going ethnography within the community (see our paper for details). This study included analysis of activity within the Minecraft server, forums, website, Twitter, Facebook group, YouTube, and Twitch.

Analysis of our data indicates that the constraints and affordances of this virtual environment provide structure for children to create and share in rich and varied ways without the barriers they would typically face in the physical world. By understanding the values in the Autcraft community through a lens of mixed-ability maker culture, we can see how these values encourage and support autistic children in their endeavors in self-expression.

A piston table with two chairs in Minecraft on a wooden floor.
Using a piston object in Minecraft as a table.

Making in Minecraft: Minecraft, at its core, is a game about building with blocks in a virtual world. In Autcraft, community members have created complex, expressive spaces within their virtual world. They have done this through using construction materials found within the world, both as they are meant to be used (e.g., using bricks to pave a walkway), but also in unexpected ways (e.g., using a piston as a table).

Creating to Share with Others: Community members share with other players through the virtual world (i.e., announcing in the chat) as well as through the community forums. Community members can provide advice and feedback in the comments of the forums and in-world when they are touring the creation. This practice allows others to learn from previous building projects, as well as giving builders a sense of pride in their own work. Community members also share with those outside the Autcraft community. Players build and show off their work through platforms such as forums, YouTube, and Twitch—such as through their YouTube “Let’s Play” videos. “Let’s Play” are edited videos of players playing through a video game, giving viewers a first-person experience of playing the game. It is against this cultural backdrop that members of the Autcraft community use their virtual world and the other existing social media to express themselves. This self-expression allows them to foster relationships within the Autcraft community, as well as to reach out to others beyond their community.

Through these results, we’ve found key issues for designing these types of “mixed-ability maker culture” imbued systems.

  • Accommodations for Access. The virtual world is not immune to the need for environmental accommodations. Modifications allow for those with disabilities to participate in a way that is suitable for them in a space where they might otherwise find themselves excluded.
  • Bounded Freedom. The boundaries found within Autcraft help enhance the creativity of the members. This includes the boundaries within the virtual world (the world and its resources are finite), the social boundaries imposed by the community, and the expectation that one member’s creative self-expression does not infringe upon another member’s self-expression.
  • Opportunity-Rich Environment. The Minecraft world is rich – full of objects, biomes, and creatures. This allows users to create narratives and even a mythos from these resources. The Minecraft game itself does not come with a history or backstory but allows players to create new history as the player explores and alters the world. It is this richness that sets the foundation for allowing for inclusivity. Disabilities, even those of the same diagnostic umbrella, are incredibly diverse and experiences occur in a myriad of ways.
  • Social Support. The presence of moderators, helpers, and peer mentors support expression for community members. More experienced members help the less experienced members learn how to build, where to get resources, and even give tips on how to create forum posts and videos. This social support also comes with the expectation that community members will be inclusive.
  • Social Conventions. The Minecraft community at large embraces creative players and the Autcraft community continues this trend by encouraging members to express themselves through building, roleplaying, storytelling, and sharing their created content through social media (g., through streaming on Twitch, recording YouTube videos, and posting screenshots in the forums).

These design features support children with autism as they learn skills to express themselves. Designers and researchers interested in creating other technical systems can infuse some of the maker culture to create spaces that foster learning, sharing, and self-expression.

For more details about our methods and findings, please see our paper that has been accepted to IDC 2017 (to appear in June 2017). Full citation and link to the pdf below:

Kathryn E. Ringland, LouAnne Boyd, Heather Faucett, Amanda L.L. Cullen, Gillian R. Hayes. Making in Minecraft: A Means of Self-Expression for Youth with Autism. In IDC 2017. [PDF]

ResearcherKateAcknowledgements: We thank the members of Autcraft for the warm welcome into their community. We also thank members of LUCI and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this paper, and Robert and Barbara Kleist for their support. This work is covered by human subjects protocol #2014-1079 at the University of California, Irvine.

PDF of Analog Games Paper

Here is the pdf version of my Analog Games Paper, “Who Has Access? Making Accessible Play Spaces in Minecraft for Children with Autism”. Enjoy!

QGCon Presentation Available on YouTube

My QGCon presentation, “Minecraft as a Site of Sociality for Autistic Youth,” is now available on YouTube. My talk starts around the 40 minute mark, but I do highly recommend the other talks from my session as well.

Analog Games Article Now Online

I’m happy to announce my latest article, “Who Has Access? Making Accessible Spaces in Minecraft for Children with Autism,” is now online in Analog Games Studies.

UCI Informatics Write Up on DanceCraft

Lovely write up about the DanceCraft study by the Informatics department here at UCI: http://www.informatics.uci.edu/informatics-ph-d-student-introduces-dancecraft-to-oc-autistic-children/

News Coverage for our Dance Study

The OC Register covered part of our research on dance for kids with autism yesterday. Check it out!

What the news article doesn’t mention is that along with dance lessons, the participants also get to take home the DanceCraft system so they can keep practicing their dance moves.

Public Impact Fellowship

I’m happy to announce I have been awarded as a Public Impact Fellow for 2017.

Public Impact Fellowships highlight and support doctoral students whose current research has the potential for substantial impact in the public sphere. Ideal candidates will be involved in research designed to significantly improve or enrich the lives of Californians and/or national and global communities.

ASSETS 2016 Best Paper Award

I’m excited to announce we received the ASSETS 2016 Best Paper Award for our work on Autcraft. I presented this work this past week. You can find the slides here.

Kathryn E. Ringland, Christine T. Wolf, LouAnne E. Boyd, Mark Baldwin, and Gillian R. Hayes. 2016. Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism. In ASSETS 2016. [PDF]

ASSETS 2016 Slides & Paper on Appropriating Minecraft for Youth with Autism

Earlier I posted a blog summarizing my findings from my ASSETS 2016 paper. I’m happy to report the slides from my talk can be found in pdf form, as well as here as a slide show. I hope to have a more accessible YouTube version of my talk soon.

ACM is allowing free downloads of the official version of the paper for a year. So go ahead and download that now!

Kathryn E. Ringland, Christine T. Wolf, LouAnne E. Boyd, Mark Baldwin, and Gillian R. Hayes. 2016. Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism. In ASSETS 2016. [PDF]

Related Posts:

Making in Minecraft: A Means of Self-Expression for Youth with Autism

Preview: Maker culture values fabrication and production in both the digital and physical realms as well as the sharing of ...
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PDF of Analog Games Paper

Here is the pdf version of my Analog Games Paper, "Who Has Access? Making Accessible Play Spaces in Minecraft for ...
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QGCon Presentation Available on YouTube

My QGCon presentation, "Minecraft as a Site of Sociality for Autistic Youth," is now available on YouTube. My talk starts ...
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Challenge Accepted

I had a conversation with a fellow grad student mom today who was lamenting the fact that she couldn’t have just one day as a “normal grad student.” My reply was, “Yeah, but you’d just be bored.”

And yes, I really do understand and feel her pain. We work hard all day. Then go home where we don’t get rest, but rather we get to start in all over (as I write this post, my own toddler is screaming because he’s decided bedtime is for babies). And our munchkins don’t understand deadlines, only that they need mom. Really, though, who wouldn’t want to come home to this face?

A toddler smiling open mouthed at the camera with a monster shirt on.
The happy face of someone who couldn’t wait for Mom to get home.

The demands of having a kid waiting for me at home were something I was expecting though, having planned having a kid in grad school. What I was not expecting were the subtle ways in which my colleagues do not understand how to accommodate a mother in grad school. Academia is rife with hints that mothers are not welcome here (although it’s much better than in the past). From lab mates deciding to meet up at the pub last minute instead of the family friendly restaurant (when I’m already en route with my toddler) to the late night receptions at conference (where the main purpose is to imbibe). To be honest, as someone who didn’t drink before having kids, I only feel even more excluded than I did before, but that is perhaps a blog post for another day.

In some ways, becoming a mom in academia has made my job at networking both harder and easier. I might be losing out on some of the fun parties, but I’ve also been able to tap into a whole new academic network through other moms in the same boat as me. I feel like the support (unlike in other mom-on-the-internet forums) is very positive and academic moms have a great sense of humor.

I understand the wish to have one mom-free day of grad school (not kid-free, because we love our children beyond anything else). A day where we can plan a celebration lunch without worrying when we have to get back for the sitter or have a late night coding session without having to run home to breastfeed. (I can’t even start with trying to pump at school…) So, those who are perhaps wondering if grad school is the right time to have kids and thinking about making the plunge—yes! Totally worth it, but it’s really hard work. You’ve been warned. And it’s okay to have moments where you wish you could shed your mom mantel for just a moment, because you’re human.

Stay strong, my fellow grad student moms!