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.

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]

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Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism

Preview: Those with disabilities have long adopted, adapted, and appropriated collaborative systems to serve as assistive devices. In a Minecraft virtual world for children with autism, community members use do-it-yourself (DIY) making activities to transform Minecraft into a variety of assistive technologies. Our results demonstrate how players and administrators “mod” the Minecraft system to support self-regulation and community engagement.

A Minecraft garden room with pink flowers and a grassy path.
A calming, quiet garden in Minecraft.

“Need a place to calm down? Quiet? Peaceful? Choose a Calm Room to visit here. In these rooms [t]here is no chat. It’s a place to relax. Visit any time.”

If a child finds face-to-face conversations challenging and feels isolated from their peers at school, where can they go to make friends? How can people use currently existing systems to help those with disabilities, including children with autism? We studied how one online community, Autcraft, through a variety of social media platforms, augments and extends current platforms and transforms them into assistive technology for children with autism.

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.

Our analysis demonstrates how players and administrators “mod” the Minecraft system to support self-regulation and community engagement. This work highlights the ways in which we, as researchers concerned with accessible and equitable computing spaces, might reevaluate the scope of our inquiry, and how designers might encourage and support appropriation, enhancing users’ experience and long-term adoption.

Autcraft community members have modified Minecraft to do the following to help players internally regulate themselves and externally manage their engagement with others:

  • Self-Regulation. Community members use Minecraft in a variety of ways to self-regulate, including both sensory regulation and mood regulation. Dealing with sensory overload can be a difficult experience for anyone with autism, particularly for children and adolescents who are still learning coping skills. Members of the Autcraft community have created spaces within the virtual world and the other platforms to help even the youngest members learn to deal with these sensory needs. Additionally, to help regulate mood, members are able to put into words their emotional experiences, safely share and vent their feelings with others, on the forums and through in-game chat. They can do this in Autcraft without the fear of reprisal from bullies or trolls—which is something they may fear in other online spaces. While this type of behavior may not be unique to Autcraft, the ability to vent in this safe space is possibly unique for the community members personally. They may have communication challenges in their physical environments that limit their abilities to express their feelings fully.
  • Interacting with Others. Members of the Autcraft community have appropriated the entire ecosystem of technologies surrounding Autcraft to support interfacing and engaging with others. These efforts support engagement with both the internal community and across community boundaries by supporting sociality explicitly. One mod, teleportation, enables players to jump from one place to another in the Autcraft virtual world nearly instantly. This mod, which can be found on a variety of Minecraft servers, creates a “safer” virtual world experience and to support socialization among community members. Teleportation is available through various waypoints within the Autcraft Spawn area as well as through the text chat window. This teleportation functionality not only enables these quick avatar interactions, but also gives community members an ability that they do not have in the physical world. This helps support empowering these young community members to engage in socialization with their friends, when and where they choose.

Individual players appropriate the Autcraft virtual world to suit their own needs, shaping their virtual environment, embodied experience, and, in time, influencing the overall experience for everyone in Autcraft. As the children worked within the confines of the virtual world to make their environment more usable by appropriating with what was available, administrators are able to then iterate on these appropriated instances to re-appropriate the software itself. Thus, administrators, following the cues of the children within the virtual world, are able to instantiate these appropriations and make them available to everyone on Autcraft.

As a group, children with autism are doubly disempowered: both as children and as people living with disabilities. Here, however, we see how this kind of technological openness allows them to customize and create their own play spaces, a type of autonomy that is inherently empowering. This work explores how designers and researchers can learn by observing how even the youngest of users augment and appropriate mainstream technology to become assistive in their daily lives. This work highlights the ways in which researchers concerned with accessible and equitable computing spaces might reevaluate their scope of inquiry and how designers might encourage and support appropriation, enhancing the individualized experience and long-term adoption of assistive devices and systems. The appropriations we observed in Autcraft point to a future model where child-initiated modifications can guide research and design, providing greater access for disempowered communities.

For more details about our methods and findings, please see our full paper that has been accepted to ASSETS 2016 (to appear in October 2016). Full citation and link to the pdf below:

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]

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.

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CHI 2016 Slides on Sociality in Minecraft Server for Kids with Autism

CHI 2016 Paper on Sociality in Minecraft Getting Some Great Press!

I was recently interviewed by a reporter from the New Scientist who wrote a piece on our paper, “Will I always be not social?”: Re-Conceptualizing Sociality in the Context of a Minecraft Community for Autism, that I will be presenting on May 9 for CHI 2016.

We were also covered by “Don’t Hate the Geek” in their article Minecraft Server for Autistic Gamers on May 2, 2016!

Want to find out more? Please see our full paper that has been accepted to CHI 2016. Full citation and link to the pdf below:

Ringland, K.E., Wolf, C.T., Faucett, H., Dombrowski, L., and Hayes, G.R. “’Will I always not be social?’: Re-Conceptualizing Sociality in the Context of a Minecraft Community for Autism”. Proceedings of the 2016 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM (2016). To Appear. [Acceptance Rate: 23.4%]

POST LAST UPDATED: May 2, 2016.

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“Will I always be not social?”: Re-Conceptualizing Sociality in the Context of a Minecraft Community for Autism

Preview: Members of the Autcraft community for children with autism and their allies use a variety of social media platform, centered around Minecraft. The community’s use of various technologies facilitates the expansion of how members can socialize with one another, giving them opportunity to explore their own sociality, expand how they would like to be able to socialize, and deepen their connection with other members of the Autcraft community.


Autcraft community members playing a game together.
Autcraft community members playing a game together.

“I love being a member of the [Autcraft] community and love spending time with my ‘family’ here. … A place I was accepted for …  just being ‘different’ than others.”

If a child finds face-to-face conversations challenging and feels isolated from their peers at school, where can they go to make friends? Online communities have the potential to support social interaction for those who find in-person communication challenging, such as children with autism. Unfortunately, online communities come with their own set of problems – cyberbullying is particularly troubling. We studied how one online community, Autcraft, through a variety of social media platforms, practices and defines how they are social.

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.

Our analysis demonstrates how members of the Autcraft community search for, practice, and define sociality. These results indicate more broadly how people may increasingly find new ways to express themselves and create a sense of community as emergent forms of media change the nature of our social landscape. Our exploration of Autcraft adds to a growing body of work about social platforms by showing how flexible, multimodal communications not only “keep the game going” but also can have profound effects for self-expression and feelings of social belonging.

Autcraft community members engage in the following:

  • Searching For and Finding Community. Minecraft serves as a bridge or means of entry for members of this community. The game plays a key role, coupled with other forms of social media, in supporting children who are particularly known to struggle with finding social support. Autcraft—including the game, forums, Facebook page, and community-related videos—helps community members to not feel “alone.” Much like for other youth online, Autcraft members describe “hanging out” with their friends in Minecraft. Although they may not be meeting in person, members consider these relationships to be meaningful friendships. Autcraft, by its very nature of blending social interaction with strict rules of behavior and appealing game mechanics, comes together to form a space of cohesion, not difference, and of support, not scorn.
  • Defining Sociality and Community. Although Autcraft community members often seek out social relationships through Autcraft as an augment to in-person relationships, some do not wish to seek out these in-person friendships. Those who prefer the majority of their socializing to occur online struggle with what it means to be “social.” Acceptance is a cornerstone to making being “different” more tolerable and reducing the social isolation and loneliness that frequently surrounds difference.
  • Practicing Sociality. In practicing their social behavior, social connections are formed and maintained through a variety of media technologies, allowing members to use communicative practices best suited for them, both as individuals and as a group. The community sets the stage for sociality by encouraging members to “Be Kind, Be Respectful, Be Responsible.”  On an individual level, Autcraft provides powerful common ground for players, a key foundation to many friendships. Not only do those who join the community share a common interest in Minecraft, they also all have claimed to be either an ally of, or someone with, autism. This is a requirement the community regulates carefully. These two components of the community help lay the groundwork for friendship because they represent part of a person’s shared interest.

By using various platforms, members of the Autcraft community are able to form deeper friendships with one another, if so desired. Being able to foster these relationships across the myriad platforms creates cohesion in the community. Two members may meet through an advertisement on the forums for builders, build a project together, and then go on to create YouTube videos together of the experience. This facilitates the expansion of how members can socialize with one another, giving them opportunity to explore their own sociality, expand how they would like to be able to socialize, and deepen their connection with other members of the Autcraft community.

For more details about our methods and findings, please see our full paper that has been accepted to CHI 2016 (to appear in May 2016). Full citation and link to the pdf below:

Ringland, K.E., Wolf, C.T., Faucett, H., Dombrowski, L., and Hayes, G.R. “’Will I always not be social?’: Re-Conceptualizing Sociality in the Context of a Minecraft Community for Autism”. Proceedings of the 2016 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM (2016). To Appear. [Acceptance Rate: 23.4%]

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

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