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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DML 2016 Recap

This week I attended my first Digital Media and Learning conference, which was held here on the UC Irvine campus. I thought I would write a short recap of my experiences. Disclaimer: these thoughts are by no means all encompassing.

photo of a sign with lego texture that reads, DML Digital Media and Learning Conference

My first impressions of the DML community is that they are very friendly and very passionate about what they do. It’s a wonderful combination for someone joining in for the first time. There was also lots of engagement on Twitter throughout the conference, which I found to be a helpful way to make the event more accessible.
hand hold a DML conference badge, the text on the badge reads Kathryn Ringland Kate, University of California Irvine
Fun DML 2016 badge.
While I enjoyed all the sessions I attended, the keynote and plenary conversation were definitely the highlights. The conversations I had in between sessions and during the reception were by far the most inspiring part of the conference for me in terms of ideas for my own scholarly work.
a woman at a podium next to a projected slide
Constance Steinkuehler talking about the future that is games.

What is most exciting for me are the following two takeaways:
1. Play and games are truly coming into their own in the academic space. I am so excited to see games research in these more educational and learning spaces realize the potential of well designed games (i.e., not those educational games that kids see straight through and aren’t fun at all to play.)
a photo of a slide of a trojan horse painted, with text reading games are a trojan horse for interest driven learning
Slide of the trojan horse that is GAMES.
2. There were hints and whispers throughout DML of inclusion. For many this meant socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender, but very little about ability. The last two ignite talks at the end of the conference were calls for more disability work in the space. I whole-heartedly agree and am very excited to contribute next year as I can.

Of the many memorable moments, the students on campus held a protest during the plenary talk this morning because apparently the LA Police Chief was giving a talk somewhere else on campus.

I was ecstatic when Henry Jenkins discussed how Star Trek changed his world view.

All in all, it was an awesome event and I’m looking forward to attending again next year!

“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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Minecraft

Social media, including virtual worlds, has the potential to support children with autism in making friendships, learning pro-social behavior, and engaging in collaborative play with their peers.  However, currently, little is known about how children with autism interact socially in online spaces. Furthermore, there is much more to learn about how technology can support these collaborative interactions. In this study, I propose investigating how a virtual world can be intentionally run alongside other complementary social media (e.g., website, forum, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+) specifically for children with autism. The contribution of this work is to create design guidelines for creating social media systems (including virtual worlds) to support social interactions of children with autism.

Click HERE to learn more about the overall study.

Current Publications:

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. [Acceptance Rate: 25%]. Best Paper. [PDF]

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

Ringland, K.E., Wolf, C.T., Dombrowski, L., and Hayes, G.R. “Making ‘Safe’: Community-Centered Practices in a Virtual World Dedicated to Children with Autism”. Proceedings of the 2015 ACM International Conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Work, ACM (2015). [Acceptance Rate: 28.3%].

Ringland, K.E., Wolf, C.T., Hayes, G.R. (2015, May 15). “The Benefits of Online Play: An Investigation of Virtual Worlds for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”. International Meeting for Autism Research Salt Lake City, Utah.

Ringland, K.E., Hayes, G.R. (2014, April 27). “Virtual Worlds: An Alternative Method for Communication for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”. Workshop: Supporting Children with Complex Communication Needs. ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Toronto, Canada.

Last Updated: May 15, 2017.

I am now conducting interviews! Find out more information HERE.

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Minecraft Study Blog Week 1

My intention with these blog posts is to have a sort of informal record of my time spent in Autcraft. They will be my beginnings, in a way, of creating my overall narrative of my experience. I will be creating much more formal documentation in the form of conference papers and journal articles, but here I want to create a space that is more open to dialogue and discussion. I also want the community to know that I am completely open and willing to share my thoughts and findings as much as I want to hear the thoughts of those in the community. My hope is to be able to tell the story of Autcraft and to be able to, through technology, expand on what it has given the autism community if I can.

My first week in the Autcraft community has been an extremely humbling experience. As I made my first timid steps into the unknown, I was greeted with open arms. A good number of people have given me encouragement, offered to help, welcomed me and offered friendship, and thanked me. I feel like I should be the one thanking every single member of the Autcraft community for allowing me to be among them.

I feel like I have accomplished a lot in the few hours I have played over the last week: I’ve built a modest office, explored many different areas, gone mining, died in lava, played Hide and Seek with other players, marveled at all the amazing things other players have built, played Paint Ball with other players, and died falling from a giant pink pony. All and all, a very busy, but successful week.

a pink pony statue in minecraft
Fell off from the top of a giant pink pony and died. Admittedly a first for me.

I have been struck by the many different ways in which players communicate in Autcraft. There is text chat, but there is so much more. Players also communicate via their characters (how they look and through their movements), via their constructions, via signs littered throughout the world, and more. I am sure those that have a limited understanding of autism would be very surprised to hear that these players are communicating at all. And while I am still in the very early stages of my research, I can assure anyone reading this that these players are communicating- in a varied and rich format.

I will close with that for this week. Please stay tuned and feel free to email me at kringlan [at] uci [dot] edu with any questions about my work. Thanks and keep on building!