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!

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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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!

UCI Summer Research Symposium 2016

 

Cover of a booklet for the summer research symposium. Has images of students posing in a group and working together to finish an obstacle course.
Cover to the Summer Research Symposium program.

Today was the end of the summer research programs on the UCI campus. This summer I was a mentor to both an incoming PhD student in the Competitive Edge program and an undergraduate student in the SURF program. The summer ended with a wonderful research symposium where half the students presented their work via oral presentations and the other half presented posters. We then had an awards ceremony lunch where everyone was recognized for the great work they did this summer.

A woman giving a presentation at a podium. To her right is a slide projected with the title "Developing a user friendly system to 3D print minecraft creations for autistic children"
SURF Undergraduate, Aminah Tamimi, giving her presentation on 3d printing from Minecraft.
Woman stands next to a podium and a slide that says "Who watches the overwatchers?"
Competitive Edge PhD Student, Amanda Cullen, giving her presentation on Overwatch.

These programs are a really nice way to help students prepare for graduate school. As someone who participated in a similar program (DREU) as an undergrad and in the Competitive Edge program, I can attest to their usefulness.

As a mentor for students in these programs I am also extremely grateful to the programs for the opportunity to give back and be a mentor. As someone who is passionate about increasing diversity in academia and in STEM programs, I am always excited about chances to “do my bit.” In this instance, working with both Aminah and Amanda was a wonderful experience. Not only are they both hardworking students who are going to go great places, but they are generous with me as I felt my way through my role as a peer mentor. I plan on staying in touch with them (especially Amanda since we sit next to each other in lab) as they progress along their careers and continue to be helpful when I can.

A big thanks to everyone who made this summer fun and full of learning!

A flock of birds silhouette against a yellow-orange sky.

Resource List – Advice for Grad Student

I’ve been wandering the net looking for useful information for grad students (particularly those who are working on their dissertation and looking forward to the job market.) So here I will start compiling the useful information and links I have found and update as needed.

If you have your own materials or have links to ones you like, feel free to share in the comments!

Destination Dissertation Book Cover, a briefcase with the title and authors written on it

Book Cover with title and author and a cartoon man in a tie

Large tree in green forest covered in moss

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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Advancement to PhD Candidate

I’m happy to report I successfully passed my advancement to become a PhD Candidate!

My talk was titled “Technology Mediated Socialization for Children with Autism.”

Committee: Gillian Hayes (Chair), Rebecca Black, Mimi Ito, Josh Tanenbaum, and Tom Boellstorff

Abstract: Traditional face-to-face social interactions can be challenging for individuals with autism, leading some to perceive and categorize these individuals as less social than their peers. For example, autism can be accompanied by difficulty making eye contact, interpreting some nonverbal cues, and performing coherent verbal utterances. While these challenges can be interpreted as an inability or lack of desire for social interactions, researchers have begun to explore how to expand the definition of sociality for those with autism. My research explores how technology can support alternative means of sociality, particularly for children with autism engaged in social play. In this advancement talk, I will present two research studies: SensoryPaint and Autcraft. SensoryPaint is a multimodal sensory environment built to enable whole-body interaction with the Kinect. Evaluation of SensoryPaint was conducted in two stages: a lab-based study and a deployment study. Results from this study show how these systems can promote socialization. My second research project explores Autcraft, a Minecraft community for children with autism and their allies. I will present results from on-going ethnographic work exploring the community’s Minecraft server and other community affiliated social media. Results from this study highlight ways in which community members use technology to create a safe environment for children with autism to explore alternative forms of social expression. Findings suggest an expansion of how sociality has traditionally been conceptualized for individuals with autism and how technology plays a key role in facilitating this new sociality.

Grad Student Workflow, Part 5

This week I will be writing about free writing. This is the fifth part of my series about my workflow as a graduate student (you can find Part 1 here). Last week, in Part 4, I gave an overview of my various steps in my writing process. Now I will break the first step down for you.

chalkboard_quotes_twain

Free Writing

This is something I strive to do every (work) day. I carve out 35-45 minutes and sit down and write. My goal is 1500 (any kind of) words. Some days I don’t quite make it to my 1500 goal because I am tired or things get too hectic for my full writing session, but I do the best I can.

I do my free writes in OmmWriter and then transfer the text over to Evernote for safe keeping.

Screenshot 2016-03-24 23.27.47

The great thing about this program is it is simple and quiet. I can plug in my headphones and hear ocean waves and the happy click-clack of keystrokes.

Screenshot 2016-03-24 23.28.23

With a quick swipe of the mouse, I can check in on my word count if I’m feeling particularly anxious. For the most part, however, I just write.

When I’m done with my 1500 words, a quick copy and paste from OmmWriter to Evernote (filed under my notebook title “Free Writes”) saves my writing. I do this quick switch for one primary reason – searchability. My goal at the end of the day is to have all my research notes, memos, writing, etc. all in one place that is easily parsed and searchable. That way, when I get to later steps in my writing (“Now where did I put that one idea about a conference paper…..”) I can throw some keywords into my Evernote and find what I need. Work done now, upfront, is work saved later when energy levels may be low, cognitive function may be impaired, and deadlines are getting anxiously near.

I find this free write process to be very freeing (haha). First, it gets rid of one reason for writer’s block – the blank page. My later writings can now have snippets of free write pasted in to get them started – no more blank page! I also find this process really helps jumpstart and solidify my thought process. I am thinking through my writing. As I go through my day, do my readings, maybe work on various projects, my brain is making all sorts of connections I might not be aware of. These free writes are one place where I find myself actually articulating for the first time and iterating on these connections.

Up next, I will talk about memos in Part 6.

Grad Student Workflow, Part 4

As mentioned in Part 1, I am discussing my various workflow tools in order to have a more pleasant and efficient grad school experience. Last week, in Part 2, I discussed my general task management and in Part 3 I discussed reading and citations. This week I will be starting my sub-series about writing.

Sources: Much of what I’ve learned about my workflow, I’ve gotten from other folks. What I’m discussing in the next few posts is an amalgamation of different work management patterns I’ve gotten from around the internet, people in the lab, or figured out for myself. I would like to give a big thanks to Hacking the Thesis.

writing-quotes_cslewis

Writing

Over the next month I will be posting about the various steps I take in my writing. My plan is to talk about the following:

  • free writing
  • memos
  • academic paper drafts
  • writing for blogs or other “general” audience media

One book I found very helpful was Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. The habit that I have picked up since my first read through is writing everyday. I do this by setting aside roughly 45 minutes of my day for my free writing. I aim for about 1500 words per day of this kind of writing. The next level of writing is slightly more structured memos, which usually have some kind of focus (a question I am trying to answer, or something specific I am analyzing or drafting up). Finally, the free writes and memos then feed into my rough drafts. When I know what kind of question I want to answer for a particular venue, I can start a more formal drafting process. This is also where I bring in coauthors to help with the argument, literature, and clarity.

While my main focus is my academic writing, I also change things up to give my brain a rest by writing fiction and journalling. Perhaps I will have more on this after I’ve finished this series of blog posts.