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.

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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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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Clothing Tags for Individuals with Visual Impairments

Kate at UMBC SURF Poster Session
August 8, 2012. UMBC SURF Poster Session

Self expression through clothing is inherently visual and is not readily accessible to those with visual impairments. Presently, the best method for conveying information is with high-tech devices that identify fabric colors, but don’t give information about pattern, graphics, washing instructions, or style. Designing clothing tags for the visually impaired user requires that the tags be discreet, comfortable, easy to locate, and that it be reasonably simple to retrieve information from them. With this study we contribute a collection of tagging systems that can be used in future research for the development and testing of fully functional tagging systems that will empower visually impaired users when making clothing decisions.

Ringland, Kathryn. “Accessible Clothing Tags: Designing for Individuals with Visual Impairments”.CHI 2013. Paris, France. May 2013.*

Williams, M., Ringland, K., Hurst, A. “Designing an Accessible Clothing Tag System for People with Visual Impairments”. ASSETS 2013. Bellevue, WA. October 2013.*

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Week 9

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Week 9

I can’t believe the summer is almost over!  I guess it’s a good sign that I wish I were in grad school now so that I could keep going with my project. The RFID Reader kit arrived, so I was able to put it together and actually get it to scan RFID tags.  The kit was a shield that just plugged into the top of the arduino.  I used the adafruit tutorial to complete the reader and upload the software required for reading the tags.

Reader Kit Unpacked
Reader Kit Unpacked
Breakaway Headers
Breakaway Headers
Soldering the Headers
Soldering the Headers
Soldering Set Up
Soldering Set Up
All Soldered
All Soldered
Reader Assembled
Reader Assembled
Antenna with RFID Tag
Antenna with RFID Tag
Working
And it works!

This week I also found out that I have been selected to present at the Summer Undergraduate Research Festival on campus next Wednesday.  This means I will be giving a 8 minute talk about the project I have been working on this summer.  So, I started working on my talk and a video that I will play during the presentation.

 

Week 8

This week I finished up putting tags into the clothes. I also did a lot of writing this week.  I submitted two poster abstracts- one to the campus Research Festival and one to Grace Hopper.  I also started a draft of the final paper for this project I have been working on all summer.  Luckily, actually quite enjoy the writing process.  I’ll be finding out this coming week if my poster abstracts were accepted.  Next up:  making a poster!

On Thursday, I went to the ADA Celebration on campus.  We put some of our projects on display, including the clothe I have tagged.  It was really great meeting people and talking a bit about the work we have been doing.  We also heard speeches from Dr. Hrabowski and Governor O’Malley.

UMBC HCC Group at the ADA Celebration July 26, 2012
UMBC HCC Group at the ADA Celebration July 26, 2012
Me at the ADA Celebration
Me at the ADA Celebration

This coming week I’ll be working more on my paper and designing my poster.  I hope the RFID reader parts come in, so that I can build the last system for the project.  I’ll also be playing around with an NFC enabled tablet to see if I can get it to read the tags we have in the lab!

 

Week 7

There was a lot going on this last week, especially now as I am looking at deadlines for my poster abstracts and wrapping up for the summer.

We finally got our “smart closet” put together with shelving and all!

Smart Closet
A nice, organized closet space for our clothes that are going to be tagged.

We narrowed down our list of tagging systems that we want to prototype.  We had a fashion hackathon on Tuesday to put together the website that will be part of our prototypes.  For some of our systems, the user can look up a button shape or specific location to help remind them of what it identifies (color, how to wash, etc).  In another web based system, the user can input a number that is written in braille on a tag inside the clothes to get all the information about it.

Fashion Hackathon
Fashion Hackathon
3 Braille Tags in Puff Paint
Ribbon with Braille in Puff Paint

 

 

Star Button Tag in Shirt
This star represent certain information about this shirt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also built some prototypes with a more high-tech solution.  One uses the QR code iron-on to the clothes.  A second solution is the RFID tag with reader.I am still waiting on the parts for the reader before I can prototype this system.

Row of QR Codes
QR Codes ready to be printed.

On Wednesday, I went to the Summer Horizons grad school information session on campus.  The information presented was phenomenal.  They went over the timelines,  keys to admissions (GRE Scores, Letters of Recommendation, and the Statement of Purpose), and what life is like as a grad student.  There was a panel of grad students that answered questions about their own application process and what their lives are like now.  To finish everything off, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski gave a great keynote speech.  I wish I had recorded it, but I was too busy watching!

One of the things Dr. Hrabowski said was the following quote, which really stuck with me: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tzu

I’m glad I attended this information session, even though it wasn’t strictly a part of the internship I am doing.  It helped me to really start exploring the reasons I want to go to grad school and how to organize my thoughts so I can get my applications together.

Wednesday afternoon, summer students from the Maryland School for the Blind came to visit UMBC.  As part of their visit, the HCC department gave them some information about the research they do here on campus.  Michele and I got to informally talk with some of the students about my project that I have been working on this summer.  Some of them were really excited about the idea of just scanning clothes and getting the information about them.  One student wanted to know when they would be able to buy the system.  It’s really nice getting such positive feedback about the work I have been doing.

This coming week I will be writing abstracts for my research posters.  I will be finishing up my prototypes, which will probably take the bulk of my time.  I’m down to sewing in buttons and ribbons.  As soon as we have IRB approval, we will be able to take our clothes to users to see what they think of our prototypes!

Week 6

This week I worked with Amy and Michele to redevelop my project scope for the rest of the summer.  In addition to RFID tags and readers for clothing, I am going to help brainstorm other ways someone could tag their clothing.  I spent the first part of the week looking up how people are currently keeping track of their clothes.

I then decided on some different ways to tag clothes.  Some ideas were buttons, safety pins, QR codes inside the clothes, and RFID tags.  I then went on a shopping trip with Michele to stock our closet and get supplies for our prototype systems.  At the end of the week I started prototyping some tags.

Sample Tag

I also spent some time with Amy looking forward to see where this research is headed.  I’ve started thinking about what I will be doing after this summer is over and applying to graduate school.  This experience hasn’t gotten me excited about keeping the momentum I have here going.