One of my Internet heroes is Stuart Duncan, founder of Autcraft, a Minecraft server for kids with autism and their families. After blogging about autism for many years, Duncan started Autcraft in response to what he had heard from his community about autistic kids being bullied on Minecraft servers. Clearly he tapped a pain point. After opening its doors in 2013, word spread quickly, and the Autcraft community has grown to over 8000 members.
Creating safe spaces for kids with autism online (or anywhere) is important and hard. The Autcraft community has achieved this through vigilance and community innovation. Other servers can learn from their experience in creating inclusive and safe server communities. Creating a friendly and inclusive Internet shouldn’t fall to families with kids with autism alone, but should enlist and enrich all of us as allies and fellow netizens.
Autcraft Under Attack
Image Credit: Herzi Pinki
Within three weeks of launch, Autcraft became a target for hackers and trolls. It has been under constant attack ever since. Duncan kept quiet about this struggle until last year, when two hackers hijacked his IP address. Autcraft members, most of them children, found themselves on a server designed to entrap them. Kids as young as six years old were told they were rejects and degenerates and that they should kill themselves. The hackers said they were doing it for amusement, and for a $1000 ransom. The crisis was averted within an hour, but the experience moved Duncan to blog about this issue for the first time. Reading his post moved me to tears.
More recently, after some mainstream media attention, Autcraft was under attack again. Two trolls made it through the whitelist, but were promptly removed. The struggle continues, and reminds us how much care and tending it takes to maintain kid-friendly and inclusive online communities.
Running a Minecraft Server for Kids with Autism
I first learned about Autcraft through one of our Ph.D. students at UC irvine, Kate Ringland. She is doing her dissertation research on the Autcraft community. Like other researchers, she has found that (minus the bullies) online communication is a hospitable environment for kids with autism to engage socially. Communication through online chat enables more deliberative expression of thoughts and emotions. Kids can also avoid the sensory overload of many real life social settings.
Ringland’s work also takes a close look at steps Autcraft community members have taken to customize their Minecraft server to suit their needs. For example, they have created sensory rooms with calming visual elements, where group chat is disabled. Mini-games are popular group activities that the community supports, where members can blow off steam while interacting with others side-by-side. They also added colors and other modifications to chat to make it more readable for participants with visual impairments.
These customizations go hand-in-hand with ongoing community moderation, tied to a code of conduct that ensures a safe and inclusive environment. All this while Duncan continues to ward off the bullies and haters in theonline world at large.
Beyond the Walled Garden
In his interview with PC Gamer, Duncan says that he’s heard that some of his players have tried other servers. “They tend to return to [Autcraft] angry, on the brink of tears.” They come back and they’re like ‘we autistic people, we as a community, are the nicest bunch of people.’… it’s kind of depressing that you don’t get that anywhere else.” The wilds of the Internet can be a harsh place.
We’ve blogged about other kid-friendly Minecraft servers, including Autcraft, and what it takes to run them. Some of these Minecraft servers are specifically for kids with autism. All of them have measures to address bullying and trolling. The experience of Duncan and his community is a strong reminder of why these efforts are so critically important. We need to both protect vulnerable and stigmatized kids, and raise all kids to be kind and inclusive to others online.
A Minecraft Server for Allies
Our goal for our Connected Camps Kid Club server, camps, and afterschool programs is to welcome kids of all abilities and backgrounds and combat trolling and hate online. Our high school and college counselors are the anchors of our community. They moderate our server and model our values. We have always had many kids who identify as on the spectrum in our community.
Our parents have described how our programs provide their kids with autism a space to pursue STEM learning with other kids without feeling different or excluded. We believe that everyone has “special needs,” and train our counselors to take a personal, hands-on approach with every child. This means that kids across the spectrum blend. They are treated with the same personal attention as other participants.
We don’t offer a Minecraft server exclusive to kids with autism and families. We do offer a mixed ability community friendly to kids on the spectrum. We hope to be both a stepping stone to other mixed ability online contexts, as well as a way for kids with autism to pursue tech and creative interests suited to their social and communication needs.
But maybe the biggest benefit is for the more neuro-typical members of our community. They are learning to navigate new social encounters, become allies, and are less likely to grow up to be trolls and haters. I have such respect and gratitude for the kids with autism and their families who brave an often unfriendly online world to teach us all these lessons.
Featured image credit: Stu Willis
Corrections: In response to one of our readers, we have changed the terms “autistic kids” to “kids with autism” to put the person first and the disability second. Thank you for your feedback!