Stuart Duncan's Autcraft: crafting a playspace for children with autism
26 March, 2018
Under the name @AutismFather, Stuart Duncan shares his experiences of parenting an autistic child and his opinions on 'all things autism'. He remembers Minecraft's meteoric rise in 2012 not only as a dad playing the game with his two children, but as someone connected via social media to many other families with autistic kids. Initially, parents would share that their child 'would do nothing but play, watch and talk about Minecraft'.
However, more serious frustrations emerged: parents increasingly reported their children were being bullied while playing Minecraft on public servers. Stuart responded by creating a server where autistic children could meet up and play together safely – and so Autcraft was born in 2013. We spoke to Stuart about Autcraft and its potential lessons for other gaming communities.
How it works
Minecraft is an absurdly successful 'sandbox' computer game with over 144 million copies sold, making it the second best-selling computer game of all time (behind Tetris). The gameplay is akin to playing with Lego, but in a procedurally generated world full of dangerous beasts. Generally, there are no explicit goals and players are free to create as they wish.
The Autcraft server hosts online games of Minecraft, and players must undergo an application process to be able to play on it. On the server there is zero tolerance for bullying, swearing or stealing, and a structured system exists for praising positive behaviour. The server also uses plugins to ensure that structures players have built can't be destroyed by other players.
At its core, Stuart and a team of admins ensure the community functions effectively. Stuart feels that the diversity in the admin team is one of the server's great strengths. Stuart himself brings a wealth of lived experience to running the server as an autistic person and as a parent of a autistic child, but he recognises that he cannot relate to every situation, and so he relies on the diverse admin team to better represent server users. The admin team include parents of autistic children, some of whom are autistic themselves.
Admins deal with various issues that arise, including reports of real-world bullying and suicidal thoughts. The response is to try and match up the player in question with someone they can relate and talk to. Admins have often had similar experiences themselves, plus other server users may be going through similar situations at that moment in time.
At the most fundamental level, Stuart says 'we just let them know that they're not alone... We're here for each other and will support each other for as long as need be... we all know how terrible it can feel sometimes and none of us want the others to feel that same way.' As an illustration of this, Stuart remembers users who initially came to the server feeling suicidal and are now helping others dealing with similar situations.
Stuart aims to help players flourish by providing 'an accepting environment where they're not afraid to learn, grow and make mistakes.' He feels many servers focus on gaining a high volume of users, to the detriment of fostering a supportive community.
In an online world where 'griefing' and verbal abuse are rife, Stuart feels it is a shame that Autcraft is an 'anomaly' with its supportive ethos, and he hopes that the server can demonstrate to others that it is possible to achieve large user numbers whilst also working to lock out abusive behaviour.
Stuart describes a number of examples of Autcraft users flourishing. He recently finished writing an employment reference letter for one of Autcraft's teen players (who has the rank of 'Helper' within the game), and he recalls other players who have obtained their first jobs following on from their experiences with Autcraft. Parents often get in touch to say their children are making friends at school after playing on the server and 'learning how to interact with others.'
And players themselves describe doing things they never would have done before playing on Autcraft: 'one child said he helped an elderly lady with her groceries at her car just because it's the type of thing we encourage players to do on the server.' The server also provides a supportive space for users to develop, such as 'the kids who sign onto the server and don't say a word for months, but, once opened up, become so helpful that they are rewarded with a rank and a position that allows them to help people'.
It is not only autistic children and their families who are open to the benefits of Autcraft. Researchers have taken an interest in how the server works as an assistive technology for youth with autism.
Stuart has also found that a significant number of players heard about the server from a healthcare or education professional, which he sees as an encouraging development from the perhaps traditional attitude that video games are stultifying. Professionals appear to be 'open to the good that a server like Autcraft can do' and are beginning to appreciate 'the benefits of a community at play'.
Stuart has been exposed to negativity and abusive behaviour surrounding autism himself, but also second-hand through Autcraft, as players share experiences of bullying on a scale he hadn't anticipated. 'It can feel like the world is still a very dark place with a long way to go,' he said. He has also found that autistic people are struggling with issues such as sexuality and gender identity which are not always well-recognised.
Stuart describes learning about the fears that can hold back users in their daily lives, 'the fear of being judged, teased, mocked, bullied or even the fear of being alone... On Autcraft, I've seen children sign on, totally in a panic at this new place with new people and having to speak and worried about breaking things and being punished... and I've seen those same children learn to let all of that go and share their likes and dislikes, their dreams and their heartaches with everyone else... I see children making friends for the first time ever, I see them becoming interested in science because some other child is making it sound like magic.'
Stuart notes that Autcraft is becoming increasingly well known as a positive group, and other things are changing for the autism community. Autistic characters are being featured in television programmes and awareness campaigns are increasing.
Some Minecraft servers now ban players for hate speech if they use the term 'autistic' as a form of insult. Stuart ultimately feels optimistic that people are more open-minded to understanding autism.
Autcraft is a way of life for Stuart, which comes with long hours and full-time dedication, which amounts to being 'patient and compassionate and understanding and positive each and every time' he is needed. Looking to the future, Stuart is working on a secondary server that will allow players to play in 'Creative Mode', with access to unlimited items and materials for unrestricted building, as opposed to the more traditional mode where players must first gather materials in order to build.
If funding were no obstacle (Autcraft relies entirely on donations), Stuart's dream is to be able to offer Autcraft in other languages and add servers in more locations.
As a veteran gamer, what does Stuart play when he's not working on Autcraft? 'I'll always love the open-world games that I can play at my own speed. Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed, GTA...'
He views video games as a way to relax and de-stress, providing vital 'me time', and he finds doing his own thing within a game satisfying and freeing. 'I can take my time and build at my own speed. If I want action, I can go find that. If I want to fish, I can do that too.' For him, this is Minecraft's appeal, and Autcraft simply takes this one step further by allowing this freedom within a well-supported and structured environment.
More information on Autcraft is available through the official website.
Authored by Fran Debell (Core trainee in psychiatry, South London and Maudsley NHS Trust). Interview by Donald Servant.