How a $ 2.50 experiment turned into one of the best places on the internet.
Angela was on call when a young boy with autism — who I'll call Tim — came up to her for help. Tim's friend had recently committed suicide, and it was clear he was shaken and upset. Within minutes of talking, Angela understood that Tim didn't have a family he felt comfortable talking to. Running through her own mental checklist, Angela suggested that, if comfortable, he should seek out and talk to a guidance counselor or school therapist. But Angela knew Tim needed help right away. “You need to find some help but how can I help you right now? How can we help release all this that you're feeling?” she asked.
Tim asked Angela if she'd help him build a memorial for his friend and the two began constructing: Tim built a cross out of some stone blocks; Angela planted flowers. Later, Tim fashioned a sign, which he hung on the stone cross. “You will never see the stars if your head is always down,” it read. Angela invited some of the nearby children to see what Tim had built. One by one they offered up their support, taking turns embracing him. The next day, Tim confessed that Angela's support had helped him feel better about his friend. Tears in her eyes, Angela watched as Tim disappeared from view, heading off to build or join a quest.
Or maybe he simply logged off.
Stories like this one pop up all the time in Autcraft, a server for the popular multiplayer video game, Minecraft, where Angela routinely puts in 40-plus hour volunteer work weeks as an administrator. Autcraft is one of hundreds of thousands of active Minecraft servers, but one of only a few that caters exclusively to children, young adults, and parents of children with autism and Asperger's. Painstakingly moderated by a team of dutiful (and intensely vetted) volunteers, Autcraft is a safe haven to 5,000 players from all over the world and arguably one of the best communities on the internet.
Autcraft's founder and cult hero (according to one parent, “He's like Elvis in there!”) is Stuart Duncan, a web developer from Timmons, Canada, who goes by the handle AutismFather. In 2013, Duncan, who has Asperger's syndrome and is the father of children with autism, had been keeping a blog about raising children with autism when he noticed that a number of parents of autistic children in his various networks were struggling to find a safe place for their kids to play Minecraft. Parents were complaining that most Minecraft servers subjected their children to bullies, trolls, foul language, and other emotionally disturbing behavior. Duncan, who had already been playing the game with his kids, bought a $ 2.50 starter server that he named Autcraft and invited 400 people from his blog's Facebook page, expecting few responses.
But it exploded: “I got 750 emails in the first two days,” Duncan told BuzzFeed News. “These parents, they really really felt they had no place to go and here was a place where they thought, My kid won't be bullied. I didn't have to do any ads; they were desperate.”
By its very nature, a game like Minecraft is an intuitive and addictive teaching tool; as a result it's been embraced by many video game-wary parents. In Minecraft, players can explore their creativity by pairing together textures and colors and building the world around them, learn number skills, and even hone their social skills. But for children and young adults who have trouble with social cues, Minecraft — and specifically Autcraft — gives autistic players the chance to meet and talk with likeminded children, hone crucial social skills, and learn to feel comfortable with themselves and in their new environment. And it all takes place behind the a protective shield of screens, keyboards, and avatars.
“When you have a lot of insecurities, face-to-face communication can be very limiting,” Duncan said. “Whereas in Minecraft, you don't feel like you're talking to a human being, but you have fun and you let your guard down.”