An interview with Stuart Duncan, creator of the computer game Autcraft, a safe alternative to Minecraft
By Stephanie King
Stuart Duncan has given the community something to talk about, Autcraft, a Minecraft server with special admins and rules designed with children on the spectrum in mind. I wasn’t sure what was getting the project so much hype or why it prompted some non-verbal players to start talking for the first time, but his TED talk “How I use Minecraft to help children with autism” should be required viewing for combating deep-seated bullying of autistic kids, not just Minecraft players.
As far as an event that spurred the creation of Autcraft, It wasn’t any particular incident that was the deciding factor to make an autistic specific player realm to be free of oppressive game play. This was a rampant problem many parents were complaining about in concern for their childrens’ welfare.
Duncan has volunteered some poignant realizations about bullying as his motivation to do a server which led to some profound outcomes for he, the parents, and the players seeking a virtual refuge from repeated murder and property destruction in the game believed to have in some cases been real harassment with the goal of making an autistic player kill themself.
“When the child would reveal that they actually did have autism, that’s when the bullies would start telling them that they’re defects and that they’re dragging down society. They’d tell these kids that they should do their parents a favor and kill themselves since they probably never wanted a broken kid anyway.”
In 2013 Duncan wanted to put an end to bullying and he created his space to give kids a place to play free from bullies, disliking the fact that a safe space was needed. “… I had to start the server in the first place because kids were being bullied so badly.”
Fortunately, taking matters into his own hands was relatively easy.
Minecraft is a sandbox game you can set up on your own hosted server with a cheap service. “You basically start out in a fresh new world with nothing and have to gather resources and craft tools and weapons to survive. What you can do and build is limited only by your imagination. So long as you continue to be creative, you could play the game forever. You gather wood, stones and minerals to make weapons, tools and buildings. You can also gather “redstone” which acts as electrical wiring so that you can automate farms and systems. While doing all of that, you can also fight monsters such as skeletons and zombies. There is technically no end to the game but also no linear progression which means you don’t have to level up, or complete quests or do any of the things most other games require.”
Interestingly, when you disallow bullying and linear progression in the game some of the kids start talking (who were previously non-verbal). All of this alongside chat boxes may be leading to extra effort in the real world according to Duncan. “I think the main reason that some of our non-verbal players start talking after being on the server for a while is that they feel more confident, they feel more eager to share information and most of all, they get experience communicating on the server via text. These players ask for help, they offer help, they trade items, they build together with others, play mini-games together and really open up quite a bit in the process. They learn what is and isn’t ok to say to others and how to be a friend. They share their interests and learn about others.”
Autcraft has given young players somewhere they can focus on being creative instead of dealing with drama, and Duncan is breaking records that are made for him to break.
During the live stream on April 2, 2013, to raise awareness about bullying, ‘A plea to the Minecraft community’, Duncan reached out. “It actually did rather well as we had several Minecraft players with big YouTube accounts join me. After that, I made it a yearly 24-hour live stream to continue to show the world that people with autism really can be terrific people and to show the world why I had to start my server. I did that for several years, getting larger and larger audiences each year.”
“Last year, after I had done my live stream, I looked up the world record for playing Minecraft and discovered that it was just over 35 hours. Well, having done it for several years at 24 hours, I realized that I could go much longer if I really wanted to and thought it that making it a world record attempt would really boost the signal of my message. If I tried to set a new world record, on Autism Awareness Day, to raise awareness and to send a message about bullying and raise money for charity on top of that… people might just take notice. And they did! I was in the news quite a bit and we had the largest audience ever which included some very big names in Minecraft/YouTube.”
“Leading up to the big event, I started sleeping in 3/4 hour chunks at all hours of the day. This tricked my mind into thinking that I had no real set bed time therefore not making me tired at any one time of the day. Then, the day before the live stream, I stayed awake all night and half of the day, going to bed 10 hours before the live stream was to start. I had hoped to get 8 hours sleep but only got 6, so I was up 4 hours before it was to begin. It turned out alright though and I managed to stay up for the entire 36 hour duration, plus afterwards for interviews and a celebration pizza with my kids.”
Autcraft is a real game changer for Duncan who has autism and a child on the autism spectrum. The real payback is shaping lives for the better and even potentially saving them. “I’ve heard from quite a few players years after they had left Autcraft who returned to thank me for their time on the server. They tell me that the confidence they gained and the experiences they had in being a part of the community helped to better prepare them for school, a job, or just life in general.”
Dreams are born into reality on Autcraft because the kids are allowed to do what they do best — be themselves — as autistic players. “One player was on the server in 2013 and 2014 as they were starting high school and then returned in 2017 to tell me that they were graduating and had been accepted to their dream job at LEGO. They said that it was because of everything they had learned from me and the server that they ever had the courage, much less know-how to even apply for the job. We certainly don’t go out of our way to be teaching anything in particular as we are not a school but being a part of a friendly and generous community seems to have that effect on people.”
Letting go is learned as a social skill on Autcraft, but letting go of this story of harrowing beginning is as tough as throwing a baby out of a nest. “When I started Autcraft, I knew that it would never be a place that would try to keep players around forever, as most games/servers are, rather, it would be a stepping stone to help kids gain confidence and learn how to not let bullies get to them so much.”
Stephanie King has a very unusual ability to suddenly speed draw sideways illusions and other drawings in an online browser application which is likely due to savant syndrome. She is a PTSD survivor on the autistic spectrum who enjoys trading crypto currencies, cooking, road tripping, and life long learning. Follow her on her website www.savantofillusions.org