Video games were a sore point in my house for many years because my son and I could not agree on age appropriate titles. Sebastian’s choices revolved around what are often called “First Person Shooters,” war-themed adventures riddled with ferocious violence, whereas I was hoping for him to play Super Mario Brothers or some other “kiddy game.” There was significant conflict, bewailing, and gnashing of teeth before we finally found Minecraft; a simple game of virtual blocks that quickly became a way of life for on-the-spectrum Sebastian and his sister. Through Minecraft we all came to peace and learned an important truth: playing video games with your friends and family can be more fun than playing alone.
The first video games were conceived in the early 40s by researchers who were studying the nascent field of computer programming. In the beginning these games were very simple, consisting of a minimal text based user interface that was printed to paper as the game was played. Over the last 30 years game development has moved into a new phase of theatrical productions comprised of symphonic music, textured photorealistic graphics, and three dimensional maps of breathtaking complexity. The resulting production costs have come to rival Hollywood movies, with the most expensive game of all time costing one quarter of a billion dollars to develop and produce.
Over the past 15 years the games industry has undergone massive change forced by the introduction of small powerful mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads. Not only has making a game become easier, it is also now possible for small games studios, also known as “Indie Developers,” to market their products in online “App” stores from which consumers can easily download them. Unlike their mainstream counterparts, these teams are comprised of a few people who work on skeleton budgets. Their games are usually simpler than mainstream titles, but what they lack in multi-media effects they often make up for in playability, and a well developed game can easily garner a cult following.
Minecraft started life as an Indy game set in an essentially infinite world populated with animals, monsters, and other players, that have access to a variety of multi-colored building blocks that can be combined into complex structures. The game has been described as a virtual Lego world, and the concept has proved so popular that Minecraft has sold 72 million copies. It is now the number three selling game of all time, following closely behind Wii Sports, but still only having sold only one third of the copies of the obscenely popular “Tetris.”
On the Spectrum with Minecraft
Many kids on the spectrum adore Minecraft, and while there are many opinions as to what the attraction is, I’d argue the joy of building complex structures in a world of simple rules is inherently pleasurable. The sun rises and sets every 20 minutes, you can roam around as you see fit gathering items that can be crafted into other elements, and above all, you don’t need a book of complex instructions to do any of this. It’s all about experiencing the game and learning as you go.
Minecraft provides a new modality of communication for children who have less developed social skills. Players can interact in the world and send each other in-game messages. My son’s Xbox friends can be found exploring the world together or co-creating their latest invention or piece of art. They like to bop, and jump, and run around in circles just for the sheer joy of seeing each other’s virtual persona — something I find heartwarming. They also learned to communicate by typing short, often misspelled words, sometimes before they knew how to write.
There are many educational benefits to the game, and it has been successfully incorporated into classroom curriculum as well as after school clubs that are popular with both teachers and students. Creative educators have found a myriad of interesting ways to engage students, including virtual science experiments, planning the plot for stories, and helping visualize arithmetic and geometry in mathematics. Researchers are working to quantify the value of this new modality of education and while it’s still early days, there are many promising papers reporting a measurable improvement in learning, particularly in the special needs community.
Minecraft can also be viewed as having an anti-anxiety effect. Psychologists have used it as part of visualization exercises and mindfulness training with some measure of success, largely because the child has the opportunity to write their own stories in the game, something which author and researcher Brené Brown views as key to building resilience and recovering from negative experiences.
Minecraft can be found on every computing device that is popular with your kids today. The Xbox and PlayStation platforms are particularly easy to use because you can install the game directly from the App Store without worrying about how your computer is configured. Your child will also be familiar with the controllers used in these games and won’t even have to learn the simple sequence of keys needed to play the game.
Both the PC and Mac platforms have versions of Minecraft that can be bought and downloaded from https://minecraft.net/download for around $27 US dollars. They are easy to install, either by reading the supplied instructions, or by watching a YouTube tutorial video. You don’t need to be a computer whiz to install Minecraft.
If your child is particularly advanced, or they want to use features such as mods (plugins that can extend the game), then consider downloading the Technic launcher (http://www.technicpack.net/download), which makes installing these additional components a snap.
Understanding the Game
The game is simple and has few rules. The player is placed into a three dimensional world made of blocks than can be placed next to, or on top of each other, to build structures. Blocks can also be destroyed allowing players to dig dungeons or carve out sections of an object to create features such as windows and doors. There are many different types of blocks representing building materials such as dirt, stone, ore, water, lava, and the player can combine these to create new blocks with other special properties.
When the game is started, the first step is to chose between four modes of play;
- Creative mode allows the player to have an unlimited number of blocks as well as the ability to fly around the world as they see fit.
- In survival mode the player has to gather blocks and take care of their health/food supply in order to stay alive. There are monsters such as skeletons, zombies and creepers who come out at night and attack you, but this isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, and even younger children are usually not too perturbed.
- Adventure mode is a variant of survival mode that allows players to use other player’s maps instead of just the standard ones supplied with the game.
- Spectator mode requires the least effort because it is not possible to place blocks, and the player simply flies around watching others with no interaction. This can be a great way for a parent to get a sense of the game without accidently destroying their child’s latest master work.
Learning Minecraft is simple because the gaming community has contributed thousands upon thousands of player tutorials on YouTube. Some of the best of these come from Joseph Garrett, aka “Stampy;” an English YouTube content creator whose videos are among the number 10 most watched YouTube channels in the world, and whose ratings often exceed those of television stations. If you do a YouTube search for Minecraft tutorial and follow along, you’ll be on top of the game in no time.
Making Multiplayer Safe
One truly amazing feature of Minecraft is its multiplayer mode that can be used by people all over the world to play the game together by connecting to one of many “Servers” that are available on the public internet. Players can pop in and out of the game, meet with their friends, and work on their latest construction together. While this adds a lot of fun to the game, care is required and this is especially true when dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) kids. Predators, bad language, and cyber bullying are real factors to take into consideration and choosing appropriate servers is paramount.
If your child is not ready for open multiplayer, then perhaps you could consider a group called “AutCraft,” a dedicated server created by Stuart Duncan for people with ASD (http://www.autcraft.com/). The server is run by adults with an interest in ASD kids and contributed to by “Helpers;” children and adults who have demonstrate that they are “responsible, positive, and helpful with people.” It’s a positive, inclusive, environment with zero tolerance for bullying, killing, stealing or griefing, as well as being a great place to make friends in the ASD community. AutCraft maintains an active Facebook fan page.
Ways to Make Minecraft More Fun
There are many ways to enjoy Minecraft and some of the best of these involve interaction with your child as they play, or talk to you about the game. This can be as simple as picking up the other controller and “jumping into the game,” although this may not always be welcomed if you are too “embarrassing.” Another strategy is to sit with them and watch as they play and explain the game in their own words. Patience is required with ASD kids as this conversation may go on for hours while they explain every intricate detail of their latest creation.
In my household TV takes a back seat to YouTube Minecraft videos, some of which have a quirky sense of humor that can be fun for adults. Watching the videos, asking questions and actively listening can be a great way to engage your child as you wile away a rainy Saturday afternoon. When you’ve had enough of this pursuit, take a trip to the local bookstore where you can find a wide range of Minecraft books that make excellent homework reading your child will really enjoy.
Many autism societies understand how much our children really love this game, and have activities where like-minded kids can play in a safe environment. My son attends a Tuesday night group with AutismUp that he absolutely adores, and even though getting him out of the house can be a real challenge at times, this never seems to happen on Minecraft Tuesday!
If you haven’t discovered Minecraft yet, now might be the time. It’s an easy to learn, non-violent game that ASD kids seem to be naturally attracted to, as well as a tool parents can use to have fun with their children through joint play. There are educational and psychological benefits to the game as well as safe environments targeted to meet our children’s needs. If you are patient and listen to what your child has to say about Minecraft, you may learn a great deal about their inner lives and find a way to engage them in valuable constructive play.
Colin Rhodes is an experienced healthcare IT executive with sixteen years’ experience working in medical imaging and clinical trials. Colin holds a bachelor’s degree in Pure Mathematics and Computer Science as well as a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Queensland. He has an eight-year-old son with ASD.
This article was featured in Issue 45 – Protecting Your Child with Autism