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Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism

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Those with disabilities have long adopted, adapted, and appropriated collaborative systems to serve as assistive devices. In this paper, we present the results of a digital ethnography in a Minecraft virtual world for children with autism, specifically examining how this community has used do-it-yourself (DIY) making activities to transform the game into a variety of assistive technologies. Our results demonstrate how players and administrators "mod" the Minecraft system to support self-regulation and community engagement. This work highlights the ways in which we, as researchers concerned with accessible and equitable computing spaces, might reevaluate the scope of our inquiry, and how designers might encourage and support appropriation, enhancing users' experience and long-term adoption.
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Would You Be Mine: Appropriating Minecraft as an
Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism
Kathryn E. Ringland, Christine T. Wolf, LouAnne E. Boyd, Mark S. Baldwin, Gillian R. Hayes
Department of Informatics
University of California, Irvine
{kringlan, wolfct, boydl, baldwinm, hayesg}@uci.edu
ABSTRACT
Those with disabilities have long adopted, adapted, and
appropriated collaborative systems to serve as assistive devices. In
this paper, we present the results of a digital ethnography in a
Minecraft virtual world for children with autism, specifically
examining how this community has used do-it-yourself (DIY)
making activities to transform the game into a variety of assistive
technologies. Our results demonstrate how players and
administrators “mod” the Minecraft system to support self-
regulation and community engagement. This work highlights the
ways in which we, as researchers concerned with accessible and
equitable computing spaces, might reevaluate the scope of our
inquiry, and how designers might encourage and support
appropriation, enhancing users’ experience and long-term
adoption.
CCS Concepts
Human-centered computing Accessibility Accessibility
technologiesHuman-centered computing Collaborative
and social computing Collaborative and social computing
systems and tools.
Author Keywords
Assistive technology; DIY; appropriation; modding; Minecraft;
virtual worlds; autism; disability.
1. INTRODUCTION
Collaborative systems, like virtual worlds, have long been sites of
adoption, adaptation, and appropriation. People with disabilities,
in particular, have always found creative ways to pick up everyday
objectsincluding information and communication
technologiesto do the work of assistive devices. Indeed, many
closed, proprietary, or heavily customized systems are often
abandoned [13,40] in favor of lower cost, less stigmatized, and
more prevalent “mainstream” technologies that can be easily
adapted to suit specific needs [48].
Noting the challenges to adoption and widespread dissemination,
many assistive technology researchers have called for new ways to
augment existing systems, such as using lightweight browser
plugins instead of expensive screen readers [3], alternative and
augmentative communication software built into off the shelf
tablets [34] in place of pricey (and typically more robust) assistive
devices, or repurposing commercial products for unintended uses
[19,20,46,51].
Going one step further, some have advocated for and tested the
feasibility of those with disabilities developing their own assistive
devices [24,26]. As Hurst et al. [24] have suggested, the ability to
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) or appropriate “off the shelf” commercial
products to create assistive technology may improve the quality of
experiences with those devices and software. Users adopt, adapt,
and augment technology in ways designers do not envision, to
support needs that may not have been fully understood or
anticipated [14]. Often, this kind of appropriation takes
mainstream or “off the shelf” technology and changes it to suit the
needs of those who have differing abilities [24,52].
With this in mind, we sought to understand the DIY culture
surrounding and imbued in a virtual world that has been
appropriated as a safe space [44], a social skills intervention [45],
and, as we explore here, an assistive technology. Autcraft, a
Minecraft virtual world for individuals with autism1 and their
allies, serves all of these functions at once.
Minecraft is an open-ended virtual world with no particular goals
or play requirements [17,21,39]. Players can build and create new
objects by manipulating blocks in the game. The base software of
Minecraft can be modified with other programs, called “mods.”
According to the Minecraft End User License Agreement (EULA),
“If you've bought the Game, you may play around with it and
modify it by adding modifications, tools, or plugins, which we will
refer to collectively as ‘Mods.’” Although the makers of Minecraft
explicitly discourage negative behaviors, they mostly leave the
system open for any kind of modification users might envision
[54]. Mods are popular across Minecraft instantiations [12] and
have been explored for a variety of purposes in the research
literature, including teaching children how to program [23]. The
Autcraft community has taken advantage of the open and easily
adaptable nature of Minecraft and this “modding culture” to tailor
their server to multiple user needs, all while maintaining the
creative and imaginative atmosphere characteristic of the virtual
world.
In this paper, we present results from a virtual ethnography of
Autcraft, specifically examining how this community has
appropriated the platform, transforming features of the virtual
world into a variety of assistive technologies. In particular, our
results indicate that players use mods and other DIY techniques to
support themselves in terms of self-regulation and to support the
community in terms of their interaction with others and
1 The term autism will be used throughout this paper to denote
Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as Asperger’s Syndrome as
previously defined before the DSM-V changes [1].
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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2982142.2982172
socialization. This in-depth examination of a DIY assistive world
highlights the ways in which we, as researchers, might reconsider
the scope of our inquiry into accessible and equitable computing
spaces. It also draws attention to the role designers can play in
fostering accessibility through appropriation, leading to enhanced
user experience and more widespread adoption and use.
2. Related Work
As this research focuses on issues of DIY and appropriation in
assistive technology, we overview relevant literature about
appropriation, particularly as it pertains to assistive technology.
We then examine related literature describing how assistive
technology and virtual worlds in particular have been used for
individuals with disabilities.
2.1 Appropriation for Assistive Technology
Appropriation covers many activities, during “which technologies
are adopted, adapted and incorporated into working practice,”
including customization, modding, and simply using artifacts for
different purposes than originally designed [15]. This phenomenon
fosters psychological satisfaction from exerting control and
expressing onessense of identity [31]. Appropriation can lead to
an empowering experience for youth [8,9] and people with
disabilities [24], who often inherently feel disempowered.
The assistive technology community has long addressed how to
make technology accessible and supportive for people with
disabilities. These efforts have sometimes been addressed through
the concept of “Universal Design,” an approach towards design
for the largest community possible [33]. However, designing too
broadly has been associated with low acceptance and high
abandonment of assistive technologies in particular [40]. On the
other hand, designs that are too specific are often costly to produce
and can result in a very small market. The DIY space offers an
alternative [24,41]. However, these efforts to date have largely
focused on physical supports and translation to less tangible forms
of assistive technology (e.g., commercial software) may be
challenging [16].
Appropriation of “mainstream” technologies can also be helpful in
reducing the stigma associated with assistive device use, an
additional barrier to long-term adoption [48]. Stigma can result
from aesthetically ugly devices, misunderstandings about an
individuals ability, or social isolation for being marked as disabled
[48]. Thus, many people have pushed for appropriation of so-
called “mainstream technologies” that look like ordinary devices
or even like elite products but act like assistive devices [14]. For
example, by using iPhones rather than custom Alternative and
Augmentation Communication devices, children with speech
delays can move from the stigmatized “other” with a special
device to the “cool kid” with their own iPhone. These efforts can
also improve the technological experience for people without
disabilities. For example, the effort to standardize and introduce a
consistent experience across the web, unintentionally, made web
browsing more accessible for everyone [42].
2.2 Virtual Worlds for Individuals with
Disabilities
Research conducted on virtual worlds for community members
with disabilities is still in the nascent stages. Work in Second Life
has begun to describe how individuals with disabilities use virtual
worldsincluding creating dedicated zones, or Islands,” that are
meant to be community areas for those with disabilities [4,25,50].
Research has explored how these specialized places serve as
spaces for those with disabilities to feel safe, to socialize, and as
places of community activism [4,25,44,45].
Virtual worlds offer an opportunity for those with disabilities to
experiment with online avatars, living both real and fantastical
experiences online [50]. Users have the choice of whether or not
their avatar displays the same physical ability (e.g., avatar using a
wheelchair). This gives users the chance to play with possible
identities, whether those identities have anything to do with
disability or not. This opportunity for fantasy also allows
individuals with disability to experience social interactions
virtually that might not otherwise be available to them [49,50].
Those with disabilities often experience marginalization in the
physical world (i.e., low socio-economic status, limited access to
transportation) [22,50]. Without the physical limitations found in
the physical world, users in virtual worlds may find themselves
able to experience newfound freedoms in social interactions.
Conversely, some users may want to express their identity within
the virtual world as having the same physical ability, which some
virtual worlds provide the ability to do [49].
3. Methods
This paper reports on results from an on-going, qualitative digital
study of an online community that has grown around a Minecraft
server known as Autcraft. The Autcraft community was created
for children with autism and their allies. This community
maintains a Minecraft virtual world in tandem with other social
media platforms, including YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook,
and a community maintained website (including an administrator’s
blog, community forums, member profiles, and an in-browser web
messenger). These platforms are all included in this study. Data
were collected through interviews of children and parents,
participant observations, directed and non-directed forum
discussions, chat logs, and digital artifacts.
3.1 Setting
The Autcraft community uses an array of social media including:
YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Facebook, and a community
maintained website, and a Minecraft virtual world. The
multiplayer virtual world in our study, maintained by the Autcraft
community, is a semi-private server on Minecraft created for
children with autism and their families. As such, anyone wishing
to join must first complete an application to be added to the white
list. This application includes a declaration of having autism or
being a friend or family member of someone with autism who
plays on the server. Only those who have been added to the white
list can access the server. Autcraft currently has more than 6,000
white-listed members with a daily average of approximately 50
players in-world at peak hours of the day and approximately 1,200
unique players2 logging in each month. Because the Autcraft
server requires all chat activities to be in English, most players are
located in English-speaking countries. This server has strict rules
for behavior that are enforced both by software modifications and
a group of volunteer administrators and “helpers.” There are
important features that have been added via mods to the Autcraft
virtual world, which we will discuss in detail in the results, but are
defined here. These include the Autcraft “Spawn,” teleportation,
and mini-games.
The Autcraft Spawn is the staging area where players arrive when
they first log into the virtual world. It is a common meeting space,
2 AutCraft Wiki. AutCraft. Retrieved April 30, 2016 from
http://autcraft.com/wiki/m/34575523/page/Autcraft_Wiki
with names of administrators, helpers, and players of the week
displayed. This is also the access point for the gateways to the
other areas of the virtual world.
Teleportation is enabled in Autcraft through which avatars can
travel instantly “in-world,but only under certain circumstances.
This includes, teleporting to the player’s set “home” coordinates,
to Spawn, or to another player.
Mini-games are small, enclosed games in designated areas of the
virtual world. Mini-games must be reached via teleportation from
Spawn. These games include: Paint Ball, Hide & Seek, Wither
Battles, Parkour, and Spleef. In each area, players are given the
equipment they need to participate in the game upon arrival to the
area.
3.2 Data Collection
Our work employs ethnographic methods established by other
studies of virtual world communities [4,6,25,35,38]. The first
author has five yearsexperience playing Minecraft recreationally
approximately 15 hours per month. She then gained access to
Autcraft via permission of the server’s creator for the purposes of
this study and uses an avatar labeled as a researcher in world (See
Figure 1). The researcher’s presence and purpose was made clear
to the community through both the Autcraft web-based forum as
well as in the in-world chat. Community members were able to
ask the researcher questions about the study through the forums or
by visiting the researcher at an in-world home office.Parents
were informed of the lead researcher’s presence via a parent
message board and the Facebook page of the community. The lead
researcher also maintains a public website with postings of
updates from the study, including any publications.
The lead researcher collected approximately 80 hours of
immersive in-world observations, including participating in
activities on the server, recording chat-based dialogue, and field-
notes on everyday practices of community members and events as
they occurred in the virtual world. The lead researcher also
participated in community activities outside the virtual world,
including observing discussions in the forums and on the social
networking sites. In addition, focus groups were created
informally on the online forums through prompts, including open-
ended questions of the community. Digital artifacts from the
various platforms used by the community were also included in
analysis. These data were collected over a period of 24 months
and include approximately 5,000 forum threads and 150 blog posts
created by players, parents, and administrators.
3.3 Data Analysis
We used a three-phased approach to our data analysis. We first
become familiar with the data as individuals and then drafted and
shared memos related to themes within the team. Finally, we
reviewed the themes collaboratively in meetings, searching the
data for indicators or support for our hypotheses, as well as for
conflicting data that was not well explained by our initial
interpretation. This approach was iterative, meaning that the team
revisited each phase multiple times, as is an established best
practice for qualitative data analysis [11].
4. Results
Members of the Autcraft community work together to create the
technological infrastructure that is Autcraft. When one member
lacks the expertise to “hack the system” (e.g., programming
knowledge to modify the Minecraft software), others in the
community step in to create the desired result. In the following, we
describe some of the ways Autcraft community members have
appropriated the software, virtual world space, and other
technologies in the Autcraft community to help players internally
regulate themselves and externally manage engagement with
others.
4.1 Regulating the Self
Self-regulation is a “response to the continuously changing
conditions of the social world,” which “depends…on the ability to
evaluate and modify our own behavior and responses” [30].
Community members use Minecraft in a variety of ways to self-
regulate, including both sensory regulation and mood regulation.
4.1.1 Sensory Regulation
Everyone needs occasional down time or time alone to calm down,
relax, and recalibrate. In addition, individuals with autism often
struggle with sensory processing disorders (SPD). These disorders
stem from challenges in integrating and interpreting sensory input,
which can result in anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed
[2,10].
Virtual spaces are, for the most part, less engaging from a sensory
point of view (i.e., they only engage with some of the senses) and
are mostly housed within the confines of the computational
platform being used to render them. However, they can still be
overwhelming to people who struggle with self-regulation in the
face of sensory stimulation. To address this challenge, players in
Autcraft created sensory regulating spaces within the virtual world
almost from the launch of the server. Players used the limited tools
available to them within the game to create these sensory spaces:
I came across a hole in the ground, like a small, dark chamber
just big enough for an avatar to stand inside. A member informed
me that it was built to give them a “sensory break.” When they
went inside and plugged the top of the hole, their screen would go
all black. (field notes)
What is remarkable about this choice is that the players do not
necessarily want to leave the virtual world altogether. Rather, they
continue to gain much from being in the environment but simply
need a “sensory break.” While some research has documented
playerslived experiences through their virtual avatars, we know
far less about these experiences for individuals with autism [36]. If
a player feels visually over-stimulated, one possible solution
would be to just turn off the monitor or leave the game. But, as we
see here, that is not always the preferred path. In this case, the
player took the time and the care to “physically” dig a hole and
move their avatar inside it, covering the avatar with virtual dirt, to
sit in darkness. The screen is black, just as it would be if the
Figure 1. Avatar of lead researcher in Minecraft virtual world.
monitor were turned off, but the avatar is also experiencing the
black space, which is distinct from the experience of turning off
the screen. Players enact virtual embodiment while controlling
their avatars, highlighting the complex experiences of virtual and
physical worlds [5].
Beyond simply supporting people with SPD, and other related
challenges, when they need a break, therapeutic interventions also
support teaching other coping processes. For example, multi-
sensory environments (MSE) have been shown to help people
support sensory integration. Typically, these physical
environments, often called “sensory rooms,” are saturated with
visual, audible, and tactile stimuli and used therapeutically by
trained professionals [47] (See Figure 2A).
Certainly, the complexities and nuance of a clinically designed
MSE cannot be easily replicated in a virtual space. However, in
noticing the player-driven self-regulation practices, the Autcraft
community administrators built their own version of Sensory
Rooms within the virtual world as a quiet space for members to go
and relax. In these Sensory Rooms, chat is disabled and the
environment is meant to be tranquil and with minimal sensory
input. The administrators usefully “modded” and appropriated the
Minecraft platform to create Autcraft, and the Autcraft platform to
create carefully regulated spaces for sensory relief.
Members can choose three different styles of room, each tailored
to meet different kinds of sensory needs (i.e., a calm garden (See
Figure 2C); a small, plain room with a light switch (See Figure
2D); and a brightly colored room (See Figure 2B)). In many ways,
these rooms mimic the environments found in physical world
Sensory Rooms. The community imbued the virtual spaces with
assistive properties by mirroring physical therapeutic spaces.
In keeping with other Autcraft research [44], we see here that
administrators manage the rules and norms of these spaces through
multiple venues. They use the mods as the primary infrastructure,
but build upon that visible set of instructions and policies for
enforcing behavior. The instructions in reaching the Sensory
Rooms say, “Need a place to calm down? Quiet? Peaceful?
Choose a Calm Room to visit here. In these rooms [t]here is no
chat. It’s a place to relax. Visit any time.” In an announcement
about the opening of these rooms, an administrator emphasized the
importance of having the chat disabled in these rooms:
The best part is that in these rooms, chat is disabled! You can still
private message back and forth with people but the public chat
will be muted and you can't talk into public chat either. This
means that you can experience the lights and the sounds and the
calming nature of the rooms without a whole bunch of text flying
across your screen. (forums, P29, age 30, m)3
Other members also used these Sensory Rooms to take a break
from being in the public chat, which can be helpful when trying to
self-regulate exposure to chat conversations:
This really helped me today there was a trigger for some bad
memories in chat and it calmed me down wish i could visit this in
real life4. (forums, P31, age 15, f)
Because these are virtual avatars, members are able to transport
themselves to these Sensory Rooms at any time. Thus, in the
virtual world players are able to regulate input in real time, nearly
instantly. This player, however, points out that you cannot simply
transport yourself to calming spaces in the physical world. This
ability to instantly transport oneself into an environment that helps
in self-regulation creates an assistive technology spacewhich is
potentially better or used differently than in the physical world
because it gives the player an ability and experience in the virtual
world they might not otherwise have.
The actual interface of the game can also be overwhelming at
times for some members, particularly if there are a lot of people
logged in or a particularly chatty group are talking in chat. When
the text scrolls too quickly in chat and visually becomes over-
stimulating, players can seek relief simply by transporting to the
Sensory Room:
i like going there when chat is going to fast and i need to take a
break [really] calming and relaxing (forums, P4, f)
3 Each quote includes: (source of quote, participant number, age of
participant, and identified gender if available in member profile)
4 Here participants use “real life” to indicate the physical, offline
parts of their lives. Also, “irl” seen later means the same.
A.
B.
C.
D.
Figure 2. A. Multi-sensory environment in a physical classroom. B. Brightly rainbow colored Sensory Room in Autcraft.
C. Calming garden in Autcraft. D. Dark room where the lights can be turned on and off in Autcraft.
Not only do players use the community-created spaces for sensory
self-regulation, they also contribute to these spaces. One member
posted in the forums, informing others he had created an
instruction manual of how to use the Sensory Rooms:
I think sensory rooms are a fantastic idea. And I added a book In
calm room 1 its about what to do and about calm rooms (forums,
P33, m)
Much like in the example above, the Autcraft virtual world is
being shaped by each of the players as they participate in
community life. This support can also be seen as administrators,
noticing the players creating the sensory holes described at the
beginning of this section, and then responding by building these
sensory rooms. Each player, through their own acts of
appropriation within the virtual space, shape what their virtual
world looks like and how it functions to assist them as they engage
with the world.
These spaces are also different from other virtual worlds in that
they are specifically built for members with autism. Unlike other
online communities, where adolescents socialize and “hang out,
these platforms are being augmented for this specific population.
Interestingly, despite sensitivity to sensory input, members
interacting within the Autcraft community do not seem to have a
problem with the overwhelming amount of choices given to them
both within the Autcraft virtual world interface and throughout the
various platforms the community uses. Community members are
able to deal with a lot of the visual stimuli of the virtual world
interface in spite of their SPD symptoms. In fact, members seem
to be able to choose from the various options to create a social and
sensory experience that feels right for them, giving them the
opportunity to have the embodied experience they want
something that is more easily done in a virtual space than a
physical one. This may be because Minecraft, although not a
typical game with “levels” and other stated goals, follows a classic
game-style genre, allowing the players familiarity as they navigate
the world like they would in many other games with a typical, first
person perspective.
Dealing with sensory overload can be a difficult experience for
anyone with autism, particularly for children and adolescents who
are still learning coping skills. Members of the Autcraft
community have created spaces within the virtual world and the
other platforms to help even the youngest members learn to deal
with these sensory needs. As in the example of the sensory holes,
one player appropriated materials at hand (in this case, virtual dirt)
and inspired others to modify the actual software of Autcraft to
create similar experiences for everyone. Individual players
appropriate the Autcraft virtual world to suit their own needs,
shaping their virtual environment, embodied experience, and, in
time, influencing the overall experience for everyone in Autcraft.
4.1.2 Mood Regulation
Learning to manage one’s moods is a fundamental part of human
development. However, mood regulation is not straightforward for
many with autism [27,32]. Not only are mood and anxiety
disorders more prevalent in those diagnosed with autism [27], but
there is some concern by clinicians that emotional regulation is
simply a more difficult task for these individuals [32]. Youth with
autism tend to ruminate over their negative moods and experiences
[43]. This kind of behavior was evidenced in Minecraft among
many other more positive emotional engagements. For example,
one member described his strong emotions and some of the
consequences:
I do notice that at least a few emotions are often stronger than
others. Its mainly anger and fear that are the very strong emotions
that I experience. I am generally not a super emotional person, but
anger and fear are the hardest emotions for my mind to process.
(forums, P35, age 17, m)
Members are able to put into words their emotional experiences,
safely share and vent their feelings with others, on the forums and
through in-game chat. They can do this in Autcraft without the
fear of reprisal from bullies or trollswhich is something they
fear in other online spaces [44]. While this type of behavior may
not be unique to Autcraft, the ability to vent in this safe space is
possibly unique for the community members personally. They
may have communication challenges in their physical
environments that limit their abilities to express their feelings fully
[43].
Autcraft is a highly visual and active environment. Although much
of this paper has so far focused on text chats, text from the forums,
and so on, it is this visual and active orientation that may actually
provide the most support for emotion and mood regulation. Just as
members appropriated virtual “physical” tools like shovels to dig
holes for sensory regulation, they appropriate other tools to
manage their moods. For example, one early teenage boy
described killing monsters in mini-games to release some anger to
feel better:
“i also like to play the minigames on here It helps me take my
anger out on [the monsters] :P… My parents say since ive joined i
have been nicer irl If i am sad irl or angry on here i come and
everyone brightens up my day I usally forget why i was sad/mad”
(interview, P1, age 13, m)
Mini-games are group activities created by Autcraft administrators
originally as a place for members to come together to play (e.g.,
paintball tournaments, hide and seek). These games were created
to support socialization and play, cornerstones of the Autcraft
community [45]. While being able to let out some frustration and
anger on digital monsters is helpful, it is also interacting with the
community that elevates the interviewee’s mood. When discussing
mood moderation, he said that “mostly the people” help him feel
better when he gets online and that sometimes i get so into
talking i forget what i was doing :P. Because these interactions
with others are an important part of being in the Autcraft
community, members have also created many ways to help
support interfacing and engaging with others.
Mini-games are an example of how community administrators in
Autcraft have appropriated Minecraft to create a separate space
within the virtual world. However, beyond this original
appropriation, players in Autcraft have then appropriated these
mini-gamesoriginally as places to play and socializeto help
with other aspects of their life, including mood moderation.
4.2 Interacting with Others
Although Autcraft community members have creatively adapted
and appropriated the platform to serve the needs of individuals, it
is still fundamentally a collaborative platform. As such, it should
come as no surprise that members of the Autcraft community have
appropriated the entire ecosystem of technologies surrounding
Autcraft to support interfacing and engaging with others. These
efforts support engagement with both the internal community and
across community boundaries by supporting sociality explicitly.
4.2.1 Supporting Sociality
Socialization and supporting the various ways members want to be
and are social is an important aspect of the Autcraft community
for its members [45]. As normative face-to-face interactions are
challenging for many individuals with autism, members of this
community rely heavily on avatar interactions and the text-based
chat functionality [29,37,45,53].
One mod, teleportation, enables players to jump from one place to
another in the Autcraft virtual world nearly instantly. This mod,
which can be found on a variety of Minecraft servers, is enabled
by administrators of the server. In the case of Autcraft, the
administrators enabled teleportation to create a “safer” virtual
world experience and to support socialization among community
members [44]. Teleportation is available through various
waypoints within the Autcraft Spawn area as well as through the
text chat window.
Community members can use teleportation to return to the
Autcraft Spawn area or to teleport to their own designated “home”
(i.e., the area the member has set to be their personal property). In
this way, players have a safety net for their avatar. They are able
to return “home” whenever they need to. This is helpful
particularly if a player gets stuck somewhere they cannot get out
of or if they get lost in the worldsomething that can happen
frequently, because the world is very large.
Teleportation allows a person to callsomeone else’s avatar to
them from anywhere in the world and the other person must
consent to this teleportation. When this happens the avatar appears
next to the caller. Because the virtual world is so vast, this is the
fastest and easiest way for community members to get to one
another. To consent to being teleported, the member must invite
the other to teleport to them and the invitee must “accept” the
teleportation:
[CHAT]'To'teleport,'type'/tpaccept.'
[CHAT]'To'deny'this'request,'type'/tpdeny.'
Community members use this functionality to teleport to each
other in order to play, build together, or participate in other
activities together. In the following example, P38 is inviting others
to roleplay in the “hard world” (i.e., where a member can die and
there are monsters, unlike Autcraft in which protections are in
place to avoid such negative experiences) and to teleport or “tp”
to him:
<(Autcrafter)'P38>' [Role' play]' in' hard' world'tp' to' me'
if'u'want'to'join'there'is'food!'
<(JrHelper)'P39>'tpa'[P24]'i'found'a'nice'spot'
<(Buddy)'P24>'[P39]'i'tped'[P40]'here':P'
<(JrHelper)'P39>'tpa'if'you'want'to'be'blown'up!'
This teleportation functionality not only enables these quick avatar
interactions, but also gives community members an ability that
they do not have in the physical world. This helps support
empowering these young community members to engage in
socialization with their friends, when and where they choose. For
children, who often must rely on the graces of their parents or
older siblings to transport them to a friend’s home, the ability to
rapidly and easily have access to their friends can be particularly
freeing. The “reduced bandwidth” provided by high structured of
computer mediated communication provides relief from
deciphering nonverbal cues, while enabling control, clarity,
liberation, and empowerment [7]. Here we see a novel way to
engage and disengage in social interactions.
Additionally, for children with autism, a play date may end rapidly
when one child has reached the limit of socialization they canor
choose tohave in a day. In physical spaces, a parent is then
likely called, requiring waiting and often continued uncomfortable
interactions. In Autcraft, one player can simply teleport home and
away from the other. The consequences of playing to these
characteristics of autism (i.e., “inflexible perception of others’
intentions and difficulty understanding how others perceive their
actions” [7]) may have long term repercussion in maintaining
relationships [7]. Thus, learning to accept one’s denial of
teleportation and accepting another’s need to teleport away from
another take the perspective of the other and can help players
develop empathy.
Many players have additional disabilities and health challenges.
The particular intersection of health concerns, developmental
differences, and a spectrum of life experiences related to race and
gender can come into play [18]. The administrators of the Autcraft
server attempt to address these additional challenges as they arise.
For example, one young member disclosed to the Autcraft
community administrators that he had lost vision in one of his
eyes and was slowly losing vision in the other eye. He had to
explain that this is why he was repeating characters (e.g., >>> or --
-) in the chat window. This character repetition, which initially
looked like spam or harassment, helped him to break up the text
and make it readable. The administrators not only implicitly
supported this choice by allowing him to behave in this way. One
explicitly tackled the issue in a post to the community:
A quick message to the other admins and helpers on the server
and now we're all aware of this and going to support him with his
needs even if it means explaining to the other players that in his
case, it's OK to do what he's doing. This is just one of the many
ways that Autcraft is different from all other servers. (Facebook
post, P29, age 39, m)
Following on this policy and behavior change, the administrators
also modified the software to change the text chat capabilities.
This modification is optional for players, meaning they can choose
to use all, parts, or none of the new functionality. The
modifications include: personal name highlighting, splitting the
chat lines with a personalized character (See Figure 3), and
distinct chat “channels” that thread specific conversations
together:
… it's customizable. We know not everyone wants yellow so there's
actually a command to change the color using Minecraft color
codes. (Facebook post, P29, age 39, m)
The modified text chat has come into regular use among
community members. Not only did this end up helping those with
visual impairments, but other members as well:
(JrHelper)FruitMstr:' can' it' be' set' to' other'
names'too?'
----------------------------------'
(JrHelper)FruitMster:'or'just'your'own?'
----------------------------------'
(Admin)AutFather:'hey'Hurry':)'
----------------------------------'
(Admin)ParentMiner:'just'your'own'
----------------------------------'
(JrHelper)FruitMster:'ah'cool'
----------------------------------'
(JrHelper)FruitMaster:'mighty'helpful'
----------------------------------'
'
Figure 3. Sample of the splitchat screen modifications with line
breaks and highlighting in Autcraft.
This was the BEST idea ever! Chat is so much easier to see now. I
don't have poor vision (Or at least that I know of) but it STILL so
much easier to see (forum, P40, f)
Members began asking questions in the forums about other uses
this new chat functionality might have, including ways to create
separate channels for different activities. One member even posted
a screen shot of his joke about the split chat “dividing” the chat
screen using the mathematical divide symbol (i.e., ÷), when you
said splitchat divides chat i didnt know you actually meant it
divides chat...” (forum, P41, age 12, m).
As the children worked within the confines of the virtual world to
make their environment more usable by appropriating with what
was available, administrators are able to then iterate on these
appropriated instances to re-appropriate the software itself. Thus,
administrators, following the cues of the children within the
virtual world, are able to instantiate these appropriations and make
them available to everyone on Autcraft.
5. Conclusion & Future Work
Minecraft is imbued with and built on the values of enabling
customization through building and creating. Starting from the
basic blocks, players work to build massive in-world structures
and complex machinery, just as architects and engineers would do
in the physical world and as children do using Legos and other
physical building supplies. Modification has been made relatively
easy and explicitly encouraged by the creators of Minecraft in
their EULA, an attitude that supports a culture of making and
remaking [12]. Modding can be usefully related here to “maker
culture” that has resulted in a variety of DIY assistive technology
efforts [26]. Similarly, outside of the assistive technology world,
this kind of modding happens regularly around popular games
(e.g., World of Warcraft [28]) and has a variety of benefits,
including teaching players important STEM and computing
concepts and skills [24]. These movements set the stage for and
enable the appropriation we see in the Autcraft community.
Community members built, augmented, and tailored Autcraft to
serve their individual needs over several years. Their actions
addressed individual players’ needs while creating a beneficial
environment for the community, often in ways they themselves
did not expect. As we have seen, a simple mod to make text more
readable for individuals with visual impairments becomes a tool
for self-regulation and a fun form of self-expression available for
everyone. Administrators appropriated Minecraft to create
Autcraft, their own DIY virtual world. Players, “helpers,” and yet
more administrators then appropriated Autcraft to craft their own
parts of this virtual world. We see here how a culture and ethos of
DIY appropriation permeates all levels, from the platform to the
virtual world and to individual experiences.
As a group, children with autism are doubly disempowered: both
as children and as people living with disabilities. Here, however,
we see how this kind of technological openness allows them to
customize and create their own play spaces, a type of autonomy
that is inherently empowering.
This kind of “bottom up” engagement indicates the need for and
potential of a different kind of assistive technology design process.
Common methods include research-originated approaches that
focus on developing new technologies based on theoretical models
or empirical data, as well as participatory approaches that focus on
co-creating assistive technologies. This work indicates that a third
space may be equally as important: child-initiated design
processes. Arising organically from within the Autcraft world, the
administrators have taken on a child-initiated design process
without explicitly labeling it as such. Observing and working to
understand what DIY practices the children were already doing to
address their own needs, administrators can then open up yet more
possibilities for creation and modification as well as developing
similar solutions to those offered by the children to the wider
Autcraft community.
As researchers, DIY and appropriation offer us additional data
about and insight into how mainstream technologies, even games,
can have assistive properties and therapeutic uses. This new class
of assistive technology is not always immediately recognizable as
such, but provides a new opportunity to consider the scope of our
engagements. This paper highlights the importance of a focus on
situated practices involving technologies, allowing us to attend to
the assistive qualities they may take on in particular contexts.
There are still challenges here. Even in an inclusive community
like Autcraft, there can be a drive to focus on safety and on the
needs of those who are youngest or have the greatest challenges,
limiting the experience for others. Like other models of design
(e.g., Universal Design [33]), constructing a single device for
everyone often fails to meet the unique needs of the individual.
Devices and systems that allow for users to easily “hack” or
“mod” represent a good first step in creating more individualized
and equitable useallowing designers to focus their efforts on
further developing existing child-initiated activities into mods for
an entire community. Going forward, designers and researchers
alike must engage with these kinds of spaces and technologies to
understand how to best support the full complement of abilities
and interests of the users.
In summary, this work has explored how designers and
researchers can learn by observing how even the youngest of users
augment and appropriate mainstream technology to become
assistive in their daily lives. This work highlights the ways in
which researchers concerned with accessible and equitable
computing spaces might reevaluate their scope of inquiry and how
designers might encourage and support appropriation, enhancing
the individualized experience and long-term adoption of assistive
devices and systems. The appropriations we observed in Autcraft
point to a future model where child-initiated modifications can
guide research and design, providing greater access for
disempowered communities.
6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We thank the members of Autcraft for the warm welcome into
their community. We also thank members of LUCI and the
anonymous reviewers for their feedback on this paper, and Robert
and Barbara Kleist for their support. This work is covered by
human subjects protocol #2014-1079 at the University of
California, Irvine.
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... Ringland [70] also explored embodied digital experiences within the context of Autcraft, a Minecraft server for autistic players. Members of Autcraft created spaces and social interactions tailored to their needs, including sensory-aware spaces [72], enacting behaviors to manage emotions (e.g., killing monsters to release anger), and hosting an in-world fireworks show-an alternative to sometimes sensory-overwhelming firework displays in the physical-world [71]. Ringland argues that embodied experiences are also constructed and felt during digitally mediated social experiences. ...
... Medical Therapy [1, 38-41, 65, 66, 83, 93, 114, 120, 129, 161, 166, 171, 172] Diagnosis [13,47,80,109,129,138,140,149,155,177] Training [77-79, 124, 141, 175, 184] Social Collaboration [14,17,23,26,28,69,116,127,131,134,143,162] Education [22,29,37,50,68,84,85,90,97,115,119] Communication [24,65] Sports [50,75] Work Skills [106,170] Art & Public [47,76] Self-Guided Free Play [108,142,[144][145][146]183] Some papers span more than one purpose, sometimes even across models of disability. One such instance is the work by Craven et al. which is intended for public, artful engagement as well as envisioned within diagnostic contexts [47]. ...
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Thesis
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One of the key benefits that a virtual world can provide to their users and community is the ability to communicate (via text and audio) and to express emotions (via gestures, facial expressions, etc.) on an interpersonal level. Virtual worlds provide contexts that allow users to interact in a variety of ways, and to express themselves through their individually designed avatars. Virtual environments and collaborative virtual environments have therefore been used in several studies with the aim of helping people with autism to interact, to communicate and to understand social skills. This thesis examines the work of others within the domain of virtual environments and autism, in an effort to understand debates and experiments that have led to some successful outcomes in helping people with autism to interact in a safe and secure environment. The conclusions of the research have been derived through a case study and by embedding a virtual world (Second Life) into a classroom for children on the autism spectrum. The case study group of autism participants consisted of eight 15 to 16 year olds, with 15 typically developing participants between 18 and 21 years of age. The case study lasted over eight sessions and three months, although the researcher was involved with the school for 12 months (to help with virtual world set up and design; designing in-world sessions). During the sessions social tasks were devised (e.g. visiting a coffee shop, fun fair rides, restaurant), with several opportunities for the participants to use the space as they desired.This thesis is offered as an original and substantial contribution to the fields of knowledge of assistive technology, autism and information and communication technology, focusing specifically on the role that a virtual world can play in a classroom for children on the autism spectrum. More specifically, this thesis explores social communication patterns in virtual worlds, visual representation of self through an avatar, and appropriateness of communication interactions in a virtual world used by young people on the autism spectrum. Visual representation of self is discussed by comparison to the typically developing group.Several main areas of innovation are detailed in the research: firstly, the finding that avatar representation for users with autism seems to be led by the body rather than the face; secondly, that the fidelity of the avatar seems to hold limited relevance for this user group; and thirdly, that communication in virtual worlds is expressed almost entirely though text chat and in a way that tends to lend itself to some inappropriate comments, although these tended to be far less than appropriate conversations recorded in the current study.The original and substantial contribution to knowledge of this thesis is an addition to our understanding of ways in which users with autism interact and represent themselves in a virtual world. Future scholars will be able to build on this, to consider the role that avatar customisation and design play in virtual-world interaction for users with autism. In addition, scholars in the fields of interaction will be able to take several findings associated with computer-mediated communication and apply to design related subjects; especially with emerging fields such as touch screen devices. Implications for avatar-mediated interfaces could also be informed by the findings presented in this thesis, especially the role of 3D and 2D avatars for users with autism. Moreover, this thesis presents original findings on preference for communication play in a virtual world that could impact on the role gestures, facial features and text communication in interactive interfaces.
Conference Paper
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Conference Paper
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Conference Paper
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Book
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Conference Paper
The use of online games and virtual worlds is becoming increasingly prominent, particularly in children and young adults. Parents have concerns about risks their children might encounter in these online spaces. Parents dynamically manage the boundaries between safe and unsafe spaces online through both explicit and implicit means. In this work, we use empirical data gathered from a digital ethnog-raphy of a Minecraft server, Autcraft, to explore how par-ents of children with autism continually create a "safe" virtual world through both implicit and explicit means. In par-ticular, we demonstrate how their actions in these spaces define and produce "safety," shedding light on our theoreti-cal understanding of child safety in online spaces.
Article
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