My name is Stuart Duncan, but I'm actually probably better known online as "AutismFather." That's me on the internet. I know the resemblance is uncanny.
But I'm going to talk a little bit today about Minecraft. That's my Minecraft character. But if you don't know the game very well, don't worry too much about it. It's just the medium that I used at the time to fill a need. And what I want to talk about applies to pretty much every situation.
So about four years ago, I started a Minecraft server for children with autism and their families, and I called it "Autcraft." And since then, we've been in the news all around the world, on television and radio and magazines. Buzzfeed called us "one of the best places on the internet." We're also the subject of an award-winning research paper called "Appropriating Minecraft as an Assistive Technology for Youth with Autism." It's a bit of a mouthful. But you get the idea, I think. So I want to talk a little bit about that research paper and what it's about, but first I have to give you a little bit of history on how the server came to be.
Back in 2013, everybody was playing Minecraft, kids and adults alike, with and without autism, of course. But it was the big thing. But I saw parents on social media reaching out to other parents, asking if their autistic children could play together. And the reason is that when they tried to play on public servers, they kept running into bullies and trolls. When you have autism, you behave a little differently sometimes, sometimes a lot differently. And we all know a little bit of difference is all you really need for a bully to make you their next target. So these terrible, terrible people online, they would destroy everything that they tried to make, they would steal all their stuff, and they would kill them over and over again, making the game virtually unplayable. But the worst part, the part that really hurt the most, was what these bullies would say to these kids. They'd call them rejects and defects and retards. And they would tell these kids, some as young as six years old, that society doesn't want them, and their own parents never wanted a broken child, so they should just kill themselves.
And of course, these kids, you understand, they would sign off from these servers angry and hurt. They would break their keyboards, they'd quite literally hate themselves, and their parents felt powerless to do anything.
So I decided I had to try and help. I have autism, my oldest son has autism, and both my kids and I love Minecraft, so I have to do something. So I got myself a Minecraft server, and I spent some time, built a little village with some roads and a big welcome sign and this guy and a lodge up on a mountaintop, and tried to make it inviting. The idea was pretty simple. I had a white list, so only people that I approved could join, and I would just monitor the server as much as I could, just to make sure that nothing went wrong. And that was it, that was the whole promise: to keep the kids safe so they could play.
When it was done, I went to Facebook and posted a pretty simple message to my friends list, not publicly. I just wanted to see if there was any interest in this, and if it really could help. Turns out that I greatly underestimated just how much this was needed, because within 48 hours, I got 750 emails. I don't have that many Facebook friends.
Within eight days, I had to upgrade the hosting package eight times, from the bottom package to the most expensive package they had, and now, almost four years later, I have 8,000 names on the white list from all around the world.
But the reason I'm up here today to talk to you isn't just because I gave kids a safe place to play. It's what happened while they played. I started hearing from parents who said their children were learning to read and write by playing on the server. At first they spelled things by sound, like most kids do, but because they were part of a community, they saw other people spelling the same words properly and just picked it up. I started hearing from parents who said that their nonverbal children were starting to speak. They only talked about Minecraft, but they were talking.
Some kids made friends at school for the first time ever. Some started to share, even give things to other people. It was amazing. And every single parent came to me and said it was because of Autcraft, because of what you're doing.
But why, though? How could all of this be just from a video game server? Well, it goes back to that research paper I was talking about. In it, she covers some of the guidelines I used when I created the server, guidelines that I think help encourage people to be their very best. I hope. For example, communication. It can be tough for kids with autism. It could be tough for grown-ups without autism. But I think that kids should not be punished, they should be talked to. Nine times out of ten, when the kids on the server act out, it's because of something that's happened in the day at school or home. Maybe a pet died. Sometimes it's just a miscommunication between two kids. One doesn't say what they're about to do. And so we just offer to help. We always tell the children on the server that we're not mad, and they're not in trouble; we only want to help. And it shows that not only do we care, but we respect them enough to listen to their point of view. Respect goes a long way. Plus, it shows them that they have everything they need to be able to resolve these problems on their own in the future and maybe even avoid them, because, you know, communication.
On most servers, as video games are, children are rewarded, well, players are rewarded, for how well they do in a competition, right? The better you do, the better reward you get. That can be automated; the server does the work, the code is there. On Autcraft, we don't do that. We have things like "Player of the Week" and "CBAs," which is "Caught Being Awesome."
We award players ranks on the servers based on the attributes they exhibit, such as the "Buddy" rank for people who are friendly towards others, and "Junior Helper" for people that are helpful towards others. We have "Senior Helper" for the adults. But they're obvious, right? Like, people know what to expect and how to earn these things because of how they're named. As soon as somebody signs onto the server, they know that they're going to be rewarded for who they are and not what they can do. Our top award, the AutismFather Sword, which is named after me because I'm the founder, is a very powerful sword that you can't get in the game any other way than to show that you completely put the community above yourself, and that compassion and kindness is at the core of who you are. We've given away quite a few of those swords, actually. I figure, if we're watching the server to make sure nothing bad happens, we should also watch for the good things that happen and reward people for them.
We're always trying to show all the players that everybody is considered to be equal, even me. But we know we can't treat people equally to do that. Some of the players get angry very easily. Some of them have additional struggles on top of autism, such as OCD or Tourette's. So, I have this knack of remembering all of the players. I remember their first day, the conversations we've had, things we've talked about, things they've built. So when somebody comes to me with a problem, I handle that situation differently than I would with any other player, based on what I know about them. For the other admins and helpers, we document everything so that, whether it's good or bad or a concerning conversation, it's there, so everybody is aware.
I want to give you one example of this one player. He was with us for a little while, but at some point he started spamming dashes in the chat, like a big long line of dashes all the way across the screen. A little while later, he'd do it again. The other players asked him not to do that, and he'd say, "OK." And then he'd do it again. It started to frustrate the other players. They asked me to mute him or to punish him for breaking the rules, but I knew there had to be something more to it. So I went to his aunt, who is the contact that I have for him. She explained that he had gone blind in one eye and was losing his vision in the other. So what he was doing was splitting up the chat into easier-to-see blocks of text, which is pretty smart.
So that very same night, I talked to a friend of mine who writes code and we created a brand-new plug-in for the server that makes it so that any player on the server, including him, of course, could just enter a command and instantly have every single line separated by dashes. Plus, they can make it asterisks or blank lines or anything they want—whatever works best for them. We even went a little bit extra and made it so it highlights your name, so that it's easier to see if somebody mentions you. It's just one example of how doing a little bit extra, a small modification, still helps everybody be on equal footing, even though you did a little extra just for that one player.
The big one is to be not afraid. The children on my server are not afraid. They are free to just be themselves, and it's because we support and encourage and celebrate each other. We all know what it feels like to be the outcast and to be hated simply for existing, and so when we're together on the server, we're not afraid anymore. For the first two years or so on the server, I talked to two children per week on average that were suicidal. But they came to me because I'm the one that made them feel safe. They felt like I was the only person in the world they could talk to.
So I guess my message is whether you have a charity or some other organization, or you're a teacher or a therapist or you're a parent who is just doing your very best, or you're an autistic, like I am, no matter who you are, you absolutely must help these children strip away those fears before you do anything else, because anything else is going to feel forced unless they're not afraid. It's why positive reinforcement will always do better than any form of punishment. They want to learn when they feel safe and happy. It just happens naturally; they don't even try to learn. These are words from the kids on the server to describe the server.
The one thing I would hope that you could take away is that no matter what somebody else is going through in life right now, whether they're being bullied at school or at home, if they're questioning their sexuality or even their gender, which happens a lot in the autism community, if they're feeling alone or even suicidal, you have to live your life in such a way that that person feels like they can come to and tell you. They have to feel perfectly safe in talking to you about it.
If you want to see a group of autistic children—kids who society wrongly thinks are supposed to be antisocial and lacking in empathy—if you want to see them come together and build the most compassionate and friendly and generous community you've ever seen, the kind of place that people would write about as one of the best places on the internet, they'll do that. I've seen it. I'm there every day. But they have some huge obstacles that they have to overcome to do that, and it would be really helpful to have somebody there who could help to show them that the only thing they really have to fear is self-doubt. So I guess I'm asking you to please be that person for them, because to them, those kids—it means everything.
Thank you very much.