This story was originally published in May, 2017. We're republishing it today because there's no bad time for feelgood stories like this.
The rules of Autcraft are simple. No bullying, no griefing, no stealing. There's a survival arena and a hide-and-seek minigame module, all under the watchful eyes of a small cabal of moderators. Stuart "AutismFather" Duncan is always a private message away. He used to work as a web developer, but today he runs the server full-time. It's a peaceful place. A private, whitelisted Minecraft community built specifically for autistic children, their families, and their friends.
Duncan keeps the gears running, but his primary role is to simply be visible. "For the first two years I was talking to two kids per week who were suicidal," he says. "Eventually my work suffered. I'd be talking to my boss and I'd say 'hold on a minute, this kid needs me.'"
Running Autcraft earns Duncan significantly less money than his former day job, but he takes donations on Paypal, sells cheap in-game perks (like bypassing the teleport cooldown), and hosts 131 backers on Patreon who contribute $1,557 a month. This is a place to play, where many kids on the spectrum make their first friends. They can interact with one another without feeling lost. It's supposed to be the happiest place on Earth. Your average free-for-all Minecraft server isn't much different than a middle school hallway, but Autcraft is different. It's a refuge.
There's a mirror image of the Alice in Wonderland castle on the coast, a space station in the sky, and a wooden 'bully board,' where players tack on their experiences with bullying and what they've done to overcome it. On the inside, you'll find numbers for general helplines in the UK, the US, Australia, and Canada. The blocky chat that dances across the bottom of the screen is bright and unsoured. Full of invitations and smiley faces, thousands of them, feeling heard.
"When you first join in there will be 30 people who welcome you and offer to give you a tour. They'll show up and start giving you stuff," says Duncan. "You'll see in chat 'hey mom, come build this with me.' Somebody will say 'I'm such an idiot' and everyone will say 'don't say that, you're not an idiot.' It's because all these kids have been bullied everywhere they go. They all know what each other feels like. So when they're there they're so positive and so supportive."
Duncan knew his firstborn son was autistic the moment he sat up by himself the first time. The primary function issues were with his motor control, which vexed the occupational therapists his father took him to see. But Duncan's son never had any issue with the Wiimote. When he started winning races against the Mario Kart AI, Duncan graduated him to a gamepad.
The young family—Duncan and his two sons—established a daily Minecraft hobby. Every night, he would log on and add something new to the household fort. When the kids got back from school, they'd come up with their own ideas to iterate on dad's creation. Duncan was already well-established in the autism community, and in 2013, after endless conversations with other parents about Minecraft, he decided to break ground on Autcraft.
There's been a lot of pediatric theorizing about why kids on the spectrum are attracted to Minecraft, but more importantly, the trend has pushed a lot of adults to acquaint themselves with the game in order to acquaint themselves with their children. It's an accidental assembly. The Guardian's game critic Keith Stuart published a novel called A Boy Made of Blocks, which was directly inspired by his experience sharing Minecraft with his autistic son. A part of his life is now spent translating the game for other perplexed parents.
"The key thing about Minecraft is it allows you to be creative with very fixed rules and systems. My son relies on predictable systems," he says. "Unpredictable things like everyday life are very scary. In Minecraft you pretty much know whatever you're gonna get. You take your stone and wood and you make a pickaxe. There's this sense of freedom in the game as well. There's no mission structure, no one is yelling at you to go down some corridor. You can overlay your behavioral needs on top of the game."
Stuart grew up playing videogames, so he didn't have to learn a new medium to navigate a polyhedral world. But he still speaks about Minecraft like a revolution in his relationship with his son. It was a moment of first contact—setting aside his role as a caretaker to feel like a dad.
"Minecraft was massively important to us," he says. "When he was young he had a very limited vocabulary and a very limited way to express himself. He never had the patience to play Lego or paint, he found team sports perplexing—he just didn't really get it. There was just something about Minecraft that instantly connected him. He immediately understood how he could build a hut or a castle. He started to learn new words. He went from a vocabulary of 10 words to a vocabulary of words like 'obsidian.' He loved being there, he wanted to share it with me."
Stuart's son plays on Xbox One, which is a comparably safer experience than the PC server chart. "He can only play with people on my friends list," he says. "People I trust." It's a worry for all parents, no matter the particular proclivities of their children. Online gaming can be a mean, corrupting place. Duncan tells me that occasionally some of his players leave to play elsewhere, after feeling rehabilitated by the kindness on Autcraft. They tend to return to the server angry, on the brink of tears.
"They feel like there's no place else for them," says Duncan. "They come back and they're like 'we autistic people, we as a community, are the nicest bunch of people.' No matter how bad someone makes you feel somewhere else, you can come back here and end up feeling better. It's kind of depressing that you don't get that anywhere else. You don't understand why you can't go to any other server and get that same feeling."
Duncan keeps it this way by enforcing a strict vetting process on anyone that tries to join the server. If there are any red flags, like a history of griefing accusations tagged on the username, the application will be denied. It would be nice if we lived in a society where a server built for the autistic community—and specifically for autistic children—could exist unguarded under the sanctity of its premise, but that hasn't been the case in a long, long time. In a sense, Autcraft's fundamental selling point is Duncan's promise of a strong, human gatekeeper shutting out the trolls.
"They know that it's a server for autistic people. And they know that they are good. And that everyone else in the community is good, but outside of the server people don't think about them the same way," says Duncan.
Duncan himself was diagnosed with autism as an adult. It was an answer to a life full of questions. "I went through life thinking there was something wrong with me," he says. "Just that people weren't like me, and I didn't get it." It wasn't a solution, but it was at least a reason. He was ingratiated into a worldwide community, and slowly things started making sense.
Autism isn't the only difficult topic kids talk about on Autcraft. There's a girl who's transitioning that Duncan has been talking to almost every day. Her father doesn't understand, so that dialogue falls to him. Autcraft is a safe space, where conversations like that are supposed to happen, but it still makes him feel a little weird that some kid is trusting all of these thoughts and anxieties with a random grown-up who runs a Minecraft server across the void. Still, Duncan tells me that that's a familiar need. People with autism are all unique, but the one thing that unites them is knowing what it's like to feel alone.
I ask him if growing up, a resource like Autcraft would've been useful. "Oh, so very useful," he says.
"It's not that you're being bullied, it's that you feel like you're the only one. You feel like you're the only one whose parents don't understand, that you're the only one who's teacher doesn't understand. You feel like an alien. It's a terrifying feeling," continues Duncan. "Having a place with people who are totally different from you, but know what that feels like, is empowering. When parents reach out to me and say ‘my kid won't stop smiling, he finally found a place where they belong.' I say 'you know what, your child did that themselves.' They went out and said 'hi,' and built stuff with people. You have a really great kid. They just needed a place where they could feel like a really great kid."
To learn more, visit the Autcraft website.