Offering players a ‘virtual sandbox’, the video game Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon that has transcended many societal preconceptions around creativity, collaboration, and community through digital play. But often not everyone is invited to play. In writing ‘Making Disability Part of the Conversation: Combatting Inaccessible Spaces and Logics’, Godden and Womack lament that students with disabilities are often minimised or completely overlooked in digital spaces. The same charge can be levelled at the rise of digital play experiences that have for too long been implemented in a way that presents participation barriers for many students. From our own experiences, there is a genuine need for 'planning for disability' from the outset if possible. We are however more optimistic that educators and game designers are beginning to recognise this need, with the growing body of research around intersectional gaming, with inclusive gaming being seen as a vehicle for inclusion within our communities.
As educators and school leaders recognise the opportunities offered by digital games-based learning, we are increasingly asked how best they can ensure that Minecraft is an inclusive space for gamers with disabilities and neurological differences. In beginning to answer this question we share our insights gained through our research of both inclusive Minecraft servers and inclusive gaming groups within schools.
Two research projects exploring the experiences of autistic players using Minecraft offer a starting point for this discussion:
- Dr. Ringland’s study of the community that developed around the Autcraft server, a safe space which is dedicated specifically for autistic players and their families.
- Dr. Harrison’s study of three schools in Victoria, Australia that were exploring the use of Minecraft as a tool for collaborative problem-solving. One of these schools was a specialist setting for autstic students and offered particularly powerful insights into how the differences of autism could not just be accommodated, but rather celebrated.
The suggestions emerging from these two studies are complemented by some of the key findings from a design-based research project that co-developed a digital-games based intervention for students with disabilities and neurological differences. Although not focused specifically on using Minecraft, many of the insights gained through this project offer generalisable advice for inclusive gaming in schools. It is important to note that all three projects built from the observations of the researchers combined the voices of disabled and neurodivergent players. Whether you are just considering setting up a server or already have a flourishing community, these research-informed suggestions can help you better support a wider range of players.
Agency allows players to opt in to play
Minecraft as a platform offers a lot of different ways to interact and play. For example, one player might want to build large structures, another might want to just dig holes, and yet another might just want to hang out and chat with friends. All of these varied activities and forms of play can happen simultaneously within a single Minecraft world. Players can decide on play or shift according to their current whims or what else is happening in the world. This reflects the call for choice by Godden and Womack in providing individuals with disabilities or differences with the agency to control the conditions in which they participate.
Others within the Minecraft play space also offer different options for players. For example, a group of children may collectively decide to play a role playing game or build a castle (or both). These choices are not only supported by the game, but also by the other people within the community. Educators, moderators, and other community helpers can also play a role in offering and helping players choose play activities. In Dr. Ringland’s research examining Autcraft, she observed parents actively inviting players to come play games like hide and seek, but ultimately leaving the decision about whether to join in or not to the players themselves. The plethora of choices when it comes to play help empower individual players.
Suggestions for supporting agency in play:
- Minecraft can be structurally built to create choices for the players. Communities can offer a number of different play options and games within Minecraft to give players the benefit of playing how and when they want.
- Community helpers are there to offer choices to players. If a player seems uncertain of what to do, community helpers can describe the various options (such as, “Do you want to play hide and seek today? Or would you like to go build a castle?”).
Democratically deciding the community values and expectations through co-design
A key part to developing an online community is deciding on the values and expected behaviors that should inform the way players interact with each other. Values and expected behaviors are beyond the mechanical rules of the game, as they are the social constructs that dictate the social etiquette players should observe when interacting within the mechanical rules of the game. As Minecraft is largely played collaboratively, these values and expected behaviors on Minecraft servers largely focus on how players should make decisions and interact with the creations of others. Many gaming communities have socially constructed boundaries that sit outside of the mechanical rules of the game. There are a number of different approaches to how these ‘norms’ of interaction within the game can be established, but we contend that player voice should be prioritised. Godden and Womack highlight the exclusionary nature of imposed rules, conceptualised and implemented by educators who often have no understanding of the lived experiences of those they are intended to serve. Rather, these rules can reproduce the conditions in the narrowest manner that were conducive to their own successful schooling.
One practical method for democratically developing ‘rules that work for everyone’ is to survey the playing community and then use the responses to co-construct an expected behaviors matrix. This is not simply the educator asking players for input, but rather a ‘start to finish’ exercise in co-design through which the community feels a sense of ownership over these values and expectations.
In deciding on the initial community values and expected behaviors, we want to avoid preemptively steering community members towards particular responses. Open ended questions framed around the game and harnessing the language of positive outcomes provide one means of doing this. As shown below, players completing this survey are asked to consider “When in the same Minecraft world as other players, what are ‘some things that players should remember to do to make sure everyone is having fun?”
‘Fun’ is a useful term in that it provides an almost universal objective. In most instances, we play games to have fun. Fun is also subjective; what can be considered fun depends on a range of factors including a player’s emotional state, their interests and their sensory needs. To understand what individual players need in order to have what constitutes fun, it is always best to ask them. While not every player has the requisite skills to complete a written survey, a facilitating peer or adult can be available to transcribe verbal responses. Allowing your survey to accept file uploads as part of a ‘long text response’ facilitates the participation of children who would rather record a video response.
Suggestions for establishing community values and expected behaviors:
- Values and expected behaviors for an inclusive server should be democratically decided by all of the players. Voice really does matter.
- You can provide a range of ways for players to enable their voices to be heard throughout this process. Examples include offering a written survey augmented with visuals, or a video conference community forum to help facilitate what works for your particular community. The goal is for players to be able to share their suggestions using whichever channel of communication they prefer.
Supporting alternative modes of communication (both verbal and non-verbal)
Building from this notion of individual agency is affording players the opportunity to choose how they interact with other players. We have worked with students who prefer almost entirely verbal forms of communication, augmented with the occasional non-verbal cue such as pointing in the physical environment or emoting in the virtual space. Alternatively, we have also met students who are the complete opposite in their communication preferences. One interesting observation from Dr. Harrison’s own research has been that autistic gamers who prefer non-verbal modes of communication in other contexts, such as Math class, can be much more vocal when playing their favorite games with their peers. There are a number of possible explanations for this observed phenomena. Perhaps it is having a pre-established vocabulary and a familiar context in which they can use it. Many participants in Dr. Harrison’s design-based research project regularly watched Twitch streams of high profile gamers playing and discussing the technical elements of Minecraft, and through the lens of Social Learning Theory this modelling of expression and syntax could contribute to them feeling more comfortable in expressing themselves verbally. Alternatively, it could be that the social environments in which his students are playing Minecraft privilege and often demand verbal communication, particularly public servers culturally dominated by neurotypical players.
It is vital to provide options so that all players can communicate using their preferred modes. Whether it is using a finger to point at something on their screen, to give a thumbs up or to physically move someone else’s mouse to change what their view is within the game, all players benefit from these increased choices of expression. Of course co-located play, or ‘local multiplayer’, is not always a viable option. When playing online with players geographically dispersed, Dr. Harrison’s participants have found creative ways to nonverbally communicate. They have transformed the landscape to provide cues to other players, such as creating distinct ‘meeting points’ with large arrows directing players where to go. These are often complemented by the use of in game signs with text sharing information with other players. Text chat is an obvious substitute and low bandwidth alternative for verbal chat through Discord. For students experiencing challenges with accessing written language, the creative use of lighting has been used as inclusive beacons or warnings to other players. In the future, we hope to see mods (software modifications changing the mechanics of Minecraft) that allow for the use of a ‘laser pointer’ to be included in the game to allow for the types of non-verbal communication in online gaming that we have observed in collocated sessions of play. A laser pointer could be used as a virtual finger, augmenting or replacing verbal directions such as where to place a block or how to navigate a maze.
Suggestions for supporting alternative modes of communication:
- Enable an inclusive communication culture by explicitly listing the multiple ways through which players might choose to engage with each other, and celebrate these differences.
- If playing remotely, create signs at spawn points providing ideas for the different ways that players might want to communicate with other players.
- Dedicated ‘Community Helpers’ can be trained to help facilitate different methods of communication, and to initiate conversations with new players to support them in communication with other members of the community.
Supporting Multiple Player Identities
Along with many of the creative and flexible ways to play in a Minecraft world, the game also supports different ways to explore a player’s identity. Many neurodivergent youth who come to Minecraft servers are not only looking for safe places to play and build, but also to explore who they are and who they might become. In her previous work, Dr. Ringland had found that autistic youth use the Minecraft platform to figure out what autism means to them and how they would like to express their autism.
Minecraft supports different ways of expressing identity through its infrastructure, such as skins and gamertags. Skins, or avatars, can be edited using simple image editing software. There are also online repositories for finding new skins. They can be uploaded to a players account and changed as the player likes. Second, gamertags are the player’s name that appears within the Minecraft world. These can be altered (although not as frequently as the skins).
Within the Autcraft community, Dr. Ringland has seen ways in which players have explored what it means to be autistic. Adopting “autism” and various forms of the word, as seen in the name of the community “Autcraft”, lends to a sense of identity with others who are also neurodivergent. Aside from using “aut” or “autistic” in their gamertags, the Autcraft community displays this acceptance through the creation of autism-centric words, such as “autsome.” According to a community post, “autsome” means, “Having autism and being extremely impressive or daunting” and “extremely good; excellent.”
Researchers have described how those with disability are often held to a higher standard and those who are “extreme” tend to be held up as inspirational. This type of “inspiration” can be problematic as it frames disability as something to be overcome, while achieving difficult objectives. However, we argue that having language such as “autsome” is intended to be inspirational not for others looking into the Autcraft community, but for the autistic children who are otherwise dealing with a barrage of negative language about autism. This reframes autism as an identity that is worth embracing, rather than overcoming.
Of course, being neurodivergent is not the only identity that players might explore. If given a safe space, players can explore issues of race, gender, potential future career and education paths, and understanding what it means to be a gamer (as described above).
Suggestions for supporting exploration of identity:
- Help players find “skins”, which are the avatars or the players’ appearance within the game world. Communities can help support players with this by creating a repository of possible skin choices, editing each other’s skins, and supporting uploading and changing skins as requested.
- Support exploration of identity within the community by encouraging roleplaying and conversations about topics related to identity. Players can build and use spaces to educate one another and become more informed about relevant social issues.
Returning to Godden and Womack's critique of exclusionary digital spaces, these authors asked "Can any pedagogy be sound if it doesn’t fully incorporate people with disabilities?" As you might infer from our suggestions, we would argue not. Without the full range of voices within a school, all students miss out on the benefits of an inclusive learning community. These suggestions are just a starting point for considering how you can make your Minecraft server a more inclusive space so that all students can benefit from engaging with students with disabilities and differences. The most important thing that we have learnt through our research is to listen to all of your community. Sometimes you will need to be proactive and ask your players for suggestions as to how your server can better support them and meet their needs. We know from our first hand experiences that creating inclusive servers can require careful thought and time, but we have also seen the incredible communities that have built up through inclusive play.