Minecraft is played by millions of children across the country, and for good reason. The level of creativity it encourages in its “sandbox” environment is appealing, especially to children with autism. Through my clinical practice, I constantly encounter kids on the autism spectrum who love to play Minecraft. Their parents frequently have mixed feelings about the game and their children’s level of engagement with it. Many of these kids are engaged and talking to their friends about their Minecraft play — positive side effects of their gameplay — yet sometimes the kids just can’t get away from the screen when it comes to this incredibly absorbing game.
As a child psychologist, I’ve had a chance to interview a number of children and teenagers affected by autism whose favorite game is Minecraft.
Here are just a few of the responses from kids on the spectrum I’ve questioned about their love of this game:
There are no rules. As mentioned above, one of the biggest commonalities I found in interviewing children with Autism about their love of Minecraft is the freedom that they have to play in the sandbox environment of the game. In more than 20 separate interviews, children spoke about how “you can build anything” and that there are no set rules about how to choose what to work on. This is especially interesting, considering the fact that kids affected by Autism generally desire repetition, rules, and knowing what to expect.
It’s easy to get into. Minecraft also allows players to start with simple creations before moving to the complex. For children on the autism spectrum, it may be good to build at their own pace and in a manner in which they are comfortable without being overwhelmed. My colleague, Erinn H. Finke, Ph.D., CCC-SLP described this perspective in a workshop we presented at the annual Games for Health Conference in 2014. Finke explained that kids with autism see Minecraft as a “place they can get” and where they can have control. She noted that Minecraft is a “world where they are knowledgeable…and can be successful, allowing them to navigate the video game world rather than the real world.”
It’s real but it’s not. Many children enjoy Minecraft due to the simple fact that its gameworld possesses a similar logic to the real world, but that it can be more easily manipulated and has less permanence. A young man of 15 once told me, “It’s like real life, it’s not realistic but it has a nice feel to it like real life… like I can use resources to make a house or city. I like that I can kill other players when they’re mining a diamond. Once you find one diamond you want more.”
You can build whatever you want. A 14-year-old teen diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder told me he likes to play Minecraft because you can do whatever you want in the game and don’t have to follow any certain story. “I can build whatever I want as big as I want like churches and roller coasters,” said another boy of 15.
You can follow your own interests. A 12-year-old affected by Autism described Minecraft as “fun, because you get to kill zombies, creepers and endermen. I like the bedrock…it can’t be destroyed, just like obsidian.” This same young man then began to talk about other obscure Minecraft facts that I could not follow, which is consistent with what is often observed about kids on the spectrum when discussing a special interest. Often, kids with Autism like obscure and idiosyncratic parts of a popular game or technology, so that while they might share an interest in something popular like Minecraft, their particular passion may be dissimilar to their peers.
Minecraft is forgiving. As with Legos, there is virtually nothing that you can do in Minecraft that is actually wrong, that a player cannot take apart and try again. While in some modes of Minecraft players can get “killed,” they can always come back again. In the creative mode, which most of the kids with Autism that I interviewed like best, players do not need to be concerned with someone destroying or changing their creations.
People can’t mess up your stuff. This control over creations is very alluring to players with Autism. An 11 year old boy diagnosed previously with PDD-NOS noted how he could build anything he wanted and “people can’t make fun of it” He also stated that he could “kick people off” if you don’t want to play with them.
Minecraft provides a vibrant world in which creativity, exploration, and productivity occurs on the player’s terms. Particularly in the creative mode, Minecraft allows the player to have a great deal of control over their environment. Minecraft also rewards discovery in a way that does not prompt anxiety and fear. While many children with Autism crave routine and familiarity, Minecraft becomes a safe place to develop flexibility. They are able to explore an unknown world and face fears without giving up safety.
We write a lot about Minecraft here at LearningWorks for Kids. If you have a child who loves Minecraft, you’ll probably be interested to read which Minecraft Videos we recommend, what Kids Can Learn From Minecraft, How Sandbox Games Like Minecraft Help Kids with Autism, and, if you think it’s time to switch it up, other Games Like Minecraft that your child might find enticing.
Featured image: Flickr user Terry Madeley