Building Minecraft realms give autistic children the building blocks for real life

Isolationist? Far from it. Games like Minecraft and Pokemon Go! change the lives of autistic children and others that suffer from social anxiety, says Keith Stuart

There is another world where lives can be entirely pre-determined. Where every action has a set reaction, every decision a routine set of consequences. Stone attached to wood becomes a pickaxe, which fells trees to make a wooden cabin or cart, or mines for gold that makes powered rails to run a cart. Even spiders are utilised, their silk easily spun into bows and arrows.

There is no frustration, no unexpected aggravators, no system or autocracy telling us when we can and can’t do something.

That world is Minecraft – and evangelists such as Keith Stuart are determined to champion the transformative power of what started out as a simple block-building game.

Stuart is the gaming editor for The Guardian, whose son is on the autism spectrum. After writing about developing a close bond playing Minecraft together, he used the basis of this story for a fictionalised narrative, A Boy Made of Blocks.

The story tracks a family of three: separated parents Jody and Alex, and their child Sam, “the planet of concern and confusion that we have been orbiting for most of our relationship”. 

Video games are like clockwork watches, because everything works and fits together; it makes sense

As they navigate the complexities of Sam’s condition, Minecraft remains a constant reassurance for Sam and Alex, who turn to the game both as a refuge from their life, but also to work out its challenges.

As Stuart reads out an extract of his book at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, it is clear that the audience arrive with prior knowledge. Many have relatives that are autistic, and pepper him with questions ranging from the benefits of the game over traditional therapies, to other logical activities that are helpful for those on the spectrum.

“Autistic children often don’t have much agency or autonomy in their lives,” says Stuart. “They don’t have control in a world that can often be a frightening, bewildering place. But Minecraft is a safe space – you can go into that world and it is entirely within your control. Not only that, but the systems of the game make sense. If you put sand into the furnace, it makes glass, for example – and it’s these kind of systems that give you power.”

In an article for The New York Times, Clive Thompson explains the game’s popularity with children through a historical and global timeline of ‘block-play’ that spans from Maria Montessori, who taught maths with wooden blocks through to the Swedish school lesson of sloyd, or woodcrafting. Block-play, he says, allows children to be “turned loose with tools to transform a hostile environment into something they can live in.”

“You can start off building little huts and then as you get better, progress to advanced things like huge castles and mansions,” says Stuart.

“Ultimately it’s a game about building and being creative that offers a sense of stability. If my son builds a mansion in Minecraft, he can wake up and it’ll still be there. And so often that’s not the case in the real world.”

a tower created in the game Minecraft
The pleasure of a constructed world: a tower created in the game Minecraft

It’s not just Minecraft that provides a haven for those who find it difficult to live in a disorganised world. As Stuart says, the previous summer’s craze for Pokemon Go! led to his son being able to have experiences he never would normally. 

“Pokemon Go! was an amazing game for people on the autism spectrum, and families. My son finds it difficult to meet new people, but we were going out every night in our neighbourhood and meeting strangers. Also, he didn’t have to make eye contact because everyone was looking at their screens, which to us sounds like a deficit, but to certain others that’s brilliant.”

Ultimately, argues Stuart, the creativity and flexibility of gaming allows children or adults that are socially anxious or on the autism spectrum to open up in a way that they rarely can in the real world. 

“Video games are like clockwork watches, because everything works and fits together; it makes sense. You understand the rules immediately, no matter what you’re playing. In our world? That’s a little bit more difficult.”