A few weeks ago, a wonderful thing happened in the Minecraft universe. Someone was kind to Spike.
I should preface the ensuing by saying that I am a big fan of the analogue. I am a hands-on kind of person. I feel untethered and weird if I go too long without making something. Generally, I think a wholesale substitution of open-ended, imaginative play with tangible toys for the dreaded "screen-time" would constitute a loss - to the individual and to society, in the long-run. But I also think we do "screens" a disservice if we don't consider them with a higher level of granularity. There is passive consumption and active consumption; a digital platform can bring people together or set them apart; there are good games and bad.
Minecraft and its spin-offs have been a companion in our house for some years now. It is a game we all love. Before Spike discovered it, Ben had prior as a game nerd and I, a regular nerd, was already intrigued by the 8-bit somewhat nostalgic aesthetic of the game. So when it appeared on Spike’s radar, we jumped in feet first. Unless you're off-grid or were an infant when Fleming took a second look at some mouldy petri dishes, the ubiquitous 3D block which constitutes the basic unit of the game will be familiar to you. Some people refer to the game as digital Lego and, while Lego is fantastic, the comparison undersells Minecraft. Minecraft is like Lego if you had made the bricks yourself, could scale yourself to the size of your builds and then play with them in space, or a jungle, or in Westeros. And Lego sets don't come with TNT*! In fact, I think Minecraft is truly open-ended in a way that Lego isn't quite any more. When I was a child, Lego was an ice-cream tub full of miscellaneous bricks - a true invitation to get creative. These days it is sold in branded kits with far less scope for exploration and creative play.
Oscar was last to the Minecraft party but has surpassed us all with his Minecraft prowess, so it is now something we can share as a family, and we all love it for slightly different reasons. Spike is a builder. He always plays in creative mode and he uses the game as a building site and sketch book, crafting trains and buses and station, or replicating logos in block form. He posts scraps of text, remembered verbatim, on signs and maps the logic and structure of other games in complex schematics. I enjoy the meditative qualities of the game; digging mindlessly (never straight down!), on the look out for the tell-tale flash of colour indicating the presence of ores. Ben is a strategist and collaborator. Oscar likes re-enacting epic set pieces he has seen played out on the channels of various YouTubers. It is a testament to the genius of the game that it is possible to engage with it in such different ways.
One lazy Saturday morning, Spike had been occupied for some time, crafting a detailed schematic of Little Inferno, a game that he enjoys playing on his iPad. Suddenly, a new player popped into existence on the screen, signalling that we had failed to disenable Multiplayer mode. Spike was anxious, but xXLuciana23Xx** was quick to demonstrate that she meant no harm and so, with fingers poised to quit, we encouraged Spike to wait and see what her intentions were. She stood in front of Spike’s builds, looked them up and down and nodded enthusiastically, then strode purposefully away to a distance which was neither too close nor too far, and started building.
Quickly and skilfully, xXLuciana23Xx built a simple house and zipped back over to Spike, beckoning him to follow her. We had not entirely assuaged Spike’s fears and while xXLucianaXx had been busy assembling a home, Spike had planted a series of signs bearing messages imploring her not to destroy his builds. She stood in front of his signs and shook her head a little. She then stepped away and built a large billboard, posted blank signs on it and crossed them through with red bricks. It took us a while to figure out why she was indicating “no signs”, but then we realised English might not be her first language.
Spike followed this friendly avatar over to her creation and we encouraged him to nod approvingly. Satisfied, she then led him outside and started laying out a rectangular footprint of bricks. Spike joined in. She then filled the rectangle with a layer of slime blocks, which as any fule no, are bouncy, and then completed her construction with a layer of water. A bouncy swimming pool stood before them. Their two avatars then spent some time jumping up and down happily on her wild and wonderful invention. What a joyful reward for letting someone in.
Spike's virtual playdate with xXLuciana23Xx was in stark contrast to his first accidental interaction with multi-player mode. On that occasion, Spike was also working on one of his game schematics when someone entered the game. Spike was excited, at first, but the interloper hopped deftly on top of Spike’s build, zipped along the length of it placing a trail of TNT in their wake, and blew up Spike's hard work. Spike was devastated and, from then on, he was terrified of people joining his games. Just like in the real world, online, people were a source of anxiety and he erected a wall as solid as Minecraft blocks. I hope that xXLuciana23Xx has partly dismantled Spike's interior barrier.
We have only recently allowed Spike to play (purposely) on Minecraft public multiplayer servers and then only under supervision, as his understanding of internet safety is embryonic. He is at risk of griefing and of unwittingly griefing others. But social rules, both digital and IRL, are so much easier to teach in situ. There is a chat function on Minecraft and perhaps the shape of Spike’s prior digital interactions might have been different if it had been used, but Spike has shown no inclination to use it. To date, we have not encouraged him to use the feature. Words, both Spike’s and his communication partner’s, can be unreliable and opaque, particularly in a digital context. Spike’s understanding can disintegrate as the length of text extends and grammar enters a higher register. He also has a fondness for spamming digital space with apparently acontextual scripts, which would at best be confusing to others and, at worse, appear obtuse. But this experience with a kindly, digital stranger has reminded me that Minecraft can be a great forum in which to learn.
The play value of the game has been clear to us for a long time. In common with many autists, Spike's imitation skills did not evolve in the usual way, so he did not role play in the way that neurotypical children do. But Spike’s hours in the Minecraft world established an enthusiasm and affinity for the characters and mobs he encountered there. I recall one evening when he urgently wanted to dress up as an Enderman*** and we had to improvise as best we could. He then took himself off into the garden, despite the late hour, for added verisimilitude (Endermen only spawn in low light levels). He is also happy to dress as Steve, or Jesse, for Book Week. In time, Minecraft spawned an episodic point and click game called Minecraft: Story Mode. Playing this game did wonders for Spike's understanding and interest in narrative structure. He wrote parodies of the story line. He was invested in the characters, even mourning the sad demise of Reuben the pig who sacrificed himself to save his friends and, hilariously/tragically, turned into a pork chop.
In due course, we might introduce Spike to the Autcraft server. This is a whitelisted multiplayer server for autistic individuals, created by "Autism Father", a web developer, autist and father of autists. Admission is by application and you or a family member must be autistic. There are server rules which must be followed - no bullying, griefing or swearing; builds can be protected, and there are online helpers, both peer and adult. There is also an in-game support system. It is basically a “nice” digital space. Perhaps it will be a good space to get to grips with a digital world with other people in it. There's a lovely TED Talk by Duncan, which details how the server evolved and the lengths it goes to to help its players feel safe and supported. He recently tweeted that when a player placed a sign reading “I’m so lonely”, Duncan was notified and immediately tasked other players to help the despondent individual feel better, which they did. What a radiant place!
While Spike has been making these small social furores into the Minecraft universe, the recent Chemistry update to the game has been blowing my mind, and Oscar's. This was originally part of the Education edition of Minecraft, available only to schools, but it has been rolled out to all users.
In a nutshell, the Chemistry update allows you to create elements by using sliders to choose the number of protons, neutrons and electrons. You can also create 30 useful chemical compounds, like hydrogen peroxide and soap. These element and compound gains can be used to fashion things like glow sticks and helium balloons (floating mobs, anyone?).
Oscar is very enthusiastic about science and harbours ambitions to be a scientist or astronaut, so he was keen to get stuck into this update. I showed him how to use his periodic table placemat to calculate the number of protons, neutrons and electrons using the mass and atomic numbers. Armed with this info and a shopping list of elements and compounds, Oz built what he needed sub-atomic particle by sub-atomic particle. Ultimately, he was rewarded by being able to make a helium balloon, which he promptly attached to a skeleton mob. We both looked on in satisfaction as the boney figure receded between the blocky white clouds, towards whatever passes for the atmosphere in Minecraft. It was all a damn sight more thrilling than completing endless badly photocopied atomic ring diagrams, which is all I really remember doing in GCSE Chemistry. And Ben and I get to experience the distinct pleasure that comes from seeing our child's eyes illuminated by the same things that make us tick.
We are a tech-loving family. Our relationship with it is not flawless: Ben and I are most certainly on our phones too much. Oscar watches too much YouTube, although we steer him towards being an intelligent consumer. But Minecraft seems a natural continuation of wholesome block play - with added rigor and unlimited blocks. Right now, we are all happy to have this egalitarian space where we can meet and explore the boundless possibilities of this brilliant game.
* Well, actually some do - but it lacks explosive qualities!
** Not her real user name.
*** Endermen, who famously dislike eye contact and have a strange passion for blocks. Hmm, I wonder what the attraction could be...
Want to read more? The Death of Gocco.