Gaming and Kids with Special Needs
By Emily Gaudette, Project Associate – Recruitment, Training and Support Center for Special Education Surrogate Parents (FCSN)
Following his dual diagnosis of Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD, and after the neighborhood boys took note of him being in the “special” classroom, Bryce defected to my parents’ iPad for fun. He continued attending Math Club and Boy Scouts with other fourth graders, but without structured social events, he was lonely.
One day at recess, Bryce overheard older boys talking about a game called Minecraft. They were frustrated because someone on another team had snuck onto their server the night before and stolen some of their minerals. The game sounded awesome, like Legos but better. Bryce found Minecraft after school on the iPad. A few hours later, my mom came into the living room when she heard raised voices. She was surprised to see Bryce speaking to the iPad, using his finger to drag blocks on top of other blocks.
“Who’re you talking to?”
“My friend. He’s in Taiwan,” Bryce said, frustrated at the interruption. “We have to do it together!” The boy on the other end of the game agreed, and they used their tools to continue building.
Since that first night, my mom has virtually met the parents of each child on Bryce’s team, wiping her hands on a dishcloth after dinner while waving shyly to a woman in Korea as she gets her kids for the morning. They shrug at each other as their boys resume play, almost addicted to the game’s endless possibility.
Eric Klopfer of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program says, “When they play Minecraft, kids think about establishing rules for society.” While Bryce has difficulty negotiating in person, due in part to the stigma around his special education program, on Minecraft he’s just another user with a good track record for building.
Bryce feels for his team; they mourn the loss together when their world is attacked by rivals. They discuss when a team player is absent, asking her if she’s okay the next time she logs on, all the while dragging and dropping items into each other’s inventories. Sometimes his team votes him the “boss”, and other times he completes his labor in the workspace as another player oversees the projects. He cries when night zombies attack and he devises plans for repairs.
As a child with ADHD, one of Bryce’s challenges is battling his lack of impulse control. Eric Klopfer says the cadence of Minecraft’s game play forces players to reflect on their actions. “If a kid blows up another kid’s house online,” Klopfer says, “they have time to think about how they’re going to deal with it and how to confront the player.”
Of course, Bryce doesn’t care that Minecraft won the KIPi Award for “Best Virtual World for Children,” and he doesn’t care that the United Nations uses Minecraft to reimagine run-down areas, helping people around the world picture what their environments could look like with ample funding. All he knows is that the game is fun, and that wearing his Minecraft shirt to school gets him nods from older boys on the playground. Limiting his time in front of a screen is important, but Minecraft has given Bryce a shared vocabulary with kids in his peer group, most of whom have a similar experience online.
“If you had told me a computer game would make Bryce more social,” my mother says, “I wouldn’t have believed you.”