In this research, we partnered with a special school in Qingdao China and their autistic students in a long-term filed study to investigate the feasibility of using online collaborative games for facilitating social communication and collaboration. In the first iteration, we designed collaborative tasks and rules in the environment for the autistic kids to complete. After the evaluation, we then developed a set of 12 new mini collaborative games inside Minecraft with gradually increased difficulty levels. Currently, we are testing the 2nd iteration of the game prototypes with the autistic kids and their parents.
Being socially active or simply initiating conversations with other people can be difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Online games and communities have been developed to support the social activities of children with ASD. However, most of these collaborative games have a short lifespan and limited gameplay. Moreover, playing these games require specific platforms or equipment, and players being at the same physical location, which is not accessible for most children at home.
Therefore, we built a Minecraft server named Freedom Town, which offers collaborative gameplay for children with ASD to improve their social and communication abilities. In this pilot research, six children with ASD, six of their parents and three teachers, were recruited in a three-day focus group, and later, a 20-week online follow-up field study. Findings showed that the parents and children accepted the Freedom Town intervention, enjoyed the collaborative tasks, and experienced more social communications with other children.
According to results from Theory of Mind scores and parents’ interviews, we found that all children’s social ability increased to a great extent compared to pretest.
Here, we also proposed insights that can benefit researchers, which provide references and suggestions for designing collaborative game mechanics and long-term field study protocols with autistic children. Further, Freedom Town and findings from this study can contribute to the autism community as another potential intervention to improve autistic children’s social communication skills.
Tong X., Diao H., Zeng, S., Gromala, D., and Wei, K., “Follow me, and let’s see the sea!” – A Long-term Field Study to Promote Social Communications for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders through Online Collaborative Game Tasks in Minecraft, July 2020, PLoS ONE, Submitted. (impact factor: 2.776)
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