ExperienceCraft is a Minecraft server that is not all that different from other Minecraft multiplayer servers.
Kids who join the server are able to build, chat, play, and share with one another across a wide variety of in-game activities. But those who participate in this server have all had one unfortunate experience that ties them together.
“Every kid there has lost somebody important to them in their life,” says Katie Salen, who is one of the drivers of the program.
The server was launched in the summer of 2022 in partnership between two nonprofits Experience Camps and Connected Camps and the University of California Irvine. The goal is to provide a safe, moderated, grief-aware online community that fosters connection year-round in a digital space. There is also a significant research component to the project to help better understand how to develop youth-centered, equitable and safe online experiences, says Salen, who is the co-founder and chief designer of Connected Camps and also a Professor in the Informatics Department at UC Irvine.
How ExperienceCraft Started
Experience Camps is a nonprofit that hosts a yearly week-long overnight camp for grieving children. The organization recently began efforts to extend its supports “beyond the bunk.” They partnered with Connected Camps, which specializes in building safe online communities for kids, to build a Minecraft server that could build on the in-person camp's programming. “The challenge of summer camp is it's restricted to kids who can physically get there,” Salen says. She adds, even for those who can attend, it’s a short period of time. “They make friends, they develop really strong mentoring relationships with counselors, and then it just kind of poof, disappears. So the idea was, could there be a digital kind of bridge that would basically extend that experience year-round?”
The online experience would also provide access to those unable to attend in person via the Minecraft server and linked Discord server. “If they can't go to the physical camp, they could participate in this community and not get all of the benefits, but get some of the benefits of being in communication and partnership and collaboration with other kids who are probably going through something that's pretty similar to something that they're also going through,” Salen says.
What The Experience Looks Like
The rallying point for the community is passion for the Minecraft game, the same as it would be in another Minecraft server. “The idea is, let’s meet kids where they're at: Here's a game that they love to play,” Salen says. “Then let's surround the game that they love to play with the kinds of supports that are going to help them build a community that is going to help them along on their grief journey.”
To help with these goals, there are research-backed elements to the server that support its users. “There are parts of the world that have been designed in a grief-positive way,” Salen says. “There is a Memorial Garden where kids are encouraged to build [memorials] around the person that has died and different activities that draw on the work that Experience Camp has done with grieving children around just giving them a space to express what they're feeling.”
The server moderators are college students. They are trained to support kids that are experiencing grief and to provide near-peer mentorship. “If you can connect with someone just a little bit older than you who shares an interest, it can be really transformative to a young person,” Salen says.
What Is Being Studied and How Your Students Can Participate
Part of the goal of this server will be to study how to better foster connections between grieving youth in an online environment. “One of the things we're hoping for there is that they feel a sense of belonging,” Salen says. “It’s really important to grieving children that they feel that they are part of a community that gets them. This is mostly true of all kids.”
Salen and her colleagues are also looking to better understand which online grief supports in this type of space work and why. “So what does a memorial garden environment really offer young people?” she says. “Part of it is it gives them a chance to express something. We know from the literature that's important.”
In addition, conversations with peers and the moderators might help them develop a larger vocabulary to express their grief. “We know that a lot of people, even adults, have a hard time talking about how they feel,” Salen says. “So we've been looking at mechanisms to really deepen kids' vocabularies around how they're feeling – how to talk about their grief.”
Educators who have grieving students who might be interested in joining the server can direct them to its site. The server is safe-listed, so every participant on the server is known and vetted.
“There's a process for signing up where we make sure that the young person is who they say they are,” she says. “But it’s intended to serve any kid who is grieving.”