Positive Social Relationships, Mentorship, and Constructive Dialogue: Connected Camps Governance Strategy for “Kid-Friendly” Minecraft Servers

With millions of youths around the world playing it on networked computers and videogame consoles, and a vast repository of knowledge spreading on the Internet across videos, wikis, and blogs, Minecraft has become one of the most popular indie games of our time. The diverse mechanics, rich interactions, and sandbox quality of this open ended videogame have captivated youth imagination and passion for building, exploring, and learning. When connecting to Minecraft servers, youths enter a virtual world where they can build all kinds of structures, play mini-games, program machines, get lost in adventures, and engage in a variety of activities that are creative, social, and fun.

Since its release in 2009 by the Sweden game studio Mojang, researchers, teachers, and parents have realized the educational potential of Minecraft. The possibility for structuring learning experiences that are engaging and meaningful for youth within the virtual world has inspired many to use the game in classrooms, libraries, and homes. From storytelling to coding, to engineering, practitioners have experimented with a wide range of activities in formal and informal educational contexts. Embracing that potential, Connected Camps has offered paid and free learning programs on Minecraft servers since 2015. Through these programs, youth (8–15 years old) are able to learn about a variety of subjects, such as game design, architecture, and computer science, and develop social skills like collaboration, empathy, and conflict resolution.

Much like other youth-oriented online platforms and virtual worlds, Minecraft servers are not exempt of the challenges that harmful speech, trolling, and other kinds of uncivil behaviors pose. In order to reduce the presence of these challenges and create a safe environment for youth, Connected Camps has designed and deployed a governance strategy that includes a moderation scheme, a Code of Conduct, and, a “white list” (no one can be anonymous, all players on the server have to register on a list).

Although this strategy is common to Minecraft servers that are considered “kid-friendly,” the Connected Camps approach has a special focus on fostering positive social relationships, community, and mentorship. In contrast to other “kid-friendly” virtual worlds that focus on policing, rule enforcement, and protecting youth, Connected Camps’ governance strategy emphasizes constructive and productive dialogue between players and moderators. This approach has allowed Connected Camps to create and sustain a safe environment where youth can exercise their creative agency, have fun, and learn technical skills, while engaging in a type play that is responsible and pro-social.

Background

In this case study, which is part of a larger effort that analyzes three different youth-oriented online learning platforms (Connected Camps, DIY.org, and Scratch), we present an analysis of the governance strategy and moderation scheme designed and implemented by Connected Camps. We conducted three semi-structured interviews via telephone and video-conference with one Connected Camps staff member per interview between October 2016 and May 2017. The governance strategies we analyzed, therefore, correspond to those deployed in that particular moment of time in the evolution of Connected Camps programs. We interviewed Catherine Fox, and Malakai Unland, two Assistant Camp Directors and lead counselors; and Gregry Livingston, one of the Camp Directors and Lead Curriculum Designer.

The case study is part of the Coding for All project — a collaboration between the Youth and Media project at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the MIT Media Lab, and the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California-Irvine, with support from the National Science Foundation.

Connected Camps: “Like Summer Camps but Online.”

Connected Camps is a private company that offers enrichment learning opportunities for youth (8–15 years old). It was co-founded in 2015 by three women entrepreneurs (Mimi Ito, Katie Salen, and Tara Brown) with ample experience in the academic, game design, and maker movement sectors. Building upon the tradition of informal and out-of-school learning, Connected Camps aims to support interest-driven, peer-supported, and production-centered learning. These programs embrace the design principles of connected learning environments by fostering hands-on activities, social relationships, interest-powered learning, and connections across contexts. Connected Camps allows youth to pursue their interests in technology and Minecraft, socialize with peers and mentors, and learn about various STEM-related subjects.

According to Gregry Livingston, one of the Camp Directors and the Lead Curriculum Designer, Connected Camps builds on the model of in-person summer camps. That is, an experience that is fun, social, and educational. He said,

“It’s fun, it’s collaborative, it’s social. We’re learning-focused, but it’s got kind of a campy light fun feel. It is about getting together and having a good time. In-person summer camps are probably the most similar communities to ours, but we’ve gone online, so it’s just totally different.”

The three kinds of programs Connected Camps offer include 1) the Kid Club, 2) summer camps, and 3) after-school labs. While the Kid Club is free and open year round, the latter two are paid and run for specific periods of time (usually over the course of one week for two hours per day) during the summer and the school year. Despite the relatively short duration of the summer camps and after-school labs, after youth complete the paid programs, they usually continue to be engaged with the Connected Camps community through the Kid Club server. Summer camps and after-school labs have specific themes such as engineering, architecture, and computer science, and are structured around learning activities that are facilitated by counselors. Although the Kid Club does not have a particular subject focus, the program has counselors that moderate the the virtual world.

Connected Camps programs are community-based and their size varies according to each program. According to Catherine Fox, one of the Assistant Camp Directors, there are between 12–40 kids on each of the paid programs, and between 20–30 on the Kid Club (however, the number of kids registered for the free server is far bigger — climbing to 3,000 users in 2016). The gender distribution also varies according to the type of program, and in some cases Camps are designed to be only for girls.

Each of the Connected Camp programs is run on a specific Minecraft server that has been set-up with pre-built structures, buildings, plug-ins, and mini-games. Although each of the servers offers three modalities of Minecraft gameplay (creative, survival mode, and mini-games), most Connected Camps activities take place in creative mode, which offers an array of building and learning activities.

Campers, as the kids that participate in Connected Camps are known, register using an online form where they provide parents’ contact information, and agree with a terms of service contract. In cases where youth are under 13 years old, Connected Camps requires parental verification.

Governance of a Virtual World

Moderation and governance are key for building and maintaining a safe, friendly, and positive environments on the Minecraft servers. Connected Camps governance strategy emphasizes mentorship and constructive dialogue, focusing on learning and educating, versus policing and punishment. This approach is reflected through the ways activities (chat and actions) are monitored and moderated on the server, how conflicts are solved, and how the Code of Conduct is enforced. The governance strategy has been developed by adults, mainly Connected Camp directors and assistant directors, and is inspired by research on formal and informal, online and in-person learning environments.

Code of Conduct: Policies, Rules, and Community Guidelines

Connected Camps Minecraft servers has a “Code of Conduct” that outlines the rules of behavior in the virtual world. The Code of Conduct represents the set of social norms, policies, and community guidelines that campers must follow in order to play and interact on the server. Youth agree to follow the guidelines at the start of each program, and parents review them when they register their children on Connected Camps. The Code of Conduct is published online and has four basic rules, stated as actions, in clear and easy to understand language:

1) Don’t grief.
2) Be nice and respectful.
3) Keep personal information private.
4) Help keep our community welcoming, kind, friendly, and inclusive.

Each rule is explained with further details, and with concrete instances of the behavior that is allowed, or not, on the server. The first rule about grief, for instance, includes examples of actions that “ruin another player’s experience” (e.g., destruction of buildings, stealing items, using a modified client). The practice of griefing, common on many Minecraft servers, involves actions that irritate and anger other players, and although usually malicious, these behaviors can also have aspects of “trolling,” or making jokes.

The second rule of the Code of Conduct addresses the importance of being nice and respectful, and describes the kind of language that is not allowed in the virtual world. It includes hurtful, disrespectful, improper, and foul language that can cause harm, and create conflicts among the players. The third rule is about privacy and prohibits using real names or posting contact information “like phone numbers or addresses.” Finally, the fourth rule includes several examples of the kind of actions that foster a friendly environment and encourages campers to participate in community-building activities (e.g., assisting other players; reporting any violations of the Code of Conduct to the counselors or moderators).

The Code of Conduct reflects the values of Connected Camps. The platform fosters a culture of mentorship, learning, and friendship, and supports community-building. The Code was created by adult directors and assistant directors, and is based on research on “kid-friendly” virtual worlds, youth-oriented online platforms, and off-line learning environments. As Gregry Livingston, one of the Camp Directors, explained, the Code of Conduct helps shape the Connected Camps community. “We’ve tried to represent our values in it,” he said, such as the importance of positive social relationships, and peer-supported learning. The Code’s fourth rule, particularly, highlights the emphasis that Connected Camps places on social relationships, community, and mentorship. The rule rule includes two direct calls for helping, and empathizing with, other players.

- “Lend a helping hand when someone asks for help or is struggling to achieve a task.”
- “Give other campers the benefit of the doubt. Many disputes between campers are due to misunderstandings, differences in perspective, and inexperience.”

The last line reveals the constructive approach that Connected Camps has for solving conflicts among campers. By encouraging players to acknowledge differences in perspectives and skills, the Code of Conduct promotes diversity and empathy within the Connected Camps community.

New campers generally spend time in a “noobie area” where they can explore and become familiar with the norms and guidelines of Connected Camps servers. As Catherine Fox, one of the Assistant Camp Directors, explained,

“Kids will quickly learn what the norms are and what the rules are by how we respond to their actions. If they do something that might be allowed in other servers but not necessarily allowed on ours, they will learn that pretty quickly when someone complains or a moderator will come over and be like, ‘hey, I am not sure if you knew this, but you are not supposed to be doing that on this server.’ And a lot of the time they will be like, oh, okay, and they will not do it anymore.”

Moderation Scheme and Dynamics

From chatting to destroying blocks, from collecting materials to playing mini-games, kids perform a wide range of activities within Minecraft virtual world. Connected Camps moderation, therefore, is complex and occurs along two dimensions. On the one hand, moderation happens at the level of a public synchronous text chat. Hurtful, disrespectful, and foul language is not allowed on the server. On the other, moderation occurs at the level of player actions on the virtual environment. Griefing or the destruction of other players’ buildings, as well as the stealing of others’ items, are prohibited on the Connected Camps servers.

Like other “kid-friendly” Minecraft servers, Connected Camps are moderated during all hours of operation. A scheme has been designed and deployed in order to moderate both the public chat, and players’ actions within the virtual world. The moderation scheme includes coordinated efforts among camp directors, assistant camp directors, lead counselors, and volunteer counselors. All of these actors are are not only moderators but also counselors and mentors to the campers. As Malakai Unland, one of the assistant camp directors, explained,

“We’re all moderators but more than that, we’re counselors. So we help counsel the kids. We all have moderator privileges on a server but myself, and Catherine, have elevated privileges, as well as the Camp Directors”

The moderation scheme has a hierarchical structure that facilitates the coordination of tasks among all actors. At the highest level, there are Camp Directors (6) and Assistant Camp Directors (2), who are paid and manage the operations of all Connected Camp programs. They plan and design the learning activities and curricula, and supervise the activities of a team of counselors (moderators) that varies in size according to the different programs. Assistant Camp Directors are also in charge of solving technical problems on the servers, and contacting parents. “We have some additional permissions on the server so we can do more technical things that other people don’t have access to,” said Catherine Fox, one of the assistant camp directors. She added, “​We might contact parents, while the lead counselors would not really do that.”

There is always a mix of campers, adult moderators, and teen volunteers on the virtual world that helps to keep the space safe and enforce the Code of Conduct. That means that kids are always in the company of Connected Camps staff, and their activities are always being monitored. Moreover, campers can communicate with counselors at anytime via the chat and report any issues and violations of the Code of Conduct they encounter. Usually there are between two and four lead counselors on any of the Connected Camps servers, and between two and six volunteers. In total, during the 2016 school year, there were 12 lead counselors for the Kid Club, and 16 for the summer camps and after-school labs.

The team of moderators includes paid and volunteer counselors. While the paid counselors are young college students, the volunteers are high school students . Both groups are passionate about Minecraft, technology, and working with kids, and are trained by Connected Camps assistant directors and other lead counselors. Paid and volunteer moderators participate in a variety of activities in the virtual world, such as welcoming new players and modeling positive behavior. However, paid moderators, also known as lead counselors, are in charge of running the Connected Camps programs, facilitating learning, and handling conflict resolution. They also are given technical privileges on the server, such as removing text that violates the Code of Conduct in real time, muting and expelling players who break the code of conduct, and building large structures via server commands. As Malakai explained,

“Lead counselors have something called ‘world edit,’ which allows them to build large structures via server commands. So if they want to give a kid a protected area to build in so the kid doesn’t have to worry about anyone stealing anything, they can make a protected area and then give that to the camper.”

Volunteer counselors are recruited online and through the Connected Camps programs. Their major task is to assist the lead counselors, usually in coding and building structures, and helping the campers on the server. Malakai noted, “Basically if there is any kid that needs some one-on-one attention, volunteer counselors may help them out for a little bit. He added, “If there is a kid that would benefit from maybe not necessarily the lead as a role model but maybe somebody who is just a little older than them, sometimes we can use a volunteer counselor in that capacity as well.”

Moderation Tools

Connected Camps moderation scheme also relies on a range of tools. For moderating the chat, counselors use automated filters that detect words previously identified as harmful, inappropriate, and offensive, and that violate the Code of Conduct. The filters automatically replace those words with alternative, funny terms (e.g., “donuts”), a series of stars (“****”), or simply do not allow the text to appear on the screen. According to Malakai, the automated text changes send a signal not only to the moderators, but also to the campers. Malakai said,

“if kids say something inappropriate, it gets changed on the chat and it’s almost kind of embarrassing for the kids. If kids try to say something offensive, the filter will star it out or it just won’t send. If a kid is upset to that certain degree it’s noticeable and then we can bring them into a private chat and discuss it with them. The counselors can generally see what they were trying to say mostly just due to context.”

All the directors, assistant camp directors, lead and volunteer counselors maintain constant communication with each other using a private text chat on the Slack platform, outside the Minecraft servers. On this channel, Catherine indicated that chat members “keep everybody in the loop about what is going on,” addressing technical problems, learning activities, and moderation issues. Additionally, assistant camp directors and counselors use Team Speak voice chat, a software tool that allows them to communicate verbally in real time while moderating the servers. As Malakai noted,

“Often times there are things that you can’t really communicate via text in a reasonable amount of time or that may come off wrong without verbal communication.”

The Team Speak tool is also available for campers in some of Connected Camps’ paid programs, and allows counselors to provide more detailed instructions during the learning activities that they facilitate.

Conflict Resolution Practices: Developing a Productive-Constructive Approach

Aligned with the values of mentorship, positive social relationships, and learning, Connected Camps’ approach for solving conflicts and addressing uncivil behavior is based on productive and constructive dialogue. The camp director and two assistant camp directors we interviewed emphasized that the overall moderation approach is productive and constructive. In instances of conflict among campers or behavior that violates the Code of Conduct (e.g., griefing, stealing, being unfriendly), through constructive dialogue, moderators try to help users understand that their behavior might be affecting others and is not allowed on the server.

“We try to do a good job of encouraging positive habits, though, and helping them figuring out constructive ways to solve their own problems, and address issues,” said Gregry Livingston.

Essential to figuring out constructive ways of solving problems is empathizing and understanding. As Malakai described,

“We don’t want to be a police force, but instead help kids understand each other so that the issue doesn’t happen again in the future. So if a camper is grieving, we try to figure out also why the camper feels the need to grief as well as helping them to understand that there is a person behind that computer.”

Connected Camps counselors prioritize dialogue over punishment. Although they can ban users, and expel (“kick out”) campers that violate the Code of Conduct from the server, counselors try to always talk directly to the kids and figure out why the uncivil behavior is occurring. To facilitate this process, counselors have designed an area within the virtual world where they can talk in private to the campers who break the rules. Known as the “Cool Down Zone,” this space allows counselors to engage in productive and constructive dialogue with the campers, discuss relevant issues, and persuade them about following the code of conduct. According to Catherine,

“We can put them in a cool down zone, which, is kind of like a timeout area, like a bubble that is separate from the rest of the server. So we can chat privately and try to resolve the issues there. We help them like talk to each other in a more productive way, and we would actually try and understand the situation first and get both sides of the story before like making suggestions. Rather than the counselors being the person giving the orders, they would actually be the campers coming to their own conclusions and resolutions with each other.”

Although the constructive-productive dialogue between campers and counselors takes more time and effort than direct punishment and banning, this type of moderation practice and the results of it are positive. Dialogue oriented towards reforming violators, as Mimi Ito points out, is the backbone of a kid-friendly online community. Through the dialogue process and feedback campers gain skills on how to handle conflicts by themselves. As Gregry explained,

“The conflict resolution framework is more about having the kids help solve the problems by identifying what they are, and communicating about that. And understanding the other person’s point of view.”

However, in some rare cases, Connected Camps counselors have to ban kids from the servers. As Malakai explained, they will issue bans if a camper performs “a particularly egregious offense against the server, or if it’s a repeated offense against other camper.” Before permanently banning any camper, counselors try the “cool down zone,” and also issue “kicks,” or temporary bans that last for a specific period of time (e.g., from few minutes to a day, depending on the case). Malakai noted, “Counselors issue kicks if a camper is being obnoxious in some way. If they’re spamming fireworks or spamming someone else, I will give them a warning. If they don’t stop, I will issue a kick.” When temporarily banning users from the server, Assistant Camp Directors may contact parents via email and ask them to have a conversation with their child about the specific recurring issue. If, after coming back to the server, the user continues to violate the Code of Conduct, counselors can permanently ban the camper.

Training Moderators : Intergenerational Mentorship and Role Models

Lead and volunteer counselors apply to Connected Camps using an online form, and are selected according to their experience with and interest in Minecraft, academic backgrounds, and their technical and social skills. They are interviewed by the assistant camp directors, and if selected, are trained in moderation and conflict resolution.

Training involves learning the Code of Conduct and procedures for enforcing it, using the different moderation tools, and practicing a range of techniques for solving conflicts through dialogue. Training in conflict resolution, particularly, is an ongoing and challenging process for counselors, which is constantly being updated and refined as Connected Camps staff better understand how to solve conflicts in a “productive-constructive” manner. As Gregry explained,

“it’s been challenging to show moderators how to do it, because every circumstance is unique. You can’t just give them one script and ask them to do it. You know, you give them parts of it, and you can have conversations with them. So it’s been an ongoing process.”

Learning to moderate Connected Camps Minecraft servers, therefore, is an evolving process. Lead and volunteer counselors learn to take more responsibilities as they spend more time on the servers, and through hands-on and situated experiences, gain knowledge about how to approach different circumstances and contexts. The more time they spend on the servers, the more responsibilities they assume. As Catherine explained, she asks the counselors to assume greater responsibility so they have opportunities to apply the conflict resolution techniques. She explained,

“I try and get them to take on most of the responsibility on the server, because I am trying to be there more as like support for them rather than me doing all the work and they just kind of hanging out.”

The hierarchy of the Connected Camps moderation scheme supports intergenerational mentorship among the college and high school student counselors. As counselors of different ages are on the server at the same time, they get direct advice on how to deal with issues via the text and voice chats from the most experienced moderators, and also can model their behavior following the one of their peers. Catherine, Gregry, and Malakai, all agreed that a crucial aspect of the moderation training was having good role models and mentors with diverse skills. As Gregry pointed out,

“having good role models, hang out with them for six hours on the server, and really show them how to run a camp would help them to be moderators, so they can be the number one person in charge. Often we’ll have three lead counselors on at once. And one of them, I’m going to try to make sure that one of them is someone who’s really proactive and really on point and is going to really show the other two how moderation is done so that the other two can learn.”

Modeling how to solve conflicts and moderate, furthermore, expands also to the interactions of lead and volunteer counselors with campers. “At the same time, they’re going to show all the kids how it’s done,” commented Gregry. “They’re being a role model for their peers who might be a freshman in college, and a sophomore in high school. They’re going to be a role model for all of the ten year olds in the program, too,” he added.

Conclusion

Connected Camps has created and sustained a safe and “kid-friendly” virtual environment on its Minecraft servers by designing a governance strategy that includes a Code of Conduct, a moderation scheme, and a “white-list.” The Code of Conduct and the moderation dynamics, particularly, emphasize building positive social relationships, constructive dialogue, and engaging in mentorship, highlighting the platform’s educational and learning approach.

Although the Kid Club, after-school, and summer camps servers are always monitored and moderated by an intergenerational team of counselors and assistant camp directors, Connected Camps governance is not based in punishment. In contrast, it has an emphasis on learning, educating, and community building. Connected camps moderators solve conflicts and enforce the Code of Conduct using constructive and productive dialogue and focusing on building positive social relationships. By doing so, Connected Camps Minecraft servers become environments where youth cannot only learn a range of technical skills, but also spaces for ethical and social development, for learning about about empathy, solving conflicts through dialogue, and how to help each other. Given the diversity of skills that campers and counselors bring to the Connected Camps servers, and the multiple challenges that emerge on the virtual world, opportunities for helping each other are not scant.

Connected Camps environments, moreover, foster connected learning, a kind of learning that is interest-powered, production-centered, and socially embedded. Both campers and counselors encounter opportunities on Connected Camps Minecraft servers to exercise their agency and creativity, explore their interests and passions, and grow cognitively, socially, and ethically.