Gamers forge their own paths when it comes to accessibility

Players with disabilities and chronic illnesses haven’t waited around for console manufacturers to look their way. Here’s how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go

Mark Barlet, President of the AbleGamers Foundation, right, started the foundation in 2005 after seeing how difficult, expensive and frustrating it can be to experience the pleasures that many gamers take for granted. “These are real-life things for us.” Ablegamers Foundation, Facebook

Williesha Morris, WIRED October 29, 2020

When Mark Barlet realized there weren’t many gaming resources available for a friend with multiple sclerosis, he and Steven Spohn helmed a solution that would change countless lives. They created AbleGamers and turned a personal mission into a global vision of video game accessibility for all.

“AbleGamers hasn’t followed any path. We’ve created our own,” Spohn said. He’s AbleGamers’ COO and has spinal muscular atrophy, which attacks his muscles and limits movement from the neck down. “We entered an industry with a bunch of staircases and brought our own ramps.”

Spohn said the “secret sauce” of AbleGamers is to “do as much good as we possibly can.” That’s a tall order when you consider there are 46 million people with disabilities in the United States alone, according to Spohn.

AbleGamers’ impact on the disabled gaming community isn’t always well publicized. In 2011, they unveiled the Adroit Switchblade, an accessible controller. Years later, Microsoft took notice, saw the controller’s potential and worked with AbleGamers in secret to create its spiritual successor, the Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). This controller is a household staple for people with disabilities and is much more affordable than the Switchblade.

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According to Brannon Zahand, Senior Gaming Accessibility program manager at Microsoft, this new controller was the key to breaking down the “unintentional barrier” that kept people from playing games. Along with AbleGamers, Microsoft worked with multiple organizations, including the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, to provide “an effective, customizable solution for gamers with limited mobility.”

AbleGamers offers Accessible Player Experiences, an intensive certification course to design games with an eye for accessibility. Every achievement within AbleGamers came from “sheer determination and will.” They support innovative, specialized controllers and give them to gamers in need.

The Microsoft gaming accessibility boot camp is another route to create games for everyone, not just those who are able-bodied. Xbox accessibility guidelines are available to developers to “provide guardrails when developing their game and as a checklist for validating the accessibility of their title,” Zahand said.

“Game accessibility advocates, subject matter experts, and community members present to our teams on a variety of topics such as inclusive design best practices and various assistive technologies that can be leveraged by our products,” Zahand said.

Overcoming Visible and Invisible Hurdles

Alanah Pearce credits video games with helping her through severe effects of myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and tendinitis, including dizziness, joint pain, headaches, and nausea.

“There are days where getting out of bed ultimately isn’t an option, and it can be very frustrating, but video games are always an option for me, and always help me feel like I’m still able to ‘do’ something,” Pearce said.

She plays through her pain, often limiting her gameplay to an hour due to her tendinitis causing swelling after rapidly tapping a controller. She said advances in games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part 2 (TLOU2) and the Microsoft XAC are great, but options are extremely limited.

“Largely, developers look at accessibility as an afterthought, so the limitations are self-imposed,” Pearce said. “I suppose it becomes too time-consuming at the end of a development cycle to implement accessibility options, where they should be in consideration from the very beginning.”

Zahand’s team is striving to accomplish this. During Inclusive Design Sprints, gamers with disabilities chat with Microsoft developers and share their experiences with playing video games.

“Accessibility must be considered in product design from the very start,” Zahand said. “For game developers and studio teams, we emphasize the importance of partnering with the gaming and disability community throughout the development process.”

Mike Begum, aka “Brolylegs,” has also adapted to the limits of inaccessible gaming. He has arthrogryposis, a condition that limits muscle growth. He stays mobile by using a special wheelchair so he can lie on his stomach.

He’s mastered fighting games like Street Fighter by using an arm and parts of his face to manipulate a controller. Begum has used this technique since childhood and has traveled all over the country for esports competitions. Traveling by air could be especially painful, but he loves it.

Part of his enjoyment is the challenge of finding ways to become better skilled using a non-modified controller. But the thrill of overcoming these challenges has its limits. He uses a converter so he can use his favorite controller to play whatever he wants, but like Pearce, has insurmountable obstacles.

“There are still games where you can’t mess around with the buttons. The layout is the layout,” Begum said. “There are still buttons I can’t reach. It does become a bit troubling, especially in finding there are things I can’t do in games. I try to make up for it with skill.”

He’d love to have a controller designed just for him, but he said he’s “too old-fashioned.” He’s grown accustomed to his play style, and of course, such a controller would be expensive to create. These needs motivate AbleGamers in its mission.

And the challenge of accessibility keeping pace with changing gaming technology is turning a corner, because game developers are beginning to pay attention to the millions of people who can’t play their games.

“The disability club is one of the easiest to join and hardest to get out of,” Spohn said. “Companies are realizing that the disabled dollar spends just as well as the able-bodied dollar.”

The Future of Accessibility

The disabled community knows that accommodating more gamers isn’t out of reach. Begum and Pearce noted that having button mapping in each game would help them expand their options. Spohn’s dream is to have a universal controller, and he hopes to get disabled players the opportunity to play the next generation of consoles.

One feature Zahand is excited about in the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S is the addition of tactile indicators over the ports for those who are blind or have low vision. It’s also useful in helping gamers find the right ports to plug into their console if it’s in a location that’s difficult to reach.

“I envision a point where games adapt to the user to provide an optimal experience based on their individual abilities, gaming preferences, and skill level,” Zahand said. “I’d like to see systems that are able to identify if or when a player is struggling, and reactively offer adjustments or assistance to offer a personalized experience that is both fun and challenging.”

The technology is there, but the main issue is creating an accessibility-first mindset not just for creators, but for those who aren’t disabled. Advances in accessibility like in TLOU2 should be the starting point, not the end goal.

“It’s an empathy question,” Spohn said. “Can you put yourself in the place of someone who has this challenge? I think that’s a front that we’re always going to be fighting on.”

“We are still part of the community,” Begum said. “I always tell (developers) to keep trying to figure out what you can do. Don’t think about what you can’t do. Think about what you can. Everyone has a struggle. It’s our job as a community to help everyone overcome it.”

Pearce said the media could do a better job of asking about accessible products for consumers in the disabled community at preview events, so they “can know ahead of time if they’ll actually be able to play something, before they spend money on it.”

Zahand would like to see systems in place to reduce friction for gamers and developers, and adaptations that are “dynamically rather than individually hardcoded.”

“These updates are a ways out in the future, but I am hopeful,” Zahand said.

Once everyone in the gaming community gets on board, Spohn wants to move on to taking action on larger advocacy issues like ensuring that accessible hardware is affordable and covered by medical insurance.

“Our endgame has been and always will be that we would love to be put out of business,” Spohn said. “I’m going to run out of time on this big, blue marble before I solve every problem that I’d like to in the disability community, but I’m going to knock out as many bites of the elephant as I can.”

Williesha Morris has been a journalist and freelancer off-and-on for over a decade. When she’s not writing, she’s playing video games or waxing nostalgic for the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Twitter   Facebook

Source WIRED

The AbleGamers Foundation – Helping Disabled Gamers Everyday! The AbleGamers Foundation, also known as AbleGamers Charity, is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit charity organization that aims to improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.

AbleGamers works and advocates on behalf of the disability community to increase the accessibility of video games and to achieve further inclusion by those who need special considerations. AbleGamers. Youtube Mar 24, 2012

Also see
AbleGamers Just Got a Big Win for the Disabled Gaming Community WIRED
Xbox and Special Olympics hold first ‘Gaming for Inclusion’ esports event TechCrunch
How game-makers are catering to disabled players Ars Technica
Includification: Bringing video games to players with disabilities Ars Technica
Quad Gods Of Gaming New Mobility

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