Gaming is challenging for disabled gamers, but a new document provides both awareness and solutions

Gaming is challenging for disabled gamers, but a new document provides both awareness and solutions

Steven Spohn and Mark Barlet are, respectively, Editor-in-Chief and President/Co-Founder of the AbleGamers Foundation, an organization that acts on behalf of the 30 million plus disabled Americans, many of whom find themselves alienated or obstructed from the hobby we all love. When most of us start playing a new shooter, our biggest concern is learning which button performs a melee attack and which throws grenades.

A disabled gamer's biggest concern is whether or not they can play at all. The gaming industry, as it stands, does not grant sufficient accessibility, Spohn and Barlet told the Penny Arcade Report. Many developers and publishers have been hesitant to take disabled gamers into account due to things such as a struggling economy and lack of understanding. It's the latter than Spohn and Barlet seek to eliminate.

Enter Includification, a 48-page document from the AbleGamers Foundation. Includification is an instructional guide aimed at helping developers see the world in a new way, and only the first of many, Barlet and Spohn hope. It provides examples of games that have successfully granted accessibility, and even gives developer exercises for testing whether or not their game is accessible to the disabled.

“A deaf man tries out the newest zombie game, but is unable to successfully play because the developers have designed the noise the zombie makes to be an early warning system of an attack coming out of a blind spot is about to happen,” the document reads. “If the ambient noise was captured in the subtitles—for example, [you hear a groan coming from the right]—the gamer would be able to continue playing with full situational awareness.”

Think of trying to play Guild Wars 2, StarCraft, or any other number of games which require mouse precision. Now imagine your hand can't flex or move beyond a couple inches. Includification shows how that can bar entry for a disabled gamer: “A gamer with muscular dystrophy uses a mouse that allows 3500 DPI. He logs into a brand-new title fresh off the shelf.

The game uses it’s own mouse driver emulation code slowing the mouse cursor movement speed and thus making the movements needed to control the direction of the character much bigger. There are no camera or mouse sensitivity settings in the game, which forces the gamer to return the game or consider the purchase a waste of money as the game is unplayable to him.” It's fascinating, eye-opening stuff, particularly if you try some of the tests at home. Check out this colorblindness simulator by saving an image, maybe of your favorite puzzle game, and plug it into the entry field. There are many games that use color as an indicator and become impossible to play with certain forms of colorblindness, a condition that is surprisingly common in males. Take a look at Puzzle Fighter in this image created by Ars Technica. The game is unplayable to gamers with Deuteranopia, a red-green color deficit. These things aren't impossible to fix, they just take some time. Better subtitles, more options for mouse movement, and items that have differences beyond a simple palette swap all go a long way to help more people enjoy games. Games that allow you to remap the buttons on the controller or keyboard also expand the number of players who can enjoy the game. It's been a struggle for Spohn and Barlet to get to this point, and Includification is only the first of many ambitious projects, the pair told me. “This goes far beyond what we wrote,” Spohn said.

When you're told 'You never crossed my mind'

Barlet told the Penny Arcade Report that AbleGamers has tried multiple routes of conveying their message. “When we started this in 2004, I went to GDC and I said, 'Have you ever thought about how people with disabilities play games?' and the answer was universally 'Nope, never even crossed my mind,'” he said.

The crux was learning to speak marketing language so that publishers and developers could see what they were missing.

“We as an organization have always tried to position people with disabilities as a market and not as a – and I'm going to sound slightly un-PC myself – as a pity point, because I know there's two ways of approaching accessibility and access,” Barlet said. “There's the 'you should do this because they're sad little children and they need to play video games,' and there's the 'you should do this because it's 33 million people in America who want to purchase your game.'”

Spohn agreed. “We've tried very very hard to let people know that we're gamers first, we're not disabled people who want to play games, we're gamers who have disabilities.” Being gamers means being the same.

Being the same means the same access, the same enjoyment, the same desire for recognition by developers. Spohn made it clear however, that AbleGamers is about communication, not forcing a message. “It's something we want people to volunteer to do, for the right reasons,” he said.

Attracting the right kind of attention

The first big-name developer to request a draft of Includification was surprising: Harmonix. “It's funny,” Barlet said. “They were the ones that said, 'How do we go about doing it?' We had a meeting and they were really kind of keen on seeing the document.”

Spohn offered up more names: EA, Microsoft, Rockstar were all interested in the document. “Clearly the need was there,” Barlet said. “Because without us prompting, those that are our friends through Facebook and Twitter were pushing out, re-tweeting and sharing the message. I kind of got all warm and fuzzy, because it was being accepted by the community that was familiar with us, you know, gamers, and they were actually spreading it within their own communities.”

Many gamers don't think about all the abilities it takes to enjoy a game. You need sharp eyes, hearing, the ability to differentiate many different colors, and a wide range of movement in your hands and fingers.

There is a large community of people who don't enjoy one or more of these “common” skills, and reading through the document allows people to understand how challenging games may be for other players. That understanding is the first step to change, and developers are starting to pay attention. AbleGamers is a 501(c)(3) public charity, supported entirely by donations. If you'd like to give to the foundation, you can do so here.