Build a custom video gaming rig that maximizes your abilities
In 2012, consumers spent between $20 billion and $60 billion on video games and related apparel. What was once considered a toy for children has become mainstream. Chances are that you or someone you love is a video gamer.
“There’s no way my [insert relative] can play video games. [He/she] is disabled.” That’s a common assumption about people in the disability community, and one I’m happy to tell you is often wrong. With a combination of the right assistive technology and a little ingenuity, everyone can join in on the fun.
Choosing the system that’s right for you
Console or PC gaming is a tough decision. While consoles are simple and easy to set up, PC gaming allows for far more accessibility options. If you have the strength and dexterity to work with your hands, consoles such as the Wii, PlayStation or Xbox might be right for you.
The Wii takes the most control and has the least assistive technology available. In order to play on the Wii effectively, you’ll need to be able to raise your arms above your head, move your hands around quickly, jump in place and/or balance on a board. If you still have a lot of range of motion, this gaming system might be for you, but for most people in the disability community, the Wii is largely inaccessible.
PlayStation and Xbox are mostly on equal footing. Xbox has a slight advantage in that there are entire businesses dedicated to modding — modifying — controllers with accessibility in mind. These modified controllers can have buttons rearranged on the controller to suit the needs of the individual gamer. They also can be customized to include features like macros and rapidfire — a feature that allows a button to be held down instead of being pressed rapidly — which can make gaming easier than on the standard controller.
Sony does not allow their controllers to be modified in any way. However, most Xbox controllers can be adapted to work with the PlayStation. Also, the next generation of PlayStation (PS4) will feature a special mode that allows players to ask their friends to take over the controller and help get past any areas of the game that may be too difficult to handle.
If you have limited mobility in your arms or hands, PC gaming could be a much better fit. Generally speaking, computers allow for a much wider range of options. There are some amazing assistive technologies available, but most are only available on the PC because of the need for software support.
Customizing console gaming
Once you’ve decided which gaming system is most likely to fit your situation, it’s simply a matter of customizing the setup.
It’s important to get the controller that will work best with your abilities. If you’re going to try console gaming, customizing your controller is as simple as doing an Internet search for a modding company to tailor the placement of the buttons, joysticks and D-pads.
AbleGamers has worked closely with a modding company called Evil Controllers to customize controllers on an individual basis. In fact, the two organizations collaborated on a device called Adroit, which is simply an Xbox controller stuffed into a little blue box that has every button linked to a port that uses 3.5 mm switches.
There are thousands of different types of switches. They come shaped like beanbags, light touch, oversized, micro, so on and so forth.
With Velcro or your favorite double-sided adhesive material, the switches can be placed all around the gamer in the most convenient place as possible.
Some people like to hit switches with their head, arms or even feet. The sky is the limit. Be creative. Figure out what muscles you can still use, and put a switch nearby.
The more buttons you have to work with, the easier it is to play a wider variety of games. It is possible to play with only two or three buttons, but your selection of games will be limited.
But if you’re only able to use a few buttons, you’re probably better off going to PC gaming anyway.
Customizing PC gaming
PC gaming is extremely customizable, and the best part is that you can continue to add more assistive technology as your situation changes.
Here is a list of the top assistive technologies we recommend to help gamers play on the PC:
Voice recognition. A wonderful program called DWVAC allows you to say words out loud and have the computer press a series of buttons. This is a great addition to the gaming setup where someone can only use the mouse or has limited access to the keyboard.
The TrackIR system allows you to move your head in order to press buttons. A small infrared camera-like device is placed on top of your computer monitor with a corresponding clip placed on a baseball cap. When you move your head in a given direction, the program sees your movement and presses whichever button you have assigned to that direction. You can have up to 16 buttons and as many different layouts as you like.
X-keys is another piece of hardware that can make use of those switches we talked about earlier. You can choose the switch you like best, and assign it to be the same as a letter on the keyboard. Unfortunately, there is a two- to three-second delay between pushing the button and the computer recognizing what letter it is supposed to be. X-keys should only be used if reaction time isn’t important.
Mouth controls. There are several controllers that can be used with only your mouth, such as the QuadJoy. Ordinarily, these devices are mounted to tray tables that are moved in front of the gamer. The good side is that for those who cannot use a standard keyboard or mouse, this makes a great substitution. But mouth controls are often difficult to use.
Foot controls. Similar to X-keys, controllers like the Stinky Board place a gas pedal-sized controller by your foot, which allows you to control a few buttons with your feet.
Muscle twitch switch. These switches are extremely expensive, but they allow you to flex muscles anywhere on your body in order to activate the switch.
Enhanced keyboard. Ergodex is a flat metal panel that acts like your keyboard. You can then place movable keys anywhere on the pad, allowing you to worry about the keys you need and leave the ones you don’t need completely off the device.
A fancy mouse. I use a Razer DeathAdder mouse. Its 6400 DPI means I can move the mouse a quarter of an inch and still have full control over my screen. Sometimes, a good mouse or a good keyboard is all you really need.
Of course that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of assistive technology devices that gamers can use to make playing games easier. But by now, it’s pretty plain to see anyone who wants to game can do so.
The preceding customization list on this page makes putting together a gaming rig for someone with a disability look rather intimidating. You simply have to focus on what abilities you have and match the assistive technology with the abilities you don’t. For example, if you can’t use the keyboard, voice recognition and TrackIR would be a great fit. If you can still use the keyboard, but your reaction time is a little low, adding a foot pedal might be enough.
If you want to game, no matter your disability, there is a way to do it. It’ll take some experimentation. You might need to invest a couple hundred dollars into assistive technology and return or sell the devices that don’t work for you. But it’ll be worth the time and effort to figure out what will work for you.
In a Quest article earlier this year, Making Video Games Accessible to People with Disabilities, I explained why gaming is so important for people with disabilities. Suffice it to say, if you’re someone whose body doesn’t always cooperate with what your mind tells it to do, video games can empower you. In a world where walking is impossible, a virtual world where you can run, jump and soar is a wonderful taste of freedom. q
Steve Spohn is the chief operations officer of the AbleGamers Foundation. Steve, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is a 32-year-old award-winning writer living in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. His latest fiction novel, The Finder, an action-adventure story laced with comedy, is available on Amazon.com. Follow him @stevenspohn on Twitter and on his blog.