Making Video Games Accessible for People with Disabilities

The game's afoot!

Article Highlights:
  • Steve Spohn, editor-in-chief of AbleGamers.com, describes how video games opened up a world of social and career opportunities for him after high school graduation.
  • AbleGamers.com is dedicated to helping gamers with disabilities find accessible ways to play, and to encouraging game developers to add more accessibility into their titles.
by Steve Spohn on January 7, 2013 - 9:19am

Quest Vol. 20, No. 1

More than 33 million people in the United States are gamers with disabilities. That number grows every year. Once considered frivolous, video games have become an important part of modern culture. Decades ago, no one could have foreseen the video game craze — or the impact it would have on the lives of players with disabilities.

Steve Spohn

When I was growing up with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), life was filled with obstacles to overcome. Like most kids with a disability, not all my challenges were medical or physical. As one of only two people in wheelchairs in the entire school, I felt challenged to prove I was mentally and socially up to the task of “fitting in.”

Just like any other teen, I had good and bad times in high school, things I’d rather forget, challenges I overcame and obstacles conquered by the skin of my teeth. And that’s not even counting the disability challenges I faced.

I found a few good friends who didn’t care about the disability others couldn’t seem to overlook. With my support network in place, I managed pretty well socially, despite the oversized power wheelchair complete with ventilator in a red wagon following me everywhere I went. I managed to successfully navigate dating, dances and other rites of passage.

In my senior year of high school, the unlevel playing field became more evident. Friends started going to inaccessible clubs where I couldn’t follow. Jobs, careers and college became factors for the people around me — issues I had yet to figure out how to handle.

Blessings of technology

Around this time, I was introduced to a new phenomenon called “the Internet” by a friend who played a game called “Ultima Online.” Growing up poor, I didn’t have a path onto the information highway, but I listened avidly as my friend described another world continuously running parallel to ours — a world where you could be anything you wanted.

I cobbled together computer parts from friends to build a PC that could handle the basics of Internet gaming. Although it had only a few MBs of RAM, a tiny monitor and a slow AOL Internet connection, it allowed me to access the games my friends bragged about.

I came to realize that behind the safety of the computer screen, people couldn’t see my wheelchair, the tube in my throat or the oversized toaster being carted around behind me. I had found a world where people judged me on achievement, not the amount of medical baggage I carried.

For many years after high school, I enjoyed playing online as an alternative to dealing with real-life stresses. In this virtual place, no one mocked my wheelchair, nor gawked at the audacity of my being out in public, nor allowed any bullies to attack my ego. Everyone was equal. I could run, fight and build an empire just like anyone else. There were no barriers.

In my time playing such games as “Ultima Online,” “Diablo” and “EverQuest,” I made a lot of friends, a few enemies, and even met the woman who would end up becoming the deepest, in-person relationship I’ve ever had — all thanks to video games.

But around 2006, gaming became increasingly difficult. I could no longer play fast-paced games, and I was beginning to lose the ability to play slower ones. In an effort to stave off any further loss, I searched the Internet for strategies to make it easier to play.

Becoming a believer

This is a scene from the video game “Testament of Sherlock Holmes,” reviewed on the AbleGamers website; it received a high rating for its accessibility. (Developed by Frogwares; published by Focus Home Interactive)

When I discovered AbleGamers, the website founder, Mark Barlet, had posted some incorrect information about “World of Warcraft.” I replied tersely, correcting the information. As a result of the conversation, he challenged me to write an article.

Five years later, I’m the editor-in-chief of AbleGamers.com and the second in the chain of command for an international nonprofit organization whose main goal is including as many gamers with disabilities in the largest swath of games possible.

AbleGamers does outstanding things for the more than 33 million disabled gamers in America. Those efforts have landed us on NPR, CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and many others.

The all-volunteer staff of AbleGamers established the largest online community of disabled gamers anywhere, with more than 3.5 million hits per month. The accessibility review database is the largest resource available for finding out which games are appropriate for what disability.

By contacting developers and publishers directly, AbleGamers works with the game industry to ensure as many accessibility options as possible are included in titles. Recently, we released a 46-page fully illustrated guide for developers called “Includification” that gives designers a solid set of guidelines directly from disabled gamers.

AbleGamers’ biggest achievement to date is our Accessibility Arcade — a hands-on booth of assistive technologies that enables anyone, regardless of disability, to play video games.

Sometimes assistive technology can be expensive, and other times neither players nor their caregivers know what’s available. These arcades allow individuals with disabilities to experiment with different types of available equipment at no cost. We host these arcades multiple times a year across the country and internationally.

Helping the community

On Oct. 10, 2012, the AbleGamers Foundation opened the world’s first permanent Accessibility Arcade at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

Words cannot express the joy I felt the day the permanent arcade opened. Now, anyone can come and try out the amazing equipment I recommend every day for those who need a little assistance. We hold traveling arcades as often as donations allow, but we get more invitations to set up arcades than we can attend these days.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of people the organization has helped to date. But I can tell you it’s the joy we bring people that I remember the most. I’ll never forget the dad of a boy with muscular dystrophy who came up to me at an event, put his hand on my shoulder and profusely thanked me for all we do; I saw tears in his eyes as he watched his son playing on a computer for the first time. Nor will I forget the sister who just wanted to play games with her brother but couldn’t do so because of cerebral palsy — until we gave her a special controller. The thank-you note she wrote us afterward moved our AbleGamers founder to tears.

Video games can become a window into an otherwise inaccessible world. In these virtual worlds, everyday challenges like medical procedures, baggage and machinery vanish. In a video game, you can run, jump, swim or fly just like everyone else. These worlds become safe havens where people couldn’t care less about your race, background, sexual orientation or disability.

AbleGamers believes there should be no barriers to fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a facility, hospital or home — technology can open windows to the world.

Steve Spohn is editor-in-chief of AbleGamers.com and outreach chair for the AbleGamers Foundation. He’s been interviewed as an expert in gaming with disabilities and assistive technologies by MSNBC, CNN, G4 and multiple international journals. Steve, who has spinal muscular atrophy, is a 32-year-old Pittsburgh native. He has traveled widely to speak at various events, including PAX East, Abilities Expos, universities and many developer studios. He is also a Web designer, gamer and writer.

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