I’m continuing the interview with Steve Spohn, Associate Editor of AbleGamers.com, an outstanding resource for video and computer game devotees who have disabilities.
Steve Grobschmidt (SG): I imagine some game types or genres are easier to be made accessible than others. And there are many different kinds of disabilities: visual, hearing, physical, cognitive, etc. How do developers balance making great, cutting edge games that still are playable for as many disabled gamers as possible?
Steve Spohn (SS): In a word, options. Options are extremely undervalued right now by the video game industry. In fact, most of the people who are unwilling or resentful of our work think that we want to change games in some way, and that is absolutely false.
AbleGamers wants developers to add options that can lend accessibility to video games for those that need a particular accommodation. No one wants to see video games “dumbed down” or made easier in any way. The ultimate goal is to add as many options that add value to a video game without taking anything else away. Items like remappable keys, subtitles, color blind options, mouse speed adjustments, and assistive device support, are all items that could add additional value to a title but for those who do not need any of those options, the game would not be hurt in anyway. In fact, if done correctly, those who do not need the accessibility may not even realize it’s there.
SG: How do you go about testing games? I see from your About Us section that there are staff members with disabilities of their own, including yourself. Do you just test games yourselves, or do you also reach out to other sources for testing?
SS: Our writers test every game personally. We have an in-house game review document that every video game must be put through. In addition, we have a rather large community that will keep us honest. If you read the review section, not everyone agrees with our assessments. This is because disabilities are widely varied, and everyone’s idea of how much accessibility is needed to be able to play a game changes.
We review games based on the ability to play them with standard equipment such as a keyboard and mouse. We then use the comments section to provide information on third-party assistive technology enabling some disabled gamers to play this or that. If there is a way to play a game, our members will find it.
SG: What kind of reception do you get from the gaming industry? Do you feel your presence and advocacy is being heard?
SS: Right now, I would say lukewarm. There are some companies, as I mentioned before, that are very receptive to our needs and requests. However, there are some that want nothing to do with accessibility because they believe adding accessibility increases production time and expenditures beyond what they must be. AbleGamers has definitely been making an impact in the accessibility movement; there are definitely large and small signs that we are becoming more important daily.
The most flattering was a twitter sent out by one developer to another developer saying “make sure to look out for AbleGamers at the conference. Accessible gaming is a good way to help advance your career.” At the point where you are beginning to be seen as a career advancer, you know you’re making a difference.
We have also been featured in most every online gaming magazine, Xbox 360 magazine, MSNBC, Apple.com, and many more.
SG: Looking at your crystal ball, is the gaming industry heading in the right direction? Are video and computer games getting more accessible?
SS: Accessibility is increasing in most ways but it is a constant battle. As new gaming systems like Natal, Wii, Tablet gaming, and others continue to become more mobile, games inherently become less accessible. Systems that require physical body movement are not ideal for those with physical impairments and mobile gaming such as iPhones and tablets are difficult for those with limited movement.
When the most advanced system only required two buttons and a directional pad, I could personally play any console game. As could one-handed gamers, most with physical impairments, and even those with very limited movement range.
Now, controllers have six or more buttons, shoulder buttons, and two directional pads. So, the games have advanced but the accessibility falls. The more complicated the controller becomes, the less accessible it is. Computer games are very similar in that every game could be controlled by a mouse 10 years ago and now, some do not use a mouse at all.
On the flipside, you now have things like hacked controllers, mods, assistive technology, and other customizable devices that can aid a disabled gamer with playing certain games. Most of these accessible devices are created by individuals who make these controllers one by one. We hope that someday gaming companies who produce these controllers.
It is my sincere hope that as accessible technology becomes more prevalent and developers learn how many potential customers are out there, video games will become more accessible. There are some wonderful technologies on the horizon. Things like nanos inserted into the body, eye trackers are becoming more accurate and less expensive, voice controlled gaming is becoming faster and more accurate, and many more advancements.
Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to talk about video and computer game accessibility — what’s working, what are the challenges, and where things should be headed.
Sort of like web site accessibility, it’s not about “watering down” the experience. Like Steve said, it’s about options. It’s about putting some extra effort into considering your entire audience.
I go back to a point I made earlier. I love video and computer games. If, tomorrow, I lost my hearing or something happened that limited my motor skills, I’d still love video and computer games. I’d still want to be able to enjoy them as much as possible.
I’m not disabled and I appreciate some accessibility-minded features. For example, because often times I play games at night and don’t want to have the volume jacked up, I turn sub-titles on for just about every game I play.
Dragon Age showed that you can make an all-around outstanding game with plenty of accessibility options. Let’s hope more and more game developers follow suit.