First things first, video gaming is for everyone. And I mean everyone, regardless of their nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation, and even gaming preferences. A person venturing through Helheim in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on a PS4 is no less of a gamer than someone pulling off headshots in CS:GO on a PC. The same goes for Switch and Mobile gamers. Now we might come across one of those not-so-friendly “alpha gamers” online with serious attitude problems, but in general, the gaming community is an accepting society. It has always welcomed new and budding gamers with open arms without factoring in any of the above mentioned criteria. And that is precisely why despite all their difficulties, even people with disabilities do not hesitate to be a part of the global gaming community. In this article, I will be discussing several topics about gaming for the differently abled.
Even though we don’t have an exact figure stating the number of disabled gamers in the world, a survey conducted by PopCap in 2008 has shown that 20% of players who play casual games have “some form of impairment related to physical, mental, or developmental disability.” That’s 1 out of 5 people we’re talking about! Another research conducted by the Accessibility Foundation in Utrecht, The Netherlands, has shown that 92% of gamers with disabilities play video games despite all the difficulties they go through. This again proves that gaming knows no bounds, and physical disabilities are no match for someone with a determined mindset. Now this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise but the study has also proved that people with disabilities do indeed enjoy playing video games, just like all the other normal people. And why shouldn’t they? Just because someone’s mind or body isn’t at peak performance doesn’t mean they should give up everything and think about their disability all day.
How do disabilities affect gaming?
Before we get to the “how” straightaway, let us discuss briefly as to “what” exactly falls under a disability. Normally, we’d consider someone in a wheelchair or someone without a limb as “physically handicapped”. But there’s a lot more to disabilities than that. Apart from the ones previously mentioned, other forms of disabilities include, but not limited to, cerebral palsy, total or partial deafness, total or partial blindness, locomotor disabilities, and mental disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc.
Disabilities, even in their mildest form, can hamper your gaming experience. Let us discuss how exactly can a disability affect you. It is not possible to list out every disability there is, so we’re going to talk about the most common forms of disabilities which affect gaming.
One of them is color blindness, which isn’t a very uncommon disability. Roughly 1 in 12 men, and 1 in 200 women suffer from color blindness. Now you may think color blindness is a subtle disability and does not pose much of a challenge, but on the contrary, it can totally “corrupt” your gaming experience. Let’s say you are playing a first-person shooter video game which has green and red arrows indicating teammates and enemies, respectively. Now for a colorblind person they are all the same. He might end up shooting his teammates thereby resulting in an eventual defeat. Other eyesight problems such as amblyopia also make it difficult for someone to enjoy video games at their fullest potential.
Deafness is another major obstacle in video gaming. Be it total or partial deafness, if you can’t hear things in a game, you are only getting half of what normal people perceive in a video game. It’s not only about immersion, not being able to hear and follow certain audio cues or hints can result in failure of game objective or defeat in multiplayer games.
Then there are people with mental or developmental diseases such as autism or dyslexia. If one cannot fully understand what they are perceiving, it becomes very difficult for them to enjoy it. Even though they want to have a good time, they can’t due to their mental impairment.
Finally, coming to strictly physical impairments are disabilities such as cerebral palsy, arthritis, and people without limbs. Obviously, it’s not possible for people with such disabilities to be perfectly comfortable with traditional controllers or the keyboard-mouse combo. Even if some of them can use normal controllers, it becomes difficult for them during quick-time events in video games, where they have to repeatedly tap a button or press multiple buttons in quick succession.
Organizations working to provide video game accessibility to differently abled people
Video gaming accessibility for differently abled people, despite all it’s present challenges, is way more convenient now than it was ever before. Game development companies are actually looking into this matter, now more than ever, and are looking to make certain adjustments to their games which would largely benefit their differently abled fans. A recent example would be Shadow of the Tomb Raider which has the option for fully closed captioning, even for musical cues and sounds. These forms of subtitles may be common in movies but are pretty rare for video games. Another notable example would be Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, which provide players with accessibility options to the point that the game can be effectively played single-handedly.
As for gaming hardware, there are some special custom made gaming gears designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. These gadgets greatly improve video gaming accessibility for the differently abled since they come with dozens of features which we’d never see in normal gaming hardware. However, these hardware equipments come at great monetary cost and is not possible for everyone to afford them.
However, a few organizations have been working for years to make sure no one gets deprived of video gaming due to health impairments and financial issues. Let us discuss about a few of them and their contributions to this cause.
The AbleGamers Foundation
The AbleGamers Foundation, also known as The AbleGamers Charity or just “AbleGamers” in short, is an American non-profit organization. There’s a lot of NGOs in the U.S, but what’s special about AbleGamers is that their focus is specifically towards providing video gaming accessibility to people with mental or physical impairments. AbleGamers was founded in 2004 by Mark Barlet and Stephanie Walker, after Walker herself faced difficulty in using a computer mouse for gaming due to multiple sclerosis.
“We give people with disabilities custom gaming setups including modified controllers and special assistive technology, like devices that let you play with your eyes, so they can have fun with their friends and family. We’re using the power of video games to bring people together, improving quality of life with recreation and rehabilitation.” – AbleGamers Website
This organization assesses the needs of gamers with disabilities, and provides them with necessary specialized gaming equipment; both existing as well as custom-made hardware tuned specifically to the person’s need. AbleGamers has opened Accessibility Arcades, in multiple locations in the U.S as well as Canada, where they showcase video games and hardware which are accessible to people with disabilities. Apart from this, they have come up with several other initiatives such as “Expansion Packs”, “Player Panels”, etc, which either works to provide necessary hardware to differently abled gamers, or participates in research in order to make video games more accessible to these people. They have also worked with Microsoft on their Xbox Adaptive Controller project.
AbleGamers have been sponsored by several notable companies such as Rockstar Games, Electronic Arts, Activision, PlayStation, Xbox, Humble Bundle, Twitch, and many more.
SpecialEffect is a charitable organization based in the United Kingdom. It was founded in 2007 by a former school teacher named Mick Donegan. Just like AbleGamers, this organization works with developers to make video games more accessible to people with disabilities, and provides those people with specialized hardware equipment.
“By using technology ranging from modified joypads to eye-control, we’re finding a way for people to play to the very best of their abilities. But we’re not just doing it for fun. By levelling the playing field, we’re bringing families and friends together and having a profoundly positive impact on therapy, confidence and rehabilitation.” – SpecialEffect Website
SpecialEffect employs therapists, software and technical designers so that they can assess an individual with a disability, and then come up with an equipment whose hardware as well as software is specifically tuned to meet the needs of that person. SpecialEffect is the organization behind GameBlast, a 48 hour gaming marathon held in U.K. Through GameBlast, this organization raises funds which they use to conduct their operations. Like AbleGamers, SpecialEffect too has worked with Microsoft during their development of the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
You’re probably thinking “what does Microsoft has to do with this”. Even though Microsoft is a multinational company and not a non-profit organization, they too in their own way are working to make video gaming easily accessible to differently abled gamers.
The Xbox One features a “Copilot Mode” which allows you to link two controllers to act as one. In case someone has difficulty in gripping a controller, they can use this mode to use two different controllers with two hands. For example, in a first-person shooter, they can move and aim with one controller and shoot with the other.
Last year, they came up with a specialized controller called the “Xbox Adaptive Controller“. Microsoft designed this controller primarily for gamers with disabilities. You can fully customize the Xbox Adaptive controller by remapping it’s buttons both in Xbox One as well as Windows 10. This controller serves as a hub where you can connect multiple external buttons, switches, and joysticks to get a custom arcade experience. As mentioned before, the Xbox Adaptive Controller was built in collaboration with organizations like AbleGamers, SpecialEffects, etc.
Microsoft has recently patented an Xbox Elite Controller with a Braille panel. According to the patent, the Braille panel would be in the back of the controller and would constantly adjust itself. Players who are blind can read texts through this Braille panel. The patent also says that it’ll convert speech to Braille which’ll greatly facilitate communication during chat or livestreams. Since they have patented it only a few months ago, it’s going to take some time before we get to see this controller. But once launched, it will probably be one of the greatest inventions in gaming hardware.
Livestreamers with physical disabilities
As I’ve mentioned before, gaming knows no bounds. Even though physical disabilities can hamper a person’s overall gaming experience, it cannot kill one’s will power. There are several content creators who stream on platforms like Twitch regardless of their disabilities. Let us talk about a few of these people and look up to them as strong examples.
Mike Begum a.k.a “Brolylegs” suffers from arthrogryposis, a disease in which a person’s brain doesn’t instruct his muscles to grow. His condition limited his motion in the limbs. Despite these difficulties, Mike turned out to be an expert Street Fighter player, even achieving 1st place in several Houston tournaments. He is also one of the best Super Smash Bros players in his State.
Brolylegs streams on Twitch and primarily plays Street Fighter.
Clint Lexa a.k.a “HalfCoordinated” suffers from hemiparesis, a physical disability that lowers the coordination and sensation of the entire right side of a body. Clint can only use his right hand for very basic clasping actions. He plays all his games with only his left hand and despite this, has turned out to be an expert speedrunner. He is actually one of the top speed-runner streamers in the gaming community. Clint is one of the main participants of AbleGamers and also works with developers to provide them with ideas regarding ways in which their games can be tuned to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
HalfCoordinated streams various video games of action genre on Twitch.
Stacey Rebecca suffers from fibromyalgia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. This often makes her experience pain, feel dizzy and faint. Despite this, she struggled hard to become a well known video game streamer and cosplayer in U.K. Her physical activities are pretty limited due to her condition but she makes the most out of her life by engaging in creative crafting activities related to cosplay.
Stacey Rebecca streams on Twitch. She conducts various types of livestreams ranging from Hearthstone gameplay to IRL streams related to cosplay and consultation regarding mental and physical problems.
How does video gaming help the differently abled?
We’ve discussed how mental and physical disabilities affect gaming, and how it can be overcome by means of various equipments. We’ve talked about organizations are taking initiatives to make video gaming accessible to differently abled people. We have also witnessed examples of people who have managed to attract thousands of followers in Twitch despite their disabilities. Now, let us get to the big question, i.e, “how does video gaming help the differently abled?“
The first point would be “distraction from thoughts related to disability”. While unfortunate, it is very common for differently abled people to feel low and constantly worry about their disabilities. Video gaming serves as a very good distraction to this issue. They can spend their time thinking about completing objectives in a game rather than giving any thought towards their problems.
Another notable advantage would be “increased concentration and mental workouts”. It is not possible for people with mental or physical disabilities to engage in activities such as weightlifting, martial arts, or any other form of active sports or exercise. Video gaming provides them with a platform to keep themselves active and busy. It facilitates constant thought processing, thereby, increasing concentration.
Playing cooperative or team based multiplayer games “increases interactivity and helps in mood lifting”. It helps create bonds between players regardless of their health conditions. Who knows, they might actually come across another fellow gamer with the exact same physical condition.
Video gaming has so far been very advantageous for people, especially those with some form of mental or physical disability. Children with autism tend to open up more when exposed to video gaming culture, and adults with disabilities find it a great way to cope with the resulting stress that comes with their health issues. Video gaming cures bad-eye syndrome and greatly improves concentration among people with ADHD.
As I’ve stated in the very beginning, gaming is for everyone. Charitable organizations and game development companies are trying to make gaming more accessible to differently abled people. But we as gamers and as responsible global citizens should also take up small initiatives to do the same. We can spread awareness through social media or other platforms as to how gaming as habit, can help people with disabilities. If we really want the gaming community to be as diverse as possible, I believe the first step should be to educate people by ourselves; educate them about gaming and other related topics. Because every change that we want to bring about in the society, starts with us.