When you think of someone playing video games, you might immediately picture a person casually sitting on their couch or at their desk pounding away at the buttons of a controller or keyboard. You might think that all they had to do was turn the game on, instantly becoming lost in a digital world. But for many gamers, playing video games can come with obstacles you’ve probably never even considered.
Chris Robinson has faced some of those obstacles. He’s been playing video games ever since he was a kid, when he picked up the controller to his brother’s Nintendo system and began playing Super Mario Bros. 3. Now Robinson shares his passion for gaming on the live video streaming website Twitch with the hope of raising awareness for a specific community: deaf gamers.
Robinson, who goes by “Phoenix” online, has severe hearing loss in his right ear and is completely deaf in his left. He started the DeafGamersTV Twitch channel last year with his friend Brandon, who is also a deaf gamer. The idea for something like this channel came about years ago when the friends played a video game with no subtitles back in college. This sparked a discussion about how cool it would be to spread awareness about deaf gamers.
“DeafGamersTV has only one goal on Twitch and that’s to spread deaf awareness through gaming. We want to show that not being able to hear the game doesn’t mean you can’t play the game. We can still enjoy gaming one way or another,” Robinson told me in an email interview.
For hearing impaired gamers, features like subtitles can be extremely helpful and an essential tool to playing a game. It probably seems like an easy feature to include with a game these days too, but unfortunately the inclusion of this and other accessibility features can still vary. To Robinson, there is a lot that can be improved right now about the current state of game accessibility.
“It’s good we have some subtitles in games, but it seems like it’s not always there or it’s badly done. For example a game like Remember Me has really small text for their subtitles and I like to sit back when I game, but having to get up and get close to my screen just to read the subtitles, that’s very poor work,” he said. “Most gaming trailers still don’t have subtitles where we can not understand what’s going on or [have] to find someone to transcribe what is happening in the trailer or any spoken moments in the game. It would be nice if the developers can start thinking more creative for the hearing impaired gamers.”
Hearing impaired gamers are just one segment of the gaming community that is still facing challenges when playing video games. Those who are visually impaired, motion impaired, or cognitive impaired also still face barriers that need to be addressed.
Luckily in addition to gamers trying to raise awareness there are also a number of organizations trying to make a difference. Over the last decade Mark Barlet, founder of the AbleGamers Charity, has observed some improvements in accessibility. Barlet started AbleGamers after his lifelong friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which two years later took away the use of her right hand. As adults they had used video games to stay connected. Barlet said that seeing this tool taken away was tragic, and he began looking for ways he could help his friend continue to game. But he didn’t find anything all that useful.
“We kind of took this as a calling that maybe if our family was looking for stuff then there’s probably other people with disabilities who are also facing these same challenges. We started a website with the initial idea of ‘if we build it they will come’ and [to] just be a safe space for people with disabilities to exchange ideas, and the mission just grew from there because the need really went from just a safe space to ‘I’ve got nothing, where do I start,’” he said.
When the charity began in 2004, Barlet said they’d ask a video game developer or company about their thoughts on accessibility and blank stares or fear would often greet them. Now that’s changed and they’re seeing more companies making honest efforts to make sure their games can be accessible to everyone. According to AbleGamers chief operations officer Steve Spohn, some developers and companies now approach them asking for help to make their games inclusive.
Once a game is reviewed by one of their experts, they’ll tell the company what can be better and how it can be improved according to their game accessibility guidelines, dubbed “Includification”. These guidelines easily break down accessibility into three levels. Barlet said the first level features “are really accessible right now, cover about 80 percent of the population that we’re trying to cover, and are technically feasible in just about every game.” For example, a level one feature for mobility is being able to remap keys and buttons on controllers, helpful for players who can’t reach or use certain parts of a gamepad. Another level one feature is color-blind options.
If the AbleGamers community is asking if a game is accessible and the company has not reached out to the organization, then AbleGamers will get a copy. If it has issues, they’ll reach out and let the developer know they should consider increasing its accessibility. Spohn said they have a stigma problem with some in the industry thinking they’re trying to police game development, when really AbleGamers wants companies to know that they are their allies and just want to make gaming better for everyone.
“We want to get you more sales and we want to sell more players to your game. We want to help you, there’s nothing about it that wants to hurt you in any way,” Spohn said. “At the same time there are publishers like Nintendo that just flat out refuse to work with us. Don’t answer our calls, don’t answer our emails, don’t give us review copies, they just don’t want to be reviewed or thought of or even on the playing field of accessibility. There [are] other ones like EA [Electronic Arts] and Paradox and Harmonix that do really great and they come to us all the time and say ‘hey what can we do better?’ So you have the ying and the yang unfortunately.”
When I requested an interview with Nintendo to discuss video game accessibility, a representative responded that the company was not able to participate in this story.
FUN FOR EVERYONE
In addition to AbleGamers there are other groups trying to raise awareness and make a difference, like SpecialEffects and the Game Accessibility Project. There is also another set of game accessibility guidelines that breaks accessibility into basic, intermediate and advanced categories. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) also has a game accessibility special interest group.
Game developer 7-128 Software, which has worked with the IGDA special interest group, is passionate about accessibility and creating accessible games. They use a rating system for their games to easily explain their accessibility and also compile helpful lists of accessibility websites.
“Every year we review English speaking websites around the world that offer games or reviews of games or community support groups for gamers and we rank them in four categories: for the industry in general, for blind, for motion impaired, and for deaf. Then each of the reviews has got quite a bit of information about the website and links to go there so if somebody needs to find out about the industry and what games are available, that sort of thing, it’s the best place to go,” said John Bannick, 7-128 Software’s chief technology officer.
Such a community online for game accessibility didn’t exist when 7-128 Software started in 2007, according to Bannick. It’s an area in accessibility he’s seen improve over the years, just like increased industry advocacy through groups like AbleGamers and more technical improvements from computer software manufacturers like Apple.
Accessibility is an area that if improved would help the entire gaming community. It’s not just those who are impaired that might want to use these features, and even if gamers aren’t born with an impairment, they might develop one due to a disease later on in life, like Barlet’s friend with MS. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 27 percent of American gamers are 50 or older. Eleanor Robinson, chief operating officer of 7-128 Software, also pointed out that the U.S. census states more than 50 percent of those 65 and older have at least one disability. If you want to keep playing games when you’re older but your hearing starts to diminish, you’ll find those subtitles and closed captioning features useful too.
Increasing accessibility in video games will make a difference in the lives of countless individuals. Bannick has witnessed firsthand how accessible games can make an impact.
“We just released a game for blind Chinese orphans…we have a game for infants, Here Comes The Duck!, that is animal noises and such. [An orphanage in Beijing] called us and said ‘hey can you do that in Chinese?’ We said ‘hey, if you can translate it we can do it.’ So this year we shipped Here Comes The Duck!, which is playable by blind two-year-old Chinese orphans,” he said. “One of the coolest things in the world when we first shipped this game, the English version, [is] a mother sent us a photograph of her little boy Ivan, who was two, and Ivan sitting on her lap…He’s sitting on her lap in front of the computer, he’s playing our game, and he’s laughing.”
How games can make a difference is clear to Barlet, the AbleGamers founder, who recently visited a college and learned firsthand just how many students play video games.
“The idea that universally all of them gamed is the key, because being disabled can sometimes be very alienating and very isolating,” he said. “I know people who are isolated in a crowd because of their disability. We teach kids, and I think we’re changing this, but we teach kids not to stare and things like that when we see people with disabilities in our public space. But [what] kids really get from that is ‘don’t engage.’ Video games are so important because if I have a classmate who has a disability but I found out we both play the same game all of a sudden we have something in common that we can talk about.”
Barlet thinks it’s great that inside games everyone’s ability is the same. To Spohn, this level playing field of gaming gives disabled gamers “a window into an otherwise inaccessible world.”
“Really the message behind that is that if you’re somebody who is trapped in a body that’s not willing with a mind that is able and you’re stuck in a facility or a bed or a hospital or a room or wherever you are and you just can’t interact with society like quote unquote everybody else does, then gaming can allow you an access point to that socialization,” Spohn said. “Personally I have a form of muscular dystrophy called SMA, spinal muscular atrophy. It makes my muscles slowly waste away and for a large portion of our audience they are in the same predicament where you can’t go out and throw a football, but you can pick up a controller or use assistive technology and throw a football in a video game with your friends.”
That sense of community gaming can provide is something Robinson is continuing to create through his work for deaf gamers. He wants to continue to raise awareness for the deaf and offer a place for deaf gamers to come together and enjoy gaming with others.
“For those who [are] wondering why accessibility in video games should be important [it] is because no one wants to be left out from enjoying something. We all need to think about the possibilities out there, hearing impaired, vision impaired, colorblindness, and maybe more out there that I may not know about. It feels somewhat harsh saying this but if you’re a game developer and your children or family [had] a disability and they love to play video games too, [wouldn’t] it be nice to be able to make a game they can enjoy too? Let’s try to not leave anyone out,” Robinson said.
It’s something to keep in mind the next time you pick up a controller or watch a friend play a video game. Increasing accessibility can help enrich the entire gaming community and ensure that no matter who you are, you can always enjoy games.
Lisa Granshaw is a freelance writer based in New York City. She writes about pop culture, video games, entertainment, and a variety of topics for multiple websites and magazines. You can follow her on Twitter @LisaGranshaw.
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