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CMeet the or­gan­i­sa­tions and de­vel­op­ers who are sup­port­ing dis­abled play­ers

ar­los Vasquez can hold his own against the very best Mor­tal Kom­bat play­ers in the world. He com­petes in tour­na­ments and reached the fi­nals of his pool at EVO 2013, de­spite hav­ing be­ing ren­dered blind by closed-an­gle glau­coma. Vasquez has mem­o­rised the game’s combos, along with their au­dio cues, so he can play at the high­est level us­ing only what he hears.

Vasquez and many oth­ers are in­dica­tive of the in­clu­sive­ness of gam­ing as a hobby – take League Of Leg­ends player Keith ‘Aieron’ Knight, whose mus­cu­lar dys­tro­phy forces him to use his face and feet in lieu of his hands. Even so, there’s an ac­ces­si­bil­ity gulf be­tween the mass­mar­ket game and dis­abled play­ers.

Xbox One and PlayS­ta­tion 4 cur­rently rate “some­where be­tween apoc­a­lyp­tic and hor­ri­ble” for ac­ces­si­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to Steve Spohn, the COO of ad­vo­cacy group AbleGamers. The ma­jor prob­lem, he ex­plains, is that cus­tom con­troller sup­port is bare­boned on Xbox One and nonex­is­tent on PS4, mean­ing that none of the pe­riph­er­als pop­u­lar among phys­i­cally im­paired play­ers work.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion counts over one bil­lion people as suf­fer­ing from some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 mil­lion have some de­gree of ‘pro­found’ im­pair­ment. Most of these bil­lion-plus, Spohn says, “only need a lit­tle help, such as remap­ping con­trols or maybe one de­vice that helps them use an additional in­put”. A re­turn­ing sol­dier who lost one of his arms, or a stroke vic­tim left numb on one side, might be eas­ily en­abled with a foot pedal. AbleGamers and char­ity Spe­cialEf­fect try to step in with per­son­alised so­lu­tions that al­low dis­abled play­ers to en­joy their favourite games even if they can’t hold a con­troller or see what’s on­screen. But in most cases, smart de­vel­op­ment is a bet­ter so­lu­tion than cus­tom pe­riph­er­als.

Last year, Brian Sch­midt turned his 25 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in de­sign­ing au­dio sys­tems and com­pos­ing sound­tracks for games to de­vel­op­ing a ti­tle for the vis­ually im­paired. Ear Mon­sters en­tered a blos­som­ing genre of au­dio games on iOS, where it was met warmly af­ter a few kinks were ironed out. “I naïvely thought that if I played with a blind­fold or cov­ered the screen,” says Sch­midt, “that I would be able to em­u­late the blind player ex­pe­ri­ence. I was wrong.”

Sch­midt had the screen au­to­mat­i­cally ro­tate so that it could never be upside down, but this left many blind play­ers com­plain­ing that the game was back­wards, be­cause they of­ten tilt the screen away from them or place the de­vice on their lap. Blind play­ers also strug­gled to fig­ure out the po­ten­tial monster po­si­tions, rep­re­sented for sighted play­ers by small cir­cles on the screen. Sch­midt learned and added tu­to­rial hints in the game’s VoiceOver mode.

The only way to ac­count for these kinds of prob­lems is to get people with dis­abil­i­ties in as testers, he says. Which is ex­actly what Lind­say Lauters Miller is try­ing to do at Cas­tle Crash­ers de­vel­oper The Be­he­moth, where she heads user ex­pe­ri­ence and test­ing. “Re­cruit­ment is al­ways a lit­tle tricky,” she says, “but

The steps to make gam­ing more in­clu­sive are mi­nor, and colour­blind modes are just the start

we’ve had a lot of suc­cess with get­ting people to come in via word of mouth and by part­ner­ing with dif­fer­ent game-re­lated clubs and or­gan­i­sa­tions in San Diego.”

Miller’s in­vest­ment is per­sonal: her hus­band’s mo­tor im­pair­ments make it dif­fi­cult for him to han­dle a con­troller in a pre­cise way, so she con­sults the web­site gameac­ces­si­bil­i­tyguide­lines.com as well as AbleGamers’ ‘In­clud­i­fi­ca­tion’ doc­u­ment when com­pil­ing user test re­ports.

Fol­low­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity guide­lines has knock-on ben­e­fits for ev­ery­one, too. “What’s an im­pass­able bar­rier for some­one with an im­pair­ment is usu­ally still a bit of a bar­rier for ev­ery­one else,” Ian Hamil­ton, a con­sul­tant and for­mer BBC se­nior de­signer, ex­plains. “You can’t mess with a game’s core me­chanic; if you do that, you’ve made the essence of the game in­ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one, but most ac­ces­si­bil­ity guide­lines are sim­ply good game de­sign that ben­e­fits all play­ers.”

Spohn agrees. “If you have a tu­to­rial that’s hor­ri­ble,” he says, “then you’re not only shun­ning the people who have cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ties, you’re [also] shun­ning ev­ery­one who doesn’t just want to pick up the game and go.”

For hard­ware and soft­ware de­vel­op­ers, the steps nec­es­sary to make gam­ing more in­clu­sive are mostly mi­nor, and colour-blind modes and sub­ti­tles are just the start. Im­pair­ment can strike through ac­ci­dent, ill­ness or age, and ac­ces­si­ble de­sign, where pos­si­ble, is an in­vest­ment that could one day be more per­son­ally ben­e­fi­cial than any young de­signer may yet re­alise. “Gam­ing has be­come a ther­apy,” Spohn says, “and this kind of ac­ces­si­bil­ity has be­come a qual­ity-of-life is­sue more than an en­ter­tain­ment is­sue.”

From top: con­sul­tant Ian Hamil­ton, AbleGamers’ Steve Spohn, and The Be­he­moth’s Lind­say Lauters Miller

The Mor­tal Kom­bat se­ries is huge in the blind gam­ing com­mu­nity be­cause of its ex­cep­tional au­dio de­sign

The AbleGamers Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Ar­cade (above) put ac­ces­si­bil­ity on dis­play with a va­ri­ety of cus­tom con­trollers. Brian Sch­midt’s Ear Mon­sters (above right) joins Papa San­gre and Co­de­name Cygnus in the swelling ranks of iOS au­dio games. Puzzle Re­treat’s (right) iOS and An­droid per­for­mance owes much to the in­clu­sive de­sign phi­los­o­phy of The Voxel Agents

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