AbleGamers Foundation: Building A Pathway For All Gamers


Posted June 26, 2012 - By Cassandra Khaw

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Able Gamers' Editor-In-Chief, Steve Spohn, has fond memories of the creation of the Adroit Switchblade, a device that, while seemingly better suited for the company of the Atari 2600 than one of today’s slick machines, is widely regarded as one of the most accessible and cost-effective gaming controllers for the disabled in the market today.

"On the very first outing I ever did for the AbleGamers Foundation, there was an event where the participants had to come together to design a controller. I was teamed up with Ben Heck and Adam Coe. And, since I was the disabled gamer, we made a 'controller' that I could use. We only had a few hours to complete the process so it ended up being this bag of rice with some buttons Velcro’d to it.”

“Gaming magazines picked up on the MacGyver-like device and interviewed both Adam and I multiple times. Over the course of those interviews, Adam from Evil Controllers and the AbleGamers staff formed a solid friendship. We then embarked on a new endeavor together: The creation of a controller that people with muscular dystrophy could use to build their own rig for gaming."

"It's very interesting how life works. That event was silly and pretty much meaningless. It was never meant to be anything great, but it snowballed from something that was almost done as a teaching experiment into the catalyst for something that is now used to help people who have not gamed in years.”


According to AbleGamers Co-founder and President, Mark Barlet, the Adroit Switchblade was a dream that had been years in the making. "We had the idea of a controller that did most of what the Adroit does, but we did not have a way to create it. When Evil Controllers reached out to us and said, 'We want to make controllers for people with disabilities and we need help', it was like a dream come true. Evil Controllers have been doing great things with controllers and we wanted to help them with this one.”

"We worked with them for a few months. There were about four prototypes. The first one was still in a stock Xbox controller body and it was clear that was not going to work. But, after the fourth one was sent to us and we got a chance to play with it, I was almost in tears."

Though responsible for what is arguably one of the most commercially successful examples of assistive technology in the video game industry, AbleGamers have not been alone in their attempts to make life easier for disabled gamers.

"We have some very active hardware geniuses on our forums." Spohn explained happily, his words easily verified by even the most perfunctory examination of the forums and the website.

"Some of their ideas have even turned into articles on the front page because we thought they were good enough that more people should know about. Things like taking HID controller cards and soldering switches to them, re-purposing assistive technology, creative usage of pieces of cardboard, and so on.”

Even so, it appears as though human ingenuity is not infallible. Though attempts have been made to make things more accessible, motion-controlled gaming is still far from inclusive. Spohn cited an example: "Wii games are meant for people who want to be more physically active while playing video games, and being physically active is not a possibility for most disabled gamers with physical disabilities." Spohn said.

While less than enthused about devices like the Wii and the Kinect, neither Barlet nor Spohn seemed particularly concerned about their presences. Barlet called motion controllers 'that other thing over there'. "I worry about motion-controlled gaming, and the fact that it locks out many people with disabilities but at the same time, I don't have any fears that it is going to take over gaming as we know it."

On a more optimistic note, most developers have apparently been willing to make a change for the better, none more so than the indie community. “I love indie games. These people are so much more willing to incorporate accessibility options. There are so many examples that I just can't name them all. But, there are so many times when we have been at one of these events talking to indie game developers and asking why they do something a particular way, normally the answer is they never thought otherwise. But when we show them the reasoning behind incorporating an option to include something that would allow a fan to play a game they really want to play, they are often right on the ball."

Super Monday Night Combat Released On Steam On Accident; Dev Team Goes With It

Spohn recounted an experience with Super Monday Night Combat developers Uber Entertainment. "They incorporated two accessibility improvements within 72 hours of first contact. It takes weeks, if not months, to get the bigger developers to incorporate accessibility options.”

Nonetheless, regardless of how prepared the development team might be to make necessary modifications, certain genres do not lend well to the process. Spohn observed that first-person shooters were often the most difficult to make accessible, something he attributed to the number of buttons that need to be triggered at a rapid pace. "The more buttons that need to be addressed quickly, in succession or together, the more difficult it is to make the game accessible."

He noted that it is often easier assist those facing visual or hearing impairments. According to Spohn, visual cues, additional subtitling, closed-captioning, colorblind options, symbols and alternate color scheme are all elements that can be readily included in most games but supplementing the ability to press buttons and to press them quickly and efficiently? That's something else entirely.

Spohn illustrated his point by explaining how gamers who can only use one hand or are afflicted with an illness like muscular dystrophy are frequently limited to playing first-person shooters with only the mouse. "Games can be played successfully that way, but you are at a disadvantage because of the inability to do some of the things that people who can hit other buttons have the opportunity to do."

While few have complained about the addition of color-blind options, the same cannot be said about the enhancements that have been made for those dealing with physical disabilities. Macros, rapid fire, and aim assists are all things that have come under attack.

"Some people want games to be ridiculously hard so that only a small percentage can complete them and have some badge of honor saying that they once beat a particular game, but that doesn't help those people who have slow reaction time, difficulty moving, difficulty seeing or understanding." Spohn explained.

AbleGamers Foundation

But, is there cause for their concern? The short answer is yes. "In the wrong hands, things like this can be utilized in a negative way."

Nonetheless, their usefulness remains undeniable. “People who don't have repetitive stress injuries don't really NEED rapid fire ability while those that cannot physically button mash are delighted by rapid fire. Those who have the ability to push LT, the X button, and the analog stick simultaneously don't need the ability to use macros; but for the one-handed gamer, the ability to hit one button instead of three is paramount. Aim assists can be a lightning rod for complaints, but if you have cerebral palsy or Parkinson's and don't have the ability to steady your hand, computer-assisted gaming can be the difference between being able to see the end of your favorite RPG or not.”

Often, it’s not about making things easier, but giving players the tools to succeed. Disabled gamers are only looking for a chance, not the ending handed to them on a plate. And thanks to AbleGamers, that chance to enjoy what we often take for granted is just within reach for many more gamers.

AbleGamers Foundation: Building A Pathway For All Gamers


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