Urgent. Please respond.
I glance up as an e-mail from AbleGamers' Editor-In-Chief, Steve Spohn, quietly slips atop a growing pile of newsletters, press releases, and social media notifications. Curious, I click on it.
The message is brief but authoritative. Hi, G4 will be running our stories soon. This is Cassandra. She writes for them. She needs your answers today. Please respond ASAP. Thank you.
Whoa. No room for misinterpretation there. Within fifteen minutes of the first e-mail, a cordial apology (Had I even given them a due date? Are they going to think I'm some horrible slave driver now?) for a perceived lack of timeliness makes its way into my inbox. By the end of the day, I have all the answers I need. Were people supposed to be this efficient?
Asides from being a tightly run ship, AbleGamers is the largest community for disabled gamers on the Internet. Founded by Stephanie Walker and Mark Barlet, this nonprofit organization has been responsible for designing peripherals, curating the biggest repository of accessibility-driven video game views on the World Wide Web, and a variety of other nifty things, all in line with their goal of bringing greater accessibility to the digital entertainment space. Most of all, they've been making a difference.
AbleGamers Article: A History of Accomplishing the Impossible
When I asked the crew about their best memories of working with AbleGamers, their co-founder and president Mark Barlet sent me a photograph of a little girl in an orange shirt along with his answer. She looks almost impossibly happy. You could probably use that smile of hers to fuel a small solar power plant. In the picture, her hands are lightly rested on what resembles the controls for a gaming console from the 70s.
“We got a request from a father who was looking to get a controller for his daughter once,” AbleGamers co-founder and president Mark Barlet tells me in the e-mail. “His little girl had cerebral palsy and as the condition progressed, she was finding it harder and harder to play the video games that her little brother and dad would play. She needed a controller, one that was not cheap so we contacted our friends over at Quasimoto, the makers of the AXIS controller she needed. They were able to work with us, and we got her a controller that game just before Christmas.”
Both Lauren, the happy recipient of the gift, and her mother had responded with letters of gratitude. “Thank you so much for the new Quasimoto controller. It has enabled me to play all the games that my dad and little brother enjoy. I hope that you and the AbleGamers Foundation can continue to help people like me.”
People like me. It's a powerful refrain. For many of the volunteers at AbleGamers, it is probably one of the most important phrases in their line of work. AbleGamers' Lead Writer Rob McCaulley says that he relishes being able to open closed eyes to what 'people like him' have had to deal with since the moment they first laid hands on a joystick.
“I have mixed Cerebral Palsy and Optic Atrophy. Both have been detrimental to my gaming in different ways. My CP really only impacts my gameplay by not really allowing me to quickly tap buttons for over, maybe, 2 seconds but my OA, on the other hand, has me sitting less than a foot away from a 26-inch TV. Did I happen to mention I'm legally blind too? Yeah. I also have trouble with colors if they're too similar. Fun stuff.”
Life hasn't been easy for McCaulley. “I don't think I have the luxury of having a favorite or least favorite genre anymore. I like action games, but more often than not, they're the ones that want to screw me over by utilizing some mechanic my body just doesn't agree with like QTE type stuff or, in rarer cases, things I can't do due to visual limitations.”
With the growing prevalence of HD graphics, increasing complexity of gameplay mechanics, and rumors of his enjoyment of the medium has declined even further. “My future as a [console] gamer seems bleak.”
According to McCaulley, console gaming is a 'black hole of playability' for disabled gamers. “Yes, there are usually a few options to increase playability but they do not exist on a consistent basis. If you were a hearing impaired gamer, would it matter to you if you were able to read the subtitles provided to you or would you just be happy in having them there? Are you the type to say 'Oh well, they forgot about me again - maybe next game'? That's the mentality a disabled console gamer has to have at this moment.”
And that's what AbleGamers is championing against: that sense of exclusion currently being experienced by the demographic. Johnny Richardson is a game developer, the Director of Industry Outreach for AbleGamers and one of the people responsible for spreading the idea of increased accessibility in video games to fellow developers.
”I have been making games, in addition to a variety of web experiences, and working as a contractor and consultant off for several years now. In doing so, I have built a pretty decent network of fellow developers. So, one of the things I do for AbleGamers is leverage that and bring some of them into our dialogue and help them understand how to make their games more accessible. I’m not just talking on a conceptual level, but also a practical, and sometimes technical level as well.”
“Just as an example, this year at PAX East, we connected with a variety of developers who were very interested in our goals. Since then I have been following up constantly with many of them, helping integrate some of our ideas into their development. Whether it’s setting them up with best practices for their platform or genre, or providing general feedback, I am here to help.”
- AbleGamers Article: Building A Pathway For All Gamers
While it has not been easy, Richardson explains that almost 'everyone on their bandwagon' has been excited about game accessibility. “They share the belief that it is a great avenue for innovation, a way of increasing quality, improving player engagement or just the right thing to do.”
The hardest part, unsurprisingly, has been teaching able-bodied people to wrap their minds around the idea of it can be like to live without full command of their physical faculties. “When you think about it, it’s easy to see the disconnect. Even if an able-bodied gamer has disabled friends, family, etc., they may have simply never thought about it before. It may not always be a part of our daily gaming discourse, as it should be.”
“One of my goals is to always show that building in accessibility does not need to be a complex task.” Richardson goes on to explain. “There are very simple things that developers can do just during their thought process that greatly affect accessibility. In my opinion, it rarely requires a lot technical grunt work, and usually it results in a more refined product for all of their players, not just those with special needs. And it’s infinitely easier than trying to rig your gameplay up for better accessibility when you’re mid-way through or nearing Gold status on a project.”
Regardless of the hurdles faced, Richardson seems more than content with the work that he has been doing on behalf of the company. He tells me of positive stories from the indie development community where companies have been thanked for their accessibility options and of how even high-level executives are slowly growing more receptive to his evangelism.
“It's been an eye-opening experience working with the AbleGamers Foundation.” Matt Hladky is one of the volunteers at AbleGamers. Unlike some of the others working with the nonprofit, he is not disabled. “There are some many day-to-day activities we all take for granted, but I really never considered my ability to play video games as one of them. Through my experiences with the Foundation and my interactions with disabled gamers, I've come to realize how much joy the simple act of playing a video game with friends can be for someone with a disability who, until recently, was unable to do so. “