Enabling fun: how an online community is supporting AbleGamers to increase accessibility in gaming

Picture: AbleGamers
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AbleGamers COO Steven Spohn is working with the global gaming community to enable play for people with disabilities, and game developers are starting to take part. Emily Spindler-Carruthers reports. This is part 1 of a two-part series

In 2004, Mark Barlet watched as a friend’s multiple sclerosis began to interfere with her ability to use a mouse, leaving her unable to game the way they always had.

He decided to make sure nobody with a disability would have to miss out on the joy and friendship that comes with video games. And so Barlet founded the AbleGamers charity.

Almost two decades later, US live-streaming platform Twitch is donating $1 million to AbleGamers, joining a growing list of companies and individuals in the gaming community helping them to make video games accessible for people with disabilities. Giving access is both about the game’s development and software, as well as external hardware.

With one in five Australians estimated to have a disability, the games industry is finally beginning to recognise the financial and cultural benefits of making gaming accessible to disabled audiences.

AbleGamers creates and grants customised equipment for people with disabilities around the globe.

The charity’s COO Steven Spohn, an avid gamer with a disability, was in his early 20s when he connected with the AbleGamers CEO Mark Barlet, when the group was just starting out.

He says he realised “helping people is kind of more important than helping yourself”.

Steven Spohn responds to the news that Twitch is donating $1 million to AbleGamers.

Spohn says with so many potential players with disabilities around the globe, there are “billions of dollars of funding that gamers with disabilities have to contribute … and game companies are finally recognising that”.

AbleGamers uses a mix of assistive technologies to create setups customised to individual needs, such as eye-tracking technology or adaptive controllers for those with limited mobility.

Enabling fun: how an online community is supporting AbleGamers to increase accessibility in gaming
A young child in a wheelchair uses assistive technology to play a video game. Picture: AbleGamers

Providing people with disabilities with assistive technology involves consultation to assess their needs and desires, and working out “how to bridge the gap between the two”.

Custom equipment is often unique to one player. Spohn says it’s not the “’order No.6 off the menu’ process that people might like it to be.”

Demand for their work is so high their wait time is 12 months.

While adaptive hardware provides opportunities for more people to game than ever before, including accessibility in software and game development is equally vital.

Equipping the next generation of game developers

Morgan Baker is a d/Deaf accessibility consultant and game designer, and says accessibility in gaming “evens the playing field, and provides disabled gamers [with] an equally fun and engaging player experience”.

“There is a famous expression: accessibility needs to be baked into the game, not sprinkled on top,” she says.

Including accessibility in the final stage of production is like an afterthought, she said, and that it “needs to be considered as early in the development cycle as possible”.

On top of providing assistive technology for gamers with disabilities, AbleGamers also runs their Accessible Player Experiences program (APX), which aims to teach developers how to develop games with an accessibility mindset.

Spohn says the potential impact of the APX program on the industry is huge.

“We have 113 APX practitioners that graduated [in 2020], and that doesn’t sound like a big number. But when you think about it, that’s 113 different developers at different studios throughout the industry that are now designing with accessibility options coming into play,” he says.

Keelin Foley, a wheelchair user and a lifelong gamer, says accessibility in games “gives us reason to keep going, and [shows] that people are thinking of us and want to keep us as a part of their community”.

The increase in game developers creating games with accessibility in mind makes her “immensely happy”.

“To finally see that we are being recognised in the gaming community is very humbling,” she says.

Enabling fun: how an online community is supporting AbleGamers to increase accessibility in gaming
Picture: Microsoft

AbleGamers and the Xbox Adaptive Controller

The work AbleGamers does can be expensive, depending on the assistive technology needed. The average cost to get someone playing video games is $US$350, but can go up to US$5000 for highly specialised equipment.

Assistive technology for gamers with disabilities continues to get more financially accessible as major companies take notice.

Recently, the charity worked with Microsoft to create the first party Xbox Adaptive Controller after being contacted about the adaptive controller they created for the Xbox 360 almost a decade ago, the Adroit Switchblade.

This is a big step forward, as gaming consoles have often lagged behind when it comes to hardware accessibility compared to PC setups which by nature have the ability for key remapping and peripherals.

Combating social isolation through gaming

While their work involves enabling play for disabled gamers, AbleGamers is also working to use fun combat social isolation and exclusion for the people they work with.

Spohn says people often underestimate the value of fun and playing games.

“We all want to be comforted. We all want to have fun and feel good, and playing with other friends and family members brings that comfort and fun … it’s a basic human need,” he says.

AbleGamers is always improving and expanding the assistive technologies they use, from trying to create equipment that can “include more people, whatever it takes”, to working around the challenge of ensuring their technology is compatible with new generation console releases.

Enabling fun: how an online community is supporting AbleGamers to increase accessibility in gaming
A woman with prosthesis arm getting new experience using a gamepad at home. Picture: Adobe Stock.

The power of community

Online communities have had a major impact on accessibility in gaming, but also on the work that AbleGamers is able to do and continue doing.

Spohn says grassroots-funding efforts by the gaming community are absolutely vital in enabling them to keep changing lives.

“If a streamer gives up their stream to do a charity stream, they’re not earning money that day. How many other professions in the world can you imagine someone saying ‘I’m not going to get paid today, I’m going to give it to charity’?”

“I think we owe a lot to the community itself for getting us where we are now, where we’re able to enable players with disabilities,” he says.

Charity streaming team Good4Gaming is one of the many groups in the community working to support and fundraise for AbleGamers.

The team says the charity’s mission resonates with them because members of their community with disabilities rely on adaptive technology to experience the joy of gaming, so it was an easy choice to support them through fundraising.

Over the past four years, they’ve raised about US$21,000 for the charity, and say the community supporting their endeavours is what has made their mission so successful.

Changing attitudes

Spohn says he hopes the gaming industry will continue to recognise the importance of accessibility and including gamers from minority communities.

He says evidence of the shift in the gaming industry can be in part attributed to increased visibility of gamers with disabilities on social media platforms such as Twitch, Youtube and Facebook, as well as players reaching out directly to publishers to ask for accessibility.

“It’s something that happens suddenly and slowly, and I think it’s got to continue on that same way,” he says.

Enabling fun: how an online community is supporting AbleGamers to increase accessibility in gaming
COO of AbleGamers Steven Spohn (right) is working to enable fun for all gamers. Picture: AbleGamers.

“[The game industry needs to] realise that all of us want to play games, and all of us want to play the same games as everyone else.”

When AbleGamers attended their first game developers conference in the early 2000s, they asked the crowd one simple question: have you ever thought about designing games for people with disabilities?

A majority of the crowd said no, and one attendee laughed and walked away.

Since AbleGamers, was founded game developers globally are starting to say yes to that question. As games continue to become more accessible to millions of gamers with disabilities, it’s finally starting to show.