The game becomes more accessible to people with disabilities

For Steve Spohn, who needs a ventilator to breathe and lacks the strength to propel his wheelchair, video games have virtually changed his life.

Spohn, 41, has spinal muscular atrophy. His body doesn’t make protein; his spine “does not send messages to [his] muscles,” he said. The effect is a slow but sure stop.

He was only 9 years old when he lost the ability to breathe on his own and switched to a ventilator. At age 10, her arms could no longer push her wheelchair. The physical world presented more obstacles with each passing year.

“For me, gambling was always an equalizer when I couldn’t go and do any activity that was popular,” he said.

Xbox believes there is 400 million players around the world, like Spohn, disabled, and it has taken steps to make its hardware and software more accessible. While advocates often find the virtual world more accessible than the one outdoors, they say tech companies need to do more to capture the estimated $2 billion market for gamers with disabilities.

There are many aspects that go into accessible gaming, from physical hardware to software and game design, and Xbox is trying to figure out where its customers with disabilities are running into barriers, said Kaitlyn Jones, a Wayne native and responsible of the Xbox Game Accessibility Program. .

Instead of venturing into the physical world, where he was “faced with deadly foes like stairs”, Pittsburgh resident Spohn met his friends through games such as Ultima Online, a massive fantasy and multiplayer that aims to get closer to real life with a vast landscape – and provides dozens of people to meet.

When his arms became too tired to press the buttons on his computer keyboard, Spohn switched to games that “mostly used a mouse”. When he couldn’t use a mouse anymore, he switched to a high-tech hat.

“I have an infrared hat that I use to operate most of my computer’s functions – it’s called Track IR,” he said. “It was originally used by Microsoft flight simulator players to look around a cockpit and give them 360 degree control of their view.”

He realized he could use the controller in any game. The hat communicates with a device above his computer screen that allows him to select functions on a virtual keyboard.

“My favorite game these days is Rocket League,” said Spohn, senior director of development at the Able Gamers Foundation, a nonprofit that works on accessibility designs with companies like Microsoft and everyone else. who love the game as much as he does.

About 1 billion people worldwide identify as having a disability, according to the World Health Organization. Spohn’s group includes advisors and engineers ready to point them towards suitable resources and gear – anything they can do to open up the game world.

Xbox invited the group to participate in the design of its adaptive controller. The Obama administration invited Able Gamers to the White House to hear his thoughts on gaming and accessibility. Most recently, the group was asked to weigh in on Batgirl’s disability backstory for an upcoming video game based on “The Batman” movie.

Customize colors and adjust contrast

In recent years, people with disabilities have “pushed forward,” Spohn said, and made greater strides than ever. He attributes this to the visibility of celebrities with disabilities in various fields, including actor Steve Way, who has muscular dystrophy, and comedian Zach Anner, who has cerebral palsy.

“Now you have people with disabilities taking over in these different sectors, and we’re all helping the same cause,” Spohn said. “It may seem like a pie in the sky to say that we all work together, but somehow we are. We all make people realize that disability is something to pay attention to.

Steve Spohn plays video games from his bed using special devices designed for people with disabilities.  He uses his mouse to control both the game and a small keyboard application on his monitor.

Anita Mortaloni, director of accessibility at Xbox, agrees. Accessibility in games has made greater strides recently, and positions at large companies that focus on accessibility have become more prominent, she said.

Xbox drafted accessibility guidelines in 2019 outlining tweaks to make the game more accessible, such as ways to customize colors and adjust contrast, making game menus more usable for people with vision loss. The company has also allowed gamers to remap the buttons on its controllers so people with limited mobility can reassign functions to buttons that are easier to reach.

Expand their efforts to players who face other obstacles, the company released mental health guidelines in May.

“One in five American adults suffers from mental illness – anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, PTSD,” Mortaloni said. “The intent of these guidelines was for players to be aware of game content” before being exposed to things that could act as sanity triggers, she said, citing survival game Grounded. for example. “In Grounded, if you don’t like spiders, know that there are and you can put it in Arachnophobia mode, which removes the spiders’ legs and makes them a little less scary.”

The company also hires people with disabilities, including Jones, the Wayne native, who said her own disabilities include chronic pain, autoimmune and mental health issues. Before joining Xbox, she was an occupational therapist and ran a nonprofit with her father. Wayne-based Warfighter Engaged creates custom gamepads for veterans with disabilities.


Jones and Mortaloni spend their days trying to amplify the voices of the disabled gaming community and capitalize on its feedback.

“We have livestream events for different members of the disability community where they support our Xbox livestream Twitch channel,” Jones said. “There they can talk about their gaming experiences as a disabled person.”

The Xbox Accessibility Insider’s League currently has 168,000 members, Mortaloni said. This link, found on console home pages, allows customers to provide feedback directly to engineers.

These efforts are paying off, Spohn said.

Microsoft, which created and owns the Xbox gaming brand, is “at the forefront of helping people with disabilities,” he said, adding that Microsoft, Logitech and Sony, which makes PlayStation, have the heart “in the right place”.

Video games fall outside the scope of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) was signed into law in 2010 by the Obama administration. It requires that “communications services and products be accessible,” but the law was drafted with television and email in mind.

“Do we need an ADA for video games? I prefer to see the industry come because it should, not because it has to,” Spohn said. “The video game world operates under peer pressure and people yell at companies over and over again. Someone may not have the financial motivation to install a ramp, but a video game company wants the money available to people with disabilities, then she’s going to offer options, if not for a good reason, just because she wants the money.”

Always below

There are two key areas where companies are still lacking, Spohn said. First, customers need to know if a game contains subtitles. Can the gameplay be customized so that it doesn’t trigger PTSD? Can menus be displayed with high contrast?

“The industry struggles to deliver accessibility information when a game launches, so people can make informed decisions about buying the video game,” Spohn said.

There are a few exceptions, and although sites such as DAGERSystem try to remedy the problem by looking at the accessibility of games, labeling is not happening at all levels, Spohn said. Players have to rely on friends who have purchased the games or hope accessibility features are mentioned in a streamer’s review.

Mortaloni said Xbox is aware of the issue and has started tagging accessibility features in its games for its online store.

The other recurring flaw is that the representation of people with disabilities in video games leaves a lot to be desired, advocates say.

Steve Spohn's monitor with the Team Fight Tactics game running.

In many storylines, characters portrayed with disabilities often play the role of the villain, Spohn said.

“He’s mad at the world and his disability is the reason he’s a bad person,” Spohn said. “They want to hurt the world because the world has been cruel to them. It turns you into a bad guy and you want to burn it all down.”

Diversity in Games analyzes inclusion in games and finds that physical disabilities, such as amputees, burn victims, and characters in wheelchairs, are more common than nuanced issues, such as anxiety and depression. Also, during play, the goal is often to fix or fix a handicap.

The idea that people with disabilities are broken and need fixing – a concept known as the medical model of disability – was rejected and abandoned in the 1970s, but it still persists in media and games, often in through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics, said Ian Hamilton, an accessibility expert who writes for the site.

“Furthermore, games are often guilty of perpetuating the myth that a disability is rare,” Hamilton said, “with all the impact that has on wider prejudice and discrimination.”

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