If society’s attitudes towards disability have ‘matured’ over recent years, the same can also be said for the video games community’s. There’s now a growing body of people in the industry, in government, and in the general public pushing for greater access to games. It’s an important battle, not just for the principle of equality, but because for many with disabilities (15% of the UK, rising to 20% amongst casual gamers) video games provide an invaluable avenue to experience freedoms and activities denied in the physical world.
At a grass roots level efforts to improve accessibility are budding through charities. Indeed, a remarkable UK organisation, SpecialEffect, was set up eight years ago to help severely disabled people play video games, and has gone from strength to strength. Dr Mick Donegan, the charity’s founder, explains that: “At the heart of the charity is a determination to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to help each individual. We don’t charge for the work we do… Anyone, anywhere in the UK can ask us for help and, if appropriate, we’ll buy and lend the necessary video games and access technology to try out for themselves.”
A typical example of someone who has benefited from Special Effect’s work is a young boy named Ben who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and never thought he’d be able to play a video game. By connecting a selection of light touch interfaces to a PlayStation 3, Special Effect saw to it that Ben could play a whole selection of titles such as Gran Turismo, FIFA, Dirt3 and Minecraft; “It’s good because I get the same amount of fun as they [the other kids] do. I can do everything on it and it’s amazing!”,reported Ben.
Special Effect has received much admiration, including from the UK Prime Minister himself. David Cameron beamed, “As someone who spent six years bringing up a severely disabled child, when you find something that makes them feel included, it’s a magic moment. What Mick and his team do is provide magic moments all the time.”
Efforts are also being made to create accessible games from the ground up – reducing the need for challenging post-production adaptations. The developer PopCap has been praised for its work in this area. Its Peggle game series includes a special mode for those who suffer from colour blindness; similar additions have been put into the Call of Duty franchise, too. There is also a growing body of people dedicated to helping game developers make their titles as accessible as possible. One such outfit, AbleGamers, offers advice to game designers in the US in order to aid them in maximising accessibility. Similarly, the creators of the games accessibility guidelines in the UK offer step by step guides for developers, arguing that with their help video games can act as “therapy, pain relief, escapism and independence.” A bold statement, but when you look at the results it’s impossible to disagree.