Are Gaming Platforms Becoming Less Accessible to the Disabled?

Gaming should be an activity everyone can experience, if only to escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. Whether you prefer casual games or something a bit more involved, being able to play has long been an important focus of the gaming industry… at least until now.

Kinect, Wiimotes, and the PlayStation Move controller are just a few examples of how game design is heading in a new direction, and some dedicated players are beginning to feel left out of the fun.

Andrew Epperson, a member of the Gnomies community and a friend to many of us here at LockerGnome, can only sit on the sidelines and watch as the games he loves move away from traditional controllers and towards movement-based play.

Andrew has spastic cerebral palsy, a common and debilitating form of cerebral palsy that limits his ability to move considerably. Andrew asked in a recent email, “Why aren’t these companies paying attention to the accessibility of their consoles when often times consoles are used for rehabilitation and building skills in children with disabilities?”

What’s the Problem?

Simply being in a wheelchair or limited mobility position doesn’t exclude you from many of the most popular titles currently available for gaming consoles. There are, however, a growing number of popular games that are moving away from traditional controllers in favor of this new movement craze that’s changing the way people interact with their digital selves on screen.

In the past, companies have been able to develop controllers that interact with game consoles that were built to suit the needs of the disabled player. Special button positions, control options, and other advantages made it possible for someone with little to no mechanical mobility to play anyway. With movement-based controllers, you’d almost need a robot standing in your living room to participate.

You might wonder why someone with limited mobility would want to play these games anyway. Well, the answer is simple. Gaming has always been an avenue for people to escape the burden of reality and experience the world as someone else. Be it a character with super powers, an elf ranger trudging through the forest in search of a dire bear, or a Jedi fighting his way through an endless swarm of stormtroopers. Andrew said, “When I play a video game, it’s generally to do things I cannot do in my daily life such as drive and fly.”

Second Life, a popular virtual world accessible through the PC, has largely been credited for giving disabled users the ability to interact and even work without the limitations of their disability coming into play. Not only has it served as an entertainment avenue, but a business one as well. Virtual offices have been set up by a number of companies including Nokia, IBM, and even Cisco.

Perhaps the problem here is in how the second side to the story isn’t being told, or heard by very many people. It’s easy to imagine a technology that has received so much praise and press for being inclusive and empowering becoming the next big trend. Accessibility advocates are happy because it helps the majority of people with disabilities, and everyone else is happy because it’s a fun technology to experience. What would appear to be that perfect middle ground between accessibility and functionality is actually leaving quite a few people out.

Touchscreen devices are also a problem for some users.

We’ve reported on Christopher Hills’ story here on LockerGnome in the past. A creative young man who has used adaptive technologies to enable him to accomplish tasks on his computer such as video editing and interacting with the world. It is due to these technologies that the world of technology can be made more accessible to all. In a recent video, he explained why the movement towards touch screens scares him, as it would exclude him from being able to participate in whatever technology requires a user’s ability to touch and manipulate a surface.

Is It a Problem with Hardware or Software?

If you asked Microsoft, it’d boast how technologies such as Kinect have actually made gaming more accessible to people with disabilities. In fact, an article released by Microsoft last July detailed how these motion-controlled gaming environments have made gaming possible for users with various disabilities.

Obviously, it’s a double-edged sword. While these titles make life easier for some, it makes enjoying these games impossible for others. Wheelchair accessibility was an early complaint about the Kinect platform as some wheelchairs are being detected as being other people, making it difficult for someone with a wheelchair to be independently detected. Microsoft has responded to the general question of wheelchair accessibility on its Xbox support site:

Seated users can enjoy several features and games developed for Kinect for Xbox 360. Currently, the ability for Kinect to work with seated users is largely dependent on the actual game itself. Some games are more accommodating of seated users than others.

Microsoft insists that its product is as assessable as the game developer allows it to be. If a game requires the user to stand up and dance in front of Kinect, then that’s exactly what it does. All Microsoft did in this case was build a device that allows developers to add movement to the user’s control options.

Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation Move are also examples of technologies that have improved rehabilitation efforts and made gaming possible for a wider audience. However, like the Kinect, it only works if you have full control of your arms and hands. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

Also like the Kinect, not every game is as exclusive as others. Boxing requires the use of both hands while tennis only requires one, for example.

Final Thoughts

Nintendo and Sony have both gone in a direction that doesn’t necessarily require the user to stand, but it still makes them move. While both have been used to assist in rehabilitation where movement is needed to assist a patient with rebuilding their mechanical ability, this still presents a strong challenge for those without coordination or the ability to control these devices.

Technology such as this will always be a double-edged sword. Where it can help people on one hand, there will always be someone left out. We can only hope that more developers focus their efforts on creating software that is both easy for everyone to use, and fun to work with. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done.