Stephanie Walker was a gamer who had never expected to have to deal with a disability. She was 23 at the onset of her condition, a college student who also worked a full-time job. She liked to spend the little free time she had unwinding online. Initially resistant to the idea of playing EverQuest, Stephanie quickly discovered that slaying virtual orcs and bandits while joking around in party chat was surprisingly fun. It was a great way to keep in touch with long-distance friends and burn some stress after a long day. She didn't have a lot of time to play, but she was good at it when she did.
While working at her job one day, Stephanie noticed that her right hand and leg had fallen asleep. When she tried to get up to walk the sensation off, she realized that something was seriously wrong -- the entire right side of her body had just stopped working. Stephanie was rushed to the hospital, and the diagnosis was confirmed the following morning: she had multiple sclerosis, and she would have to deal with it for the rest of her life. Overnight, everything changed. She went from being someone who spent 20 hours per day away from home to someone who really never left. Moving around within her house required an enormous effort on her part. Even feeding herself had become a challenge. The little things, like not being able to get online and chat with her friends (something she really enjoyed) just made her situation that much more painful.
In the months that followed, Stephanie learned to deal with her disability. She was angry and embarrassed about it at first, not even revealing the extent of her illness to her closest friends. Being largely confined to her house during this period, Stephanie started to return to EverQuest, playing as well as she could. Where once she had been able to solo with ease, her newly acquired limitations made the simplest tasks incredibly difficult. Over time, however, the game took on a very important role for her. It provided a way for her to feel good about herself, to put herself back in control. Even if she couldn't play as well as she once had, people didn't need to know that that was because she had a disability. It was up to her whether to reveal that information or not, and she was able to be just another player.
Stephanie's experiences with her disability inspired Mark Barlet, her longtime friend and a disabled gamer himself, to start a website that could provide hope and support to other gamers struggling with their disabilities. Today they work together on AbleGamers.com, an online community that provides news, articles, discussion, and unique reviews tailored specifically for disabled gamers. Mark believes that the site is important as a platform to help educate game developers about the unique challenges of disabled gamers and work with them to increase the accessibility of their games.
The accessibility of online games to disabled gamers is an important issue for a number of reasons. While some people just want to continue enjoying their hobby, others use online games to experience things they might not be able to in their day to day lives. Madison Reed, an 11-year old spinal muscular atrophy sufferer, blogged about this very issue recently in a plea to Disney that they not shut down her favorite online game. She mentions that in Virtual Magic Kingdom, she's able to do many things she can't do in real life and doesn't have to worry about people staring at her or risking illness by venturing outside. It's said that laughter is the best medicine, and there's plenty of fun, laughter, and companionship to be found in virtual worlds. That said, moving and interacting with the world in these games can often be a real challenge for disabled gamers.
So what exactly can game developers do to make their games more disability-friendly? When I asked Mark about that, he was quick to point out that everyone with a disability faces their own unique challenges. A large part of the solution will rest on the shoulders of the individual player figuring out what they can do to help themselves, whether through peripherals or specialized software. However, Mark mentioned a few small design choices that any developer could avoid which would be immensely helpful for the disabled community that's trying to play these games:
- Drag and drop interfaces: Both Stephanie and Mark mentioned the extreme difficulty of trying to work with a drag and drop interface for someone who lacks fine motor skills. When it's difficult to even click a mouse button, the daunting task of clicking, holding, and moving the cursor all the way across a screen can be just too much for some players. Since many games use this system for setting up a hotbar, it can be very frustrating for a disabled gamer to use all of their skills effectively.
- Double clicking on small areas: Again, double clicking in rapid succession, as small as it seems, can be very challenging for disabled gamers. This often comes into play with crafting and harvesting interfaces or activation items. Something Mark suggested as an easy alternative was to allow players to activate environmental objects with a keystroke instead of (or in addition to) a mouse click.
- Putting items on menus: While EverQuest 2 was described as a very disability-friendly game, the right-click activation menus (similar to the dialogs that pop up in Windows) were specifically mentioned as something not to do with your game. Especially when you have to move through the menu options quickly or risk having the menu disappear, interaction with such menus can be very challenging for disabled gamers.
- Controllers: Modern console gaming is immensely difficult for gamers with disabilities, due largely to how controllers are designed. As MMOGs make a shift to become more console-oriented, developers can be cognizant of that fact and offer alternative peripherals and changeable key bindings for their games.
Other easy-to-implement suggestions included closed captioning and avoiding pure audio cues (for deaf gamers), and camera angles which are easily controlled via keyboard commands (as keys are much easier to use than moving the mouse around for many disabled gamers).
That camera movement issue is such an important one that Tim Donaghy, another disabled gamer I spoke to, actually stopped playing the popular game Guild Wars because of it. "I just got so frustrated that I could never move the camera like I wanted to," he said. Tim was a console gaming fan who lost the use of both his legs and the fine motor skills in his hands in a jet-skiing accident when he was 14. His reaction to the ordeal surprised his friends and family, though. Instead of becoming depressed and focusing on what he couldn't do, Tim decided to keep himself focused on what he could do and learned to work with the tools he had. He explained to me that most games that are difficult for gamers with disabilities to play could be fixed with just a few minor changes to the control scheme, in most cases. These days, Tim is an avid World of Warcraft player, a game he describes as being fairly friendly for disabled gamers.
While WoW may be friendly to disabled gamers, Blizzard itself hasn't been very communicative with the disabled community. Repeated attempts to discuss the relevant issues with them has gotten Able Gamers nowhere. Other competing companies make more of an effort, though. Both SOE and Turbine were mentioned as companies that make a genuine effort to work with disabled gamers and help meet their needs, going so far as to arrange meetings with members of the community to get feedback and suggestions on the accessibility of their games. Flying Lab Software and Funcom have both recently done interviews with Able Gamers as well, and Age of Conan is a game that both Stephanie and Mark are looking forward to playing.
Today, through persistence and patience, Stephanie has managed to largely recover from the worst aspects of her disease. While she still doesn't have any feeling in much of her right side, she's regained some movement capability and is able to enjoy online gaming without too much difficulty. The message she wants to give to people is that having a disability does not have to stop you from doing the things you love to do, and that disabled gamers have many options available to them.
Disabled gamers are gamers too. These are our people, and no less so because they have a disease or became injured while defending our country. The least we can do is ask our developers to ensure that the games they make have the minor considerations necessary so that everyone, no matter who they are, can enjoy them and have fun in these exciting virtual worlds.
If you'd like to learn more about Able Gamers or gamers with disabilities, you can get in contact with Mark Barlet or Stephanie Walker via AbleGamers.com. In addition to offering a number of features and reviews that will be of interest to disabled gamers, Able Gamers offers a links page which can point your towards additional resources.