Aug 14, 2020

Turning video game tech into accessible tools

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AbleGamers Charity helped develop a controller adapter that lets players use their wheelchair joysticks to play games or even control drones.

This week, we’ve been looking at disability and technology: where innovation is happening and where there’s work left to do to improve accessibility. To wrap up, let’s talk about video games. Sales have spiked during the pandemic, up 26% from last year.

Steven Spohn is chief operating officer at AbleGamers Charity, which provides adaptive controllers for tens of thousands of disabled gamers every year, sometimes for free. He says there are about 46 million potential players with disabilities in the U.S. Most of the people reaching out to his group have a physical disability that limits their ability to use traditional controllers.

Spohn worked with Bill Binko at the organization ATMakers earlier this year to help develop Freedom Wing, a special adapter that helps people who use wheelchairs and have limited mobility in their upper body to play video games on consoles or computers. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Steven Spohn (Photo courtesy Spohn)

Steven Spohn: Why can’t we just pull our wheelchair up to an Xbox and play it? Why can’t we just drive up and be able to control a drone in the sky or a vehicle? And that’s where this adapter that we developed, the Freedom Wing, came from. Orthopedic therapists and Bill Binko and a lot of people who are in those medical spaces have been saying to us for a while, “You should be able to take these highly specialized, highly customized devices that take tens of hours in order to put together, thousands of dollars, and just use them on different technology without having to reinvent the wheel every single month.”

Kimberly Adams: Let’s talk about esports a bit. Are there tools that maybe some of these competitive game players are using to get an edge that then could funnel into accessibility technology, even for nongamers?

Spohn: There’s a lot of items that are not intended for the disability community that end up working out just great. For example, Discord is the latest and greatest in audio technology. Everybody who’s a gamer, everyone who’s a player, has a Discord account, and it’s just a program you put on your phone in order to play and talk to each other during the games. But now people use it for interviews. I use Discord more often than I use Zoom these days. Zoom is just inherently inaccessible. I use a program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking to be able to type. If I mute the call in Zoom, it mutes my entire computer. Therefore, I am now rendered completely unable to communicate with anyone else while that’s muted. That’s why programs like Discord are better, because they’ve already thought about accessibility and have included it, where places like Zoom still have some catching up to do.

There are [also] things like, for example, one of my most recommended controllers is called a TrackIR. And it’s like a controller, where you put a hat on your head with a little infrared clip, and there’s a camera that sits on top of your monitor, and when you move your head around, up, down, left, right, it can see that. And it was originally intended to be part of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. So you could look around the cockpit of an airplane and be like, oh, pretty down there. But we discovered that you could use that same technology and map it to keyboard inputs, so that now I can type keyboard letters with just moving my head around. And that allows you to play games. What you’re constantly doing, if you’re disabled, is repurposing and re-engineering things so that they can be used in everyday settings. Maybe there’s a controller that can push three buttons at the same time, and in fact there are, and you can use these in esports if they let you. Now, not every esport allows you to do this kind of thing. There are often times where they consider this against the rules, it’s cheating, etc. And there really hasn’t yet been an opportunity for players with disabilities to really get into the esports arena. And that’s one of those projects that we continue to work on: How does this work? How can we make it fair for people with disabilities to play, while at the same time not giving a superior edge to people who are already very, very good with a standard controller? So it’s just a matter of working out the fairness and figuring out how esports fits in the disability community.

Adams: But that brings up the point that accessibility in gaming is more than just about playing the video game itself.

Spohn: Absolutely. What we always say at AbleGamers is that it’s just an attempt to allow people to have that way to combat social isolation. The entire charity’s mission purpose is to combat social isolation, foster inclusive communities and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. And we do that by connecting you to other human beings: your family members, your friends, your community. You can get back out into that and not be alone, using video games. Sometimes people will be like, “Oh, video games are not important,” or “I’m not a gamer. I don’t want to play.” We’re trying to explain that this is just the tool that we’re using. It’s like your car. You may not care about what you drive, but you just need a tool to get you from your house to hanging out with your friends. And that’s the same thing that video games can do. We can get you to an area where you have a purpose of going in providing for your guild mates and having that real sense of purpose. AbleGamers was really fortunate a few years ago to work with Walter Reed Army [Medical Center], and we were able to find that in instances where someone is coming back and they have had an injury, that they were more than 50% less likely to consider self-harm if they had [that] same experience of being over there with their army units, over here in video games.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

There was some big breaking news in the gaming world Thursday. Apple booted the immensely popular, and profitable, Fortnite from its App Store. Apple accused it of violating store guidelines by operating its own in-app payment system that goes around Apple’s payment system. That meant Fortnite’s maker wouldn’t have to pay Apple a 30% cut of any sales. After the ban, Epic sued and accused Apple of running a monopoly. Obviously, both parties are going to court over this. The Verge has a good write-up.

We mentioned earlier this week the court ruling in California saying Uber and Lyft needed to start classifying its drivers as employees. Now, both companies are threatening to shut down services in the state, at least until November, when the issue will come before voters in a ballot measure. Critics of the companies say they’re bluffing. But, again, this will all be playing out in the courts very soon.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer