For some with disabilities, gaming fills a basic need

AbleGamers supports gaming as a way to provide self-esteem and a sense of belonging to the disabled

AbleGamers-600x450_0.jpgSource: AbleGamers
Trying out accessibile gaming peripherals at the AbleGamers Accessibility Arcade in Chicago earlier this year

Many of us are lucky to live in a place where, for most people, the first two levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met. These consist of physiological needs, such as food and water, and safety needs, e.g., physical, economic, and health. These needs are usually met through personal resources or help from the government and charitable organizations. To meet the next two levels of need (friendship/belonging and self-esteem), however, more than half of the 60 million disabled people in the United States turn, at least partially, to the world of gaming.

“That’s where video gaming for people with disabilities becomes very important because you can free yourself from your disability through a video game, you can make friends, you can present yourself in a way that has less stigma around your disability,” says Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamers, an eight year-old organization that is devoted to supporting gamers with disabilities. 

AbleGamers works to educate content producers as well as hardware and software developers on the development of accessible games, and to educate and support caregivers about the benefits of gaming for those with disabilities. They also host events such as their Accessibility Arcades to show disabled gamers and caregivers equipment and technology that already exists to help them enjoy video games like anyone else.

I recently spoke with Barlet about the role gaming plays in the lives of many disabled people and the current state of accessible gaming. I learned a number of interesting things, such as:

  • There are roughly 33 and a half million disabled gamers in the United States, mostly (two-thirds) male, with more of them over the age of 50 than under 18, which mimics the general population of gamers. Game developers, having been educated about the size of this market, have become very open to making their games accessible. Developers are “competing in a very big marketplace and are really looking to draw in as many people as they can. So, if they can add in 5 or 6 accessibility features to help make it more appealing to the mass audience then they’re going to,” said Barlet.
  • There currently isn't any legislation in the United States requiring video games to be accessible - and, surprisingly, disabled gamers prefer it that way. Barlet argues that gaming helps to push the envelope in computer development and that government legislation would only hurt the development of games and, hence, computer technology. Instead, he feels that the number of disabled gamers is large enough to provide incentives for developers to ensure their games are accessible. “I think that’s a far better path than legislation,” said Barlet.
  • In terms of gaming platform (PC vs. console vs mobile), while there is apparently some disagreement in the disabled community, Barlet said, “I am firm believer that the most flexible platform for a gamer with disabilities is the PC. There are a truckload of devices and peripherals out there... that you can plug into USB and they’re fairly inexpensive.” Consoles, on the other hand, while offering the most cutting edge games, are worse for disabled gamers because they’re closed systems. “Adaptive controllers and custom controllers… have to go through incredible hoops to try to get the Xbox to talk to the peripheral, because they’ve locked it down through proprietary processes.” Mobile gaming, is still fairly new, though Barlet notes that “independent developers that key on the mobile gaming space are much more creative and much more responsive to accessible features.”
  • In order to support gaming among the disabled, caregivers need to be educated about it. “The caregiver is governor of what a person with disabilities can do,” said Barlet. “The understanding has to be there in the caregiver, because they’re the ones that have to support the cause.” To that end, AbleGamers has recently begun producing simple videos like “How to set up an Xbox.” 
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