For many people, videogames are a luxury, a guilt trip, like eating a piece of sinful chocolate. It is not always looked on favorably, usually by parents, if videogames are played more than a few hours each day. For people with disabilities, the perspective is refreshingly different. Video games have been an effective way for some people to deal with their disability and, in some cases, help them function more effectively and independently by sharpening their physical, mental and developmental abilities. Among those whose disabilities greatly limit their mobility and/or cognition, certain videogames such as MMORPG’s (massively multiplayer online role playing games) enable them to pursue a lifestyle that helps keep them connected to the world at large and provide some measure of independence. However, the video game industry, as a whole, does not generally develop games with the disabled customer in mind. In my opinion, they are missing out on a great way to improve their games’ brand equity.
Last month, during the 2009 Spike TV Video Game Awards, Stevie Wonder presented the Best Music Game award to “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Then he said, “Throughout the world, an estimated 650 million people, or 10% of the population, have a disability. As one of the 10%, I want to see the companies that make these video games, make them accessible, so people like me can enjoy them too.” This met with cheers from the crowd.
Why is this an important issue for the disabled gaming community? The reasons are many:
1. Blind people cannot easily see the graphics in video games. Increasingly, video games are dominated by complex and detailed graphics. Alternate color schemes and descriptive audio can be developed by designers to enable blind people to participate in these games.
2. Deaf people cannot understand the audibly spoken words. With more and more games utilizing audio cues and spoken words, there is a need for continued support of captioning to supplement these spoken words.
3. Individuals with limited use of their hands cannot play regular joysticks or consoles, and must instead use special equipment to enable them to play the game.
4. Even many MMORPG games are out of reach for some disabled people who cannot type, or who type slowly. Since communication is an essential part of effective MMORPG play, these gamers either have to play without communication, or would rather not communicate because of the fear that slow typing would put off the other players in the game.
These are only the tip of the iceberg. Many other examples abound of video games that are inaccessible to elements of the disabled population. Even if people with disabilities are able to play and enjoy many different videogames, the game experience is incomplete if some gameplay elements are not accessible.
According to Information Solutions Group, more than 20% of casual videogame players have a physical, mental or developmental disability, a percentage that is higher than the percentage of the general population that identifies itself as disabled (between 10% and 15%). And these gamers play more frequently, for more hours a week, and for longer times per gaming session. A surprising statistic: of those gamers who are disabled, almost 70% are female – which literally flips the gender gap on an activity that is invariably considered to be male-oriented. Another interesting statistic shows that those with mental or physical disabilities viewed video gaming as a way to relieve stress, while those with developmental or learning disabilities found that video gaming led to improved concentration and coordination/manual dexterity.
Many video game developers do not always take disabled gamers into account when designing their games, because subconsciously the diversity of disabilities is mind-boggling – the perfect heterogeneous sample that, in their minds, would render efficient implementation of accessible features impossible without a commitment of significant resources. In ROI-speak, this would not be an “effective” use of these resources. Another reason that is brought up is that the population of disabled gamers is not big enough to justify the investment.
The reality is, many of the video game barriers can be overcome easily with a good bit of game design and a demonstrated commitment by developers and programmers to address these issues in close communication with designers and proponents of video game accessibility. For example, EA Sports now releases a version of its Madden football series, called “My Football Game,” which is designed for the special needs gamer. It looks and feels like a Madden game, but with customizable playing speeds, and a “Step Up” feature that enables the gamer to practice football skills before going into game mode. It was developed in close consultation with VTree, a leader in the special needs software industry. Another game, World of Warcraft, uses Color Blind 4.0 to help color-blind gamers distinguish the shades of color that is essential to good gameplay. (Disclosure: I have no association with these video game developers, and have never played these games. I am a strategy and simulation guy, with a weakness for the Civilization series.)
There is even a group dedicated to accessible gaming for the disabled, called the AbleGamers Foundation, which runs AbleGamers.com. Among other things, AbleGamers.com writes reviews of video games that incorporate accessibility rankings for visual, hearing, and mobility disabilities.
When I came across some discussion threads in various game forums about making videogames accessible to people with disabilities, I found some ignorance on the value that disabled gamers bring to the videogame industry – to wit, that the disabled population isn’t big enough for video game designers to engineer games with them in mind. Maybe, but when the worldwide video gamer market is pegged at 300 to 400 million users, those with disabilities would range between 60 and 80 million based on the Information Solutions Group survey. Keeping in mind that disabled gamers constitute a larger proportion of the video game market compared to the general population, there is certainly benefit in devoting some resources to ensuring that the games are accessible to the 20% of its own market that plays videogames longer, more deeply, and more often than the typical video gamer.
Even if a significant slice of the disabled gamer market does not have a need for any accessible features, and even if the disabled population is not homogeneous enough to justify an efficient implementation of accessible features, making a concerted effort to align a video game with the capabilities of a disabled gamer would go a long way toward building respect and brand equity for the game itself.
Closed captioning on TV is a great analogy. It was developed in the early 1980’s for the deaf and hard-of-hearing market, which comprises approximately 8%-10% of the U.S. population, and of which a small slice of it has a major need for captioning. A major effort was made at the national level to implement and ultimately expand captioning to the major broadcast networks, and then onto cable and movies. Starting in the mid-1990’s, a federal law required all new TV’s to be equipped with a closed captioning chip. Now, closed captioning is a regular feature of the TV landscape, with unexpected applications beyond the deaf and hard-of-hearing market. Sports bars and restaurants love it because it enables patrons to follow games and CNBC over ambient noise. Non-English-speaking immigrants to the United States, as well as people who cannot read, have used closed captioning as excellent practice for learning English, by connecting the written word (the captions) with the spoken word (what is being said on the screen) – dramatically increasing literacy rates.
When a gamer – disabled or not – sees the availability of accessibility features on a game he plays, he/she may or may not use it depending on his preferences. But, invariably, the gamer will recall that the designers of that game took the effort to include these features. This will increase the positive perception of the brand of the game itself.