April 6, 2012 at 5:46 PM ET
PAX East is a jam-packed gathering of gamers, one that is fairly all-inclusive. Almost every kind of gamer is catered to, be they first-person shooters, dungeon crawlers, fighting games or anything in-between -- even those who can't be bothered to pick up a controller, like those who prefer good old-fashion pen and paper. But then you have those who cannot hold such a thing, and that's where AbleGamers come in.
For the past seven years, President Mark C. Barlet and his volunteers have been educating members of the gaming community at functions like PAX. Instead of just telling the world about the existence of disabled people who like to game, their aim is to reach those who know someone in such a demographic, so they can pass along information about things such as options that they didn’t know existed.
For the most part, Barlet is encouraged by all the people who stop by the booth and gather info, though he says it's quite the challenge. "Some people don't understand, they don't see accessibility being relative to them." As he states, half-jokingly, "It's the trappings of youth."
Interfacing with the public is just one component of what AbleGamers is all about. The primary mission is getting game makers and hardware manufactures on board, which is an even more difficult. To Microsoft and Sony, the number of disabled gamers is so low that it's an audience they can't be bothered to address.
Even worse is how expensive their software development kits are, which makes creating solutions to what is perceived to be such a niche audience an even bigger hurdle.
Despite such difficulties, some hardware manufacturers are trying to help. Of all the offerings that AbleGamers had on-hand to highlight, perhaps the most intriguing was the QuasiCon Axis 2 by Quasimoto, which looks like a standard joystick, but with an additional pair of sticks in the middle.
"It's for someone with cerebral palsy," explained AbleGamer Editor-In-Chief Steve Spohn. "Specifically, for someone who can't control their tremors. It's also good for someone who doesn't have strong dexterities." There's actually a lag with the input, which is on purpose. "It gives the chance for certain players to fix wrong movements." The buttons that surround the configuration also allow the use of knuckles instead of fingers.
Despite the lack of comparable, financial risks that someone making a controller specifically for a handicapped person, game makers are hesitant about going that extra step to open their titles to a wider audience. "There's no consistency," exclaimed Barlet.
He cited BioWare as a perfect example; each year, AbleGamers acknowledges the efforts of mainstream game makers, and the developer has won their accessibility award three out of the five times it has run. The most recent recipient was "Star Wars: The Old Republic."
Yet they cite "Mass Effect 3," by the same exact people,dto be completely inaccessible. Among the problems cited was the inability to reassign buttons, the inability to entirely drive the game via just keyboard or just a mouse, or the ability to change the font size. All option one could do in their "Star Wars" MMO.
Thankfully, the indie gaming scene has helped to fill the whole. "Indie game developers do a great job of making their games accessible, of trying to get everyone to play their games," observes Barlet. "Perhaps because, to them, every dollar counts!"
And things overall are getting better. Why? "Because the demographics keeps changing" notes Spohn. As baby boomers grow older, there will be a greater need for accessible gaming. Eventually, the focus of AbleGamers will not just address physical handicaps but the effects of aging itself as well.
Spohn mentioned the time they they showed off a game that was geared toward the blind. The game has no visuals, and instead, is entirely built around sound. Many able-bodies players were not able to get past the first chapter. But a 72-year-old blind woman in attendance, who had never played a game in her life? She was able to reach level 12.
Perhaps the biggest challenge AbleGamers faces is the stigma that what they are doing is bad. "We get hate mail all the time," Spohn explained. "You disabled people are making my game too easy!"
What confuses Spohn and Barlet is how most of what they ask is something everyone can use. "Why wouldn't anyone not want the ability to place any button where they please, or make the screen size bigger and easier to use?"
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.