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For disabled, video games can be a lifesaver

For most of us, playing “Rock Band,” or any other video game, is pure fun — a leisure activity. For disabled gamers, playing games can be more than just play. It’s a community. It’s a connection. It’s a life line.

Nissa Ludwig used to be musician and a dancer and a performer. But ever since a progressive metabolic disorder made it difficult to walk, “Rock Band” is as close as she gets to the stage.

“It’s a place where you don’t lose your social skills,” says Ludwig, a top-ranked bass player in “Rock Band.” “I have the opportunity to be a human being and not be judged by what I look like.”

And, she says, it gives her a chance to play music — virtual though it may be — with other people again. “Nobody plays an instrument because they want to play alone. It’s social,” says Ludwig.

For most of us, playing “Rock Band,” or any other video game, is pure fun — a leisure activity. For disabled gamers, playing games can be more than just play. It’s a community. It’s a connection. It’s a life line.

But for the most part, the folks who make these games have been slow to make their products accessible, citing schedule pressures, financial pressures, and just plain old ignorance.

Do you think about how the disabled play games?
Mark C. Barlet got a first-hand look at how little the industry considers disabled gamers when he attended the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco a couple of weeks back. He is founder and editor-in-chief of, which offers assistance to disabled gamers and lobbies companies on their behalf. Tired of trying to get the game-making community to take them seriously, Barlet tried a more “guerilla” approach: .

He and compatriot Michelle Hinn, a columnist for the site, asked 81 developers whether or not they’d ever thought about how disabled people play video games. Lots of them said yes, but lots said no.

Just how big is the disabled gaming community? There’s no hard data on that. But the most recent U.S. Census data reports that 41.3 million Americans have some level of disability. That’s roughly 14 percent of the population.

How big is the market?
“Of that amount, a big percentage of (disabled people) are my grandmother, and my grandmother isn’t playing video games,” says Barlet. “Developers don’t see it as a big enough market.”

Perhaps they should. Not everyone who has a disability was born with it — or is your grandma’s age. Ludwig, who’s now 40, was always a gamer — even before she was diagnosed with her muscle-wasting disease in her late 20s. Her dad worked at IBM, so she’d hang out with him in the office, playing “Zork” and “Adventure.” She played early, text-based massively multiplayer games like “Dragon Realms,” and later, as her disease progressed, “Star Wars Galaxies” and “City of Villains.”

Initially, she says, MMOs gave her a societal connection. “With technology where it is today, disabled gamers have the ability now to have a community that they build and have meaningful relationships with other people outside their home,” Ludwig says. “And they continue working on social skills, and they don’t lose the ability to find joy in other people, which I watched my grandparents do as they were shut in.”

But as her disease progressed, and Ludwig spent more and more time in her wheelchair, gaming let her do things virtually —virtually, that is — that she used to be able to do in the real world.

“There’s a joy in being able to take an avatar and have her run barefoot through the grass because I can’t, but they can,” she says. “I can’t do it, but I can do it. It’s not me, but from the societal view of the game-playing community there, they don’t know I’m sitting in the chair. My avatar is as able as yours.”

Many war wounded are also gamers
Gaming can also give newly disabled folks a sense of normalcy. Barlet, a military veteran, points out that gaming is for soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The tragedy that’s going on right now is of the (thousands) that have been wounded, those were gamers. And they’re coming back here missing and arm, missing a hand, missing fingers and finding out that the thing that they grew up doing has been completely taken away from them,” he says. “And, the industry, as a whole, doesn’t really think of it as any more than a passing ‘Oh really? There’s disabled people out there?’ ”

Some companies have been receptive to feedback from disabled gamers. PopCap, makers of casual games “Peggle” and “Bejeweled,” have been “phenomenal,” he says. Sony Online Entertainment, makers of MMOs “EverQuest” and “EverQuest 2” have done a lot to make their games more accessible. And Mythic Entertainment, makers of “Warhammer Online” won an award from — 2008 Accessible Game of the Year — for making its MMO more flexible by adding color-blind features, flexibility for those with mobility impairments and more.

It's the simple things
Paul Barnett, creative director for “Warhammer Online,” is color-blind, dyslexic and hearing-impaired. So he knew about the simple things that his company could do to make the game more accessible.

“Some people are, through no fault of their own, living a restricted physical life — on our world, you can fly, ride, get married, run, jump and swim.”

And Barlet, of, stresses that he doesn’t expect game developers to make their games accessible to absolutely everybody. “I don’t fool myself into believing that a game can be made accessible for everyone just as I don’t fool myself that you can make roads accessible so that blind people can drive on them.”

But he and Hinn, who teaches game design and developmental psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, both believe that developers could do more to make their game controls as flexible as possible. Something like keyboard mapping, where gamers can create single-keystroke commands to perform repetitive tasks. Or, developers could design their games to allow for reconfigurable controls, so players could decide for themselves which controller button is the “fire” button.

Is it financially feasible?
And even though developers cite time and money as key reasons for not making their games more accessible, Barnett, of Mythic Entertainment, has a counter argument ready.

“People who get the chance to play our world are the most committed gamers out there,” he says. “If we can attract more people by making an effort in accessibility, then we are going to do it.”

But for Ludwig, game accessibility is about more than just making a few extra bucks – it’s about changing someone’s life for the better. “If I have to stare at a wall and become an inanimate object, it’s not a life … It’s not just a game, it’s a community.”

“If you give the opportunity (to play games) to someone who is homebound, or locked inside a body that doesn’t work but their brain functions perfectly, you have the opportunity to save lives,” she says.

(By the way, Ludwig is looking for a new “Rock Band” band to play with. Gamer tag “Kaylasara Live” on Xbox Live.)

Have video games helped you, or someone you know, grapple with disability? Do you think game companies should do more to make their products more accessible? Drop me a line and let me know. Responses may be published in a subsequent story.