Our fourth guest blogger is Steve Payette from Canada. We had an interesting discussion on accessibility, disability and pervasive games, based on the IPerG report on Ethics of Pervasive Gaming, where we considered universal access a low priority for a pervasive game designer. Having a disability himself, Steve had an interesting perspective I asked him to share here.
In 2004, before I even knew of pervasive games, a good friend of mine invited me to participate in an activity organized by the bar where he worked. It was a sports-themed GPS photo scavenger-hunt. I still recall a whisper when the organizers saw us register, “… yeah but, he’s in a chair…” Despite this initial hesitation, the organizers were open enough to overlook their presumptions. My friend and I played the pervasive game and we finished a strong ‘second-to-last’ position!
Unlike most other activities, games are about quality of life. If one has no quality of life, one has no time for games. If one has time for games, one has a certain quality of life. But what if one has time but cannot access the game? There is an intricate relationship between games and issues of access. My purpose however, isn’t to persuade you to make all future pervasive games universally accessible. Nor is it to instill guilt if you don’t. Not all impairments are conducive to all types of play. But game designers are a crafty bunch that can come up with ingenious ways to be inclusive. My intention, rather, is to make you aware of the possibilities for broader inclusion.
Two main issues we discussed regarded the accommodation of players with disabilities in pervasive games. First, as Markus put it, “Your body does not only represent your game token, your body IS your game token.” In a pervasive game, as in real life, an impaired body tends to be at a disadvantage. Second, economic imperatives limit designers from developing content tailored for all levels of ability. Yet dismissing a group altogether creates a social activity, a game-genre and a subculture that is exclusive to some people and reinforces an ableist ideology and worse, deprives people of fun!
Here are some suggestions. They will not be appropriate for all games. They will not make all games accessible to people with varying impairments. However, they’re worth considering if there’s a way to incorporate accessible features in the design of a game.
1. Since pervasive games use mobile technologies, an easy consideration is to design a game to be played with potential player’s own device. This affords the impaired player to use a platform he or she is familiar with. Also, using their own mobile devices reduces the need to adapt some for varying disabilities. For example, small-button smartphones with cameras and GPS aren’t tailored for someone with limited hand functionality like me — but allowing me to use my own tactile interface devices levels the playing field.
2. Handicap-gaming. Handicapping scales be prefigured to avoid comparing apples to oranges. At the Paralympics athletes of varying levels of functionalities may compete on the same course, terrain, or court, but are offered handicaps according to their ability level. For example, in wheelchair tennis the ball is permitted a second bounce. This ‘handicapping’ allows the wheelchair tennis player to play with others in wheelchairs, or, to play against a non-disabled player (with the non-disabled allowed only one bounce). In handcycling, quadriplegics and paraplegics may street-race the same course but a predetermined amount of time will be removed from the quadriplegics’ to level the ability difference.
3. Finally, people with disabilities often use adaptive devices and technologies to accommodate an impairment (wheelchairs, TDD textphones, Braille, sign-language et cetera). In the planning of a game, these can be foreseen and perhaps, even exploited. For example, rules or scenarios can be used to inhibit the use of stairs or certain senses. These may end up benefiting players with an impairment and causing able-bodied persons to have a disability. As an act of respect, however, designers should avoid planning to use adaptive devices if the game cannot accommodate players living with the impairment the device overcomes.
Disability and accessibility has regretfully become somewhat taboo. To talk about it is to risk saying something politically incorrect. Yet, the consequence of not talking about it is that accessibility gets left behind until some disgruntled person brings our attention to it. With a little craftiness and foresight, games can be made more inclusive. Not all games can and will be universally accessible. But the point is that accessibility happens in the designing of the game, not the playing.
Handcycling image courtesy of John Trefethen (CC).