Posted by: Montola | October 10, 2009

Disability and Pervasive Games

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.

The author, scavenger-hunting

The author, scavenger-hunting

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).

Earlier guest bloggers: Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl, Neil Dansey on apophenia and David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009.


  1. Hi, This comment is “Food for the though”.

    1) “Games are about quality of life. If one has not quality of life, one has not time for games”….

    What do you mean as quality of life? Money? economical resources? what? …

    Let me be superficial about this, however support my idea to give food for the thought, with wikipedia.

    The quality of life index is display in the following link: .

    Now suicide rate index in display in the next link:

    What can you see on this?
    If you put attention the countries with “higher” quality of life present higher suicide rate. Interesting, right?

    Russia would be the exception of this comparison, however as I said this is superficial, one consider A LOT of cultural and historical elements which are involved. However if the topic interests you, it exists valuable evidence to think more carefully your argument.

    In my experience, the most creative and playful people I had met so far in my life, are the ones who can make incredible games and enjoy life just with a stone they find on the road. Those persons have NO resources and a HARD life. On the other hand, a lot of “rich juniors” they just do not know how to enjoy life. Anyway, I will not make a HUGE speech in here, I just want to offer some food for the thought.

    2) Disability ??? — I would say we need better ATTITUDE.

    Again as food for the though. Once I was in a conference and the key note asked us to stand up all of us. Then, he said: please sit down the ones who had broke at least one bone sometime in their life, then some people sit down. Next he said, please sit down those who use glasses…. please sit down those who can’t hear properly and so on…. at the end of the session only one person out of more than 100 was standing. Does that tell you something? ALL of us are disable at some level.

    Lack of attitude is what I think is the biggest disability. How many times someone “no disable” had played with a blind, with a deft, with a paralytic, with an autistic? Why do we hide this people?

    I raised an autistic child for more than 2 years, and I can tell you they have incredible gifts and develop their sense in higher level than we do ours.

    When I was 8 years old, my mother introduced me a girl who has no arms. Her mom was an addict and she born without them. However she could write wonderful poems with her feet. Yes she writes with her feet. Like these two examples you can find more.

    Actually, sometimes I think that “handicap” people should teach “nomal” people to have better attitude in life, to have the value of what we have.

    In english I only have this link which might be an example. Actually this boy, who is blind, plays video games with “normal” people. Love this sentence, he “sees with his ears” the link is here:

    Then perhaps we are in a need of a better attitude in TONS of things. At the end we all live in the same planet.

    3) I agree with your last paragraph: “Disability and accessibility has regretfully become somewhat taboo.” but imho the reason for this have way too deep roots….

    I said the idea of my comment is to share some food for the though from another perspective. I will not extend more with my opinions…

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Thanks Carolina, for sharing your “Food for the thought.”

    I don’t disagree with some of the things you mean to say but I would like to clarify the entry. The entry was written in hopes of creating awareness and perhaps inclusion in pervasive games. Although I believe your three points mend well together and support the blog entry, allow me to clarify and reply to your post using your numbered-points to leave none unanswered.

    1) I apologize for not being clear with my use of “quality of life.” I did not mean it to refer to a statistical index that means little in my life. Such statistics tend to be based on someone’s normative belief in what is best and they usually assume a Rawlsian “everybody is equal in all respects.” As you so well pointed out, a stone can be used to play a game. In fact, most games are created through the imaginative and playful use of a simple artifact (ex: a ball). The person who must take care of the minimal needs necessary for life has, in my opinion, a low quality of life. The person is perhaps alive, but the struggle to remain that way (alive) preoccupies all his/her time. This person has no time to play games, lest he/she perish. This imaginary person has, in my opinion, no quality of life. The child or adult, poor or rich, disabled or able-bodied, who has the time to intentionally engage a rock and play with it somehow (even if only in imagination), in my opinion, has a certain quality of life. It may not be of the highest level, yet the fact that he/she has the time to spare away from taking care of the minimal requirements offers a certain quality to his/her existence.

    However, my entry covers disability and pervasive games. In this context, what I was conveying was that many adaptive breakthroughs (medication, standards & rights, assistive technologies, and so on…) have palliated the impairments that 10, 20, or 30 years ago would have threatened the survival of a person with a disability. With these advancements, the disabled person is in a better position (has more time away from tending to minimal required survival needs) to play games if they are designed favorably.

    2) I’d like to reword what I believe you’re saying in the second point, if you’ll permit this transgression. What I believe you mean (in which case, I completely agree) is that there needs more awareness. More awareness that “all of us are disabled at some level.” Not everyone can do everything that everyone else can. Not all of us have the same abilities. Each of us has an impairment of sorts… this is why I suggested designers cannot be expected to develop “content tailored for all levels of ability.” However, by generating more awareness about ourselves (those of us categorized as disabled), game designers will be in a better position to understand how the game they are developing can be made more inclusive. In this sense, I agree that we ‘disabled’ have something to teach able-bodied. Obviously, if designers don’t know about the “autistic child,” “the armless woman,” and the “blind boy” wanting to play these games, they will not think of ways to include them when designing that could otherwise be inclusive. So I think awareness is perhaps what you intended.

    3) You rightly point out that disability has become taboo because of deep roots. It is only through open discussion that we can unearth these deep roots. Hopefully, the awareness generated through this blog entry will help.

    While I’m content that you’ve shared your opinions, the entry is on disability and pervasive games. I’d appreciate it if we could keep postings on this topic. If you’d like to discuss disability in general, please email me directly. I’m always open to discussion. :-)

  3. I kept on thinking about this (I process over time), and I guess I might misunderstood your message, hence overreact.

    Your reflection, intention and suggestions on how one can support accessibility of different users in digital games and pervasive games is constructive. As you invite us to think in an inclusive :) manner.

    My lengthly reply wanted to highlight that we are all equal and unique. We need to classify things in order to understand them (our brain configuration is like that) but we should be aware of it. At the end we are all humans, it is our attitude the one that makes the difference. Everything else is consequence of it, including technical matters.

    Have a nice week!

  4. (Steve’s comment, I think, was pending in moderation, so Carolina’s followup was written without seeing it. :-) Our moderation tool whitelists people with an approved comment.)

  5. Hi Steve and Markus,

    Thanks for your reply, just read it now. I apologize if my writing is unclear, however you decipher it quiet well.

    Still I do not finish to comprehend your idea about quality of life, even though now we agree it does not refer to the normative of someone else. If once exist an opportunity, I would like to understand what you mean.

    Nevertheless following the aim of the post, I agree as time passes it exists more tools and knowledge to include individuals in any activity. Yes, create awareness is fundamental. It exists a wide scope of physiological and psychologically diversity of individuals. However, the discovery of two different persons is bidirectional, that is what I want to highlight. As we agreed “all of us are disabled at some level”, however some disabilities are less obvious than others.

    Even that now I think I understand your post better. I wonder why not go beyond recommendations, as we are bad listeners (or at least a lot of us are). Why not have “disable” as part of the designers and creators of a pervasive game as one example. The ones who know better limitations, challenges and advantages of being disable are the disable ones. Target audience of the game everybody (disable and no-disable). I am positive you can make “able-bodied” go beyond awareness at that moment. Working and playing together help us to discover each other, because at the same time we are discovering ourselves. But the very first step is we should be willing to do that. Each single human is so important.

    Well following the readings of the blog,

    – Carolina

  6. Thanks for putting this out there Steve. Very useful.
    Hilary, Ireland.

  7. […] Earlier guest bloggers: Bjarke Pedersen on Chernobyl, Neil Dansey on apophenia, David Fono on Come Out and Play 2009 and Steve Payette on accessibility. […]

  8. In general it’s good that disabilities are considered with larping as well. I had some time ago a thought about how quite opposite to some beliefs “normal” gaming is actually rather limited as there are no physical challenges within the game, character or story. Blind friend of mine helped me to un see that I was very much playing and noticing only what I could see. When adding to that more texture and sounds (what she needed to get more out of it), the game got alot more “richer”. Accessibility on sensory level. Getting more of these just might make games more “3D”.

  9. Hey Carolina, no sweat. I’m just glad someone read it :) (If it interests you to understand more what I meant by quality of life, I’d recommend reading the first chapter of Hannah Arendt’s “Human Condition.” She doesn’t discuss it per se, but I think you’d understand my use of it better.)

    Hilary, thanks for reading!

    JR, thanks for sharing! As you mentioned, sometimes inclusion can be offered by a simple tweak in sensory outputs. This is why I emphasized that accessibility is more often than not, located in the decisions in the design of a game (LARP, PG or otherwise). Again, thanks for sharing!

  10. […] that the book doesn’t help beyond this. (Sorry Markus.  He was nice enough to allow me to guest-write my advocacy for game accessibility on the book’s blog pervasivegames so I feel like I’m stabbing him in the […]

  11. […] of emails with Markus Montola, who co-authored Pervasive Games Theory & Design. See my mini blog article My recommendation (advocacy?) isn’t to take on the impossible task of making all games […]

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