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Opinion: Being there?

In this reprinted <a href="http://altdevblogaday.com/">#altdevblogaday</a> opinion piece, Splash Damage lead programmer Dean Calver looks at the problems some disabled developers face in an industry that hasn't made enough efforts to accommodate them.

January 30, 2012

7 Min Read

Author: by Dean Calver

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Splash Damage lead programmer Dean Calver looks at the problems some disabled developers face in an industry that hasn't made enough efforts to accommodate them.] The vast majority of the games our industry make are virtual, computer software that transports us to other worlds shown to us via a video screen and controlled via clever little gadgets. And yet we develop them and limit them with physical limitations. For most people (the 80-90 percent who are able-bodied) this is often seen as a good thing, but what about the disabled community? I've been disabled for the last few decades and have done degrees, played thousands of games, got a job, and worked my way up to senior positions all whilst being disabled, due to my vocation from a very young age to make video games. The only requirements I knew were being that I can operate a keyboard and mouse enough of the time to transfer the stuff in my brain into a game. However the last few years have started to show real issues to me with our industry due to a culture that excludes many disabled people. From devices like the Kinect or Wii fitness to the promotion of the idea that people have to develop physically together, we are driving away many valuable minds that are ideally suited to making games. Whilst doing that we are also throwing away some of the 10-20 percent market share of people who are less able to play games requiring explicit physical features. Whats the problem? Whilst I doubt a post on AltDevBlogADay is going to convince Microsoft that Kinect only games are a bad idea, I hope that by exploring some of the real problems I have as a disabled game developer to this audience, they might at least make able bodied developers think. For me personally (and I know in general for a lot of people in the disabled community), the biggest issue is the "Being there" problem, whilst we make virtual worlds and situations, we have an extreme bias as an industry towards physical proximity in the production of games. Most companies insist you work in the office, often moving desks so people who work together are close together, brain storm and important meetings are done with everybody in a room. It's a system that's been shown to work, and most people don't need to think whether it's required or could be improved on, until that very proximity becomes a problem which for many developers never occurs and so they think it's the only option. Being there Within the last few years, my health has deteriorated to the point that even using mobility aides (like crutches or a wheelchair), I simply cannot get to places at a specific time easily. I'm effectively housebound. As an example, at the time of writing (end of January 2012), I've been outside my house twice this year, both times to get dental treatment. I have to work around my health, which may mean doing work at odd hours, when the problems have dimmed enough to work at my best. However, my ability to do what I love (making games) has gone up since I became housebound, as all those normal things have gone away, leaving me the time to take my skills to a level I never had 5 years ago. Effectively I'm just a brain connected to the net (I'm always there even when I shut down into myself due to pain etc.), I'd like to think a very capable brain (hopefully proven over the titles I've worked on), but the ability to get the studio every day or attend a conference is out of the question. But, hey, we work in a digital always-connected world, so that wouldn't cause any problems, would it? Well, it does, and to be honest, there are great doubts in my mind if I'll be able to work in the AAA industry any more going forward. Even as my abilities and skills in making games are going up, the use of them outside my own space has become harder. It's not just a matter of things like being able to work from home (which is of course a necessary start) but the willingness of the various parts of the job to incorporate a non-physical entity. When you look under the veneer of respectability and minimum required by various equality rules, you quickly see how we assume "normal" physical presence. It was just Game Jam 2012 weekend, a great idea with support from IGDA and big sponsors, so it should be an ideal fun experience for everyone who wants to make a game, right? Erm, so what's this about site and attendance? Ah, yes, that's right, clearly being able to physically get to particular places at certain times is a requirement for someone to make a virtual game! Game developer conferences requires attendance and having been to one when I was a bit fitter, I can tell you it's not easy even when you can walk on crutches and attend, let alone if you can't physically attend. Job interviews are typically in person… In an age of HiDef video cameras, even motor controlled, when was the last brain storm meetings you attended that was truly set up for a virtual presence? Instant messages and video conferences mean that someone not there is instantly contactable, just as easy as shouting across the office, but having teams in close proximity is usually high up the production list, so much that it's not uncommon for desks to be moved as projects change. Why? A simple answer is physical presence is easy. Most managers, producers, and senior people are able-bodied and can give you examples where getting everyone in a room solves a problem quickly. They can easily tell who's pulling their weight if they walk past their screen every now and again. Conferences know that they can get the right atmosphere, with everyone there in person. It's a known easy solution that works for most of the people who make the decisions. Indeed only recently has technology advanced to the point that we can have virtual conferences, that we can talk (by text or voice) to someone half a world away as easily as next to us. And even now these cost money, and require a concerted effort to do. From making sure the video conferences and net connections are working well enough, to security and VPN access issues, it requires a real buy-in from the top to the bottom to accept a virtual staff member as a full member of the team. The current norm, is that if there is any support for virtual presence, it will be as a second-class citizen. Doing odd-jobs or restricted interaction with the proper staff members who are on-site. Usually you will be expected to be glad that you're even treated as a second-class citizen, because at least you've been allowed to work from home or watch conference materials at a later date. It's important to get this clear, we are talking about people who have equal skills to make games but are just stopped from doing that to their full ability based on things completely separate from those skills. And hopefully most people reading will understand that that is no different from not being promoted due to your color or paid equally because of your sex. We need to embrace everybody who has the talent to do the job. Perhaps a good example, is that most companies and most conferences are hostile to someone like Professor Stephen Hawking, and yet would anyone not like to have some with the quality of his mind on their team? I don't know how many disabled game developers there are, I've never seen any statistics, but I suspect it's a lot lower than the 10-20 percent of the population who are considered disabled. As it seems unlikely that we will get to a point where a disabled developer who suffers from these problems gets up to the levels required to make changes any time soon, it will be up to the entire community of both able and disabled developers to make it possible to build an environment where all the skill to make games is the quality of someone's mind, not the quality of their health. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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