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Opinion: Game Accessibility - Why Bother?

In this opinion piece, academic Dr. Dimitris Grammenos, co-creator of the polarizing 'universally inaccessible' game Game Over!, explains the point he made with the game, and why video game designers shou

Dimitris Grammenos, Blogger

April 24, 2007

6 Min Read

In this opinion piece, game academic Dr. Dimitris Grammenos, co-creator of the polarizing 'universally inaccessible' game Game Over!, explains the point he made with the game, and why video game designers should make games accessible to all players, no matter what their disability. Game Over!, which was recently covered in a weblog post by sister weblog GameSetWatch, is a game "...that can be played by no one. But why was such a game created? Well, the goal of Game Over! is to be used as an educational tool for disseminating, understanding and consolidating game accessibility guidelines." Some of the levels in the experimental game, which is downloadable in PC, Mac, and Linux versions, are as follows: "Level 2. Piano Man Gameplay: The player must use awkward key combinations to control the spaceship (e.g., Shift + L + Left Arrow to go left). Guideline: Avoid simultaneous button pressing. Level 5. Spell Check Gameplay: The player has to type 'left' to move left, 'right' to move right and 'fire' to fire. Guideline: Support alternative input techniques. Level 11. Hakuna Matata Gameplay: Information about how this level can be played is provided in Swahili. Guideline: Use simple language and provide easy to understand instructions. Level 21. Speechless Gameplay: The player is asked to listen to "the voice" and fire when instructed to do so. If s/he doesn't, or if s/he does it any other time, s/he loses. Unfortunately, "the voice" cannot be heard. Guideline: Provide closed captions for dialogue and sound effects." We now present Dr. Grammenos' comments on the subject: Game Accessibility - Why Bother? "You’ve been playing this role-playing game for more than one year. You’re just about to make it to the highest level. Soon, you’re gonna be a digital god! But, it’s time for school… The day’s a little chilly. The morning rain has turned into ice. You’re late. You run out of the door. You slip. Everything fades to black… You wake up in a hospital bed. You are alive! You can breathe. You can see. You can hear. You can smell. Yep, you can even speak. But you can’t move. Spinal cord injury – that’s what the doc says. So, you can kiss the “digital god” thing goodbye. Tough luck my friend, Game Over! You just love on-line multiplayer games. You have hundreds of friends around the globe and you meet them everyday! You fight, you chat, you flirt. You’re practically famous. As you lean on the table to blow the candles of your 35th birthday cake, you feel your wrists burning like hell. Sorry to tell you the bad news on such a special day, but, after being a programmer for twenty years, the carpal tunnel syndrome has finally got you. You are not allowed to use the keyboard nor the mouse anymore. Guess what? Game Over! You’re the game junkie. You have the super PC, you have the next-gen consoles, you have the cool gear, and, oh yes, you have gazillions of games. You’re just 18 and you’re happy. But wait a sec – does the world seem to be a little blurry or what? You’d better check that out! Oh, no! You’ve just been diagnosed with some form of macular degeneration. What does that mean? You’re gradually going blind. Maybe you should start thinking of selling your stuff while you can, since – believe me – you’re not gonna be using it for long. Can you hear the curtain falling? Game Over! So, what would you do, if you woke up one morning only to find out that you can’t play your favorite game anymore, just because some designer did not consider something as simple as allowing redefining the game controls, or altering the game speed? Would you like to spit in his coffee? Would you wish to punch him in the face? Well, take a good look in the mirror because that designer might as well be you. It is so absurd, but it seems that most people believe that disability is something like a strange, rare disease, that happens to the “others”, not themselves. Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Disability is not something that you can predict or avoid, no matter what you do. There is no vaccine against it, and wearing a condom doesn’t really help. It can be either a temporary annoyance, like a broken arm or an eye infection, or a companion for a lifetime, but one thing’s for sure; it will definitely change your capability of playing games. Not because it has to; just because people who create games seem not to be aware of this simple fact. You see, after all, it all finally boils down to a matter of awareness and proper education – not bad intentions. I honestly do not believe that there is anyone out there who thinks that a person who is able of using both hands is entitled to have more fun than a person who can use only one. Actually, I would strongly support exactly the opposite, that a person who is going through a physical or mental challenge should be entitled to have more fun, as a means of compensation. And, yes, I know that the “industry” requires numbers, hard facts, pie charts and endless printouts of market data in order to care, but most of the times the only thing required in order to turn a totally inaccessible game to a fairly accessible one, is nothing more than design knowledge – no extra developments, no extra time, no extra money. So, it’s more a matter of personal responsibility than of a global market strategy. And, by the way, you should be aware that designing for accessibility always results in much improved usability. So, what can I do about it? I guess (and hope) you’ll be wondering by now. Well, there are two things: (a) Get informed. There are already several resources out there: Go to gameaccessibility.com and you’ll find links to most of them. Become a member of the IGDA Game Accessibility SIG and have the opportunity to chat with people with comprehensive expertise on the subject. Visit ua-games.gr to play some universally accessible games, or try Game Over! to get a first-hand experience of how it feels interacting with a game that is not accessible. Search the Web – you already know how to do that. (b) Get involved. Meet people with disabilities. They’re everywhere. They can be among your friends or family. Maybe you just hadn’t noticed. Talk to them. Ask them if they play games. If they don’t, ask them why. If they do, ask them how. See for yourself what it means for them being able to play and what they are going through in order to achieve it. Experience how you feel when they finally manage to play your game. In the recent past, there was the notion that all that was needed was just to have “crippled games for the crippled”. Fortunately, times are changing. People with disabilities want, demand and deserve to play as good (or bad) games as anybody else. So, let’s just do it – cause we can. Not for them – but for ourselves. Who knows, tomorrow we could be “them”. And, hopefully, someday, there will be just “us”."

About the Author(s)

Dimitris Grammenos


Dr. Dimitris Grammenos is the lead interaction and game designer of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory of the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH), and is in charge of the Lab's Universally Accessible Games Activity (http://www.ics.forth.gr/hci/ua-games). He is also the lead designer and programmer of UA-Chess (www.ics.forth.gr/uachess), which is an award-winning publicly available universally accessible chess game, and the lead designer of Access Invaders (http://www.ics.forth.gr/hci/ua-games/access_invaders/), a universally accessible remake of Space Invaders.

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