young girl and father in a wheelchair playing video game with wireless controllers.

Accessible Gaming


Mario Konecki

University of Zagreb


What is Accessible Gaming?

Video games can simply be defined as electronic games in which players control images on a video screen (Merriam-Webster: video game definition, n.d.). The history of video games began in the 1950s. In 1952, Professor Alexander Shafto “Sandy” Douglas developed a video game OXO, more widely known as noughts and crosses or tic-tac-toe. He developed this video game as a part of his thesis on human-computer interaction at the University of Cambridge. In 1958, William Higinbotham created a video game called Tennis for Two. This video game was made on a large analog computer with connected oscilloscope screen and it was used during the annual visitor’s day at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York.

In 1962, Steve Russell, in collaboration with his associates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developed the video game Spacewar! In 1972, one of the earliest arcade video games was developed under the name Pong. It was a two-dimensional table tennis video game that was developed by Allan Alcorn at Atari as a training exercise and was designed by Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of Atari. Atari released Space Invaders in 1978, Asteroids in 1979, and Pac-Man in 1980. Nintendo introduced Donkey Kong to the general player population in 1981. In the 1980s, Nintendo released several successful video games including Super Mario Brothers (1985), The Legend of Zelda (1986), and Metroid (1986). The First Street Fighter franchise video game was released in 1987, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991, and the first Mortal Combat franchise video game was released in 1992.

The Sony PlayStation console was introduced in 1994, Microsoft’s Xbox was introduced in 2001, Xbox 360 in 2005, and Nintendo Wii in 2006. Nintendo Wii’s success was achieved thanks to the motion-sensitive remotes that made gaming more active and appealing to a larger number of potential players.

Today, the largest digital video games distribution platform is Valve’s Steam. The main video game genres according to Steam are (Steam – Games, n.d.):

  • Action

  • Adventure

  • Casual

  • Indie

  • Massively Multiplayer

  • Racing

  • Role-playing game (RPG)

  • Simulation

  • Sports

  • Strategy

Categorizing video games is a complex and not straightforward process. The full list of video game genres includes many other categories along with those already mentioned (Steam – Games – Browse by genres, n.d.; gamedesigning.org – The Evolution of Video Game Genres, n.d.).

Accessible gaming refers to the video gaming process that is made accessible to a large number of players with various disabilities. This can be achieved by designing accessible video games and/or by making video game controllers accessible. Game accessibility is the subfield of computer accessibility / human-computer interaction (HCI).

Although the support for accessibility aspects of video games has grown, existing efforts are still mainly present in the form of various video game configurations or in the form of adapting video game controllers. However, more initiatives oriented towards making video game designers more aware of the importance of accessibility features are emerging.

Why is Accessible Gaming Important?

Over time, the video game industry has become an important and highly profitable global industry and a major industry in entertainment. The industry is worth more than both the movie and music industries combined. This dominance makes video games the most popular form of entertainment. It is estimated that in 2020 there are 2.6 billion video gamers worldwide, and it is forecasted that this number will rise to 2.725 billion by 2021 (Statista – Number of active video gamers worldwide from 2014 to 2021, 2019). In 2018, video gamers accounted for 66% of the general U.S. population, which is a 5% increase compared to 2013 (Statista – Number of active video gamers worldwide from 2014 to 2021, 2019). Video games have become not only a means of entertainment but an essential part of global culture. The gaming culture has also introduced a novel way of interaction that has a much broader potential outside of the gaming realm. Virtual reality is just one of many examples. Esports (organized video game competitions) have also become a major global business with revenues of 1.1 billion USD in 2019 and with 453.8 million viewers worldwide (Newzoo: Global Esports Economy Will Top $1 Billion for the First Time in 2019, 2019).

There are many benefits of video games for the players: physical (Staiano & Calvert, 2011), cognitive (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014; Colzato, Van Leeuwen, Van Den Wildenberg, & Hommel, 2010), and social (Cole & Griffiths, 2007; Durkin, Boyle, Hunter, & Conti-Ramsden, 2013). However, many of these benefits are inaccessible or poorly accessible to a number of people with disabilities and to many older people with declining sensory/motor functions (Antona & Stephanidis, 2019). The number of video gamers in the U.S. who have some sort of disability is as high as 33 million (AbleGamers and gamers outreach partner to help children with disabilities in need, 2017). This situation calls for more accessibility solutions in both hardware and software domains. The development of various accessible hardware solutions in the form of accessible controllers can make video games more accessible, especially in the case of video gamers with limited mobility. However, more education and awareness is needed in the software domain where major breakthroughs could be achieved by creating truly accessible video games.

Another issue is that accessible accessories can in many cases be quite expensive. Still another challenge in creating effective accessible hardware solutions is the need to accommodate a huge variety of different disabilities and the need to create individual hardware solutions. More education in the area of accessible design of video games is needed in order to provide designers with the means to design more accessible video games in the future. Although there are universities that have included courses that teach accessibility in their curriculum, many find this insufficient and claim that accessibility should be included in many courses throughout the curriculum (Waller, Hanson, & Sloan, 2009).

Who is Doing this Already?

When talking about hardware accessibility solutions for video game players with disabilities, a number of existing solutions can be mentioned.

Blue Tip Gaming Axis 4 Pro (Axis Controllers, n.d.)

Blue Tip Gaming manufacturer provides several accessible joysticks designed for video gamers with limited mobility. These joysticks feature large buttons and analog sticks. A digital bite switch is also available.

Pretorian Technologies Optima Joystick (Video Game Assistive Technology, n.d.)

Optima Joystick helps players with mobility impairment and/or nerve damage to play video games. Optima Joystick does not require fingertip pressure as the only way of controlling a video game. It also supports a number of other hand/arm movements. It requires far less pressure and can be configured to different degrees of sensitivity.

One-Handed Xbox One Controller by Ben Heck (Single handed controllers, n.d.)

Ben Heck has been developing accessible gaming devices for a long time. One of his devices is a modified Xbox One Controller that enables the players to use the controller with just one hand.

QuadStick FPS Game Controller (QuadStick FPS game controller, n.d.)

QuadStick uses a large and robust joystick module in order to provide an assistive gaming technology for players with more severe mobility impairment.

Microsoft Xbox One Adaptive Controller (Gaming that is accessible for all, n.d.)

Microsoft Xbox One Adaptive Controller enables the player to customize the controller to fit the particular needs. This controller supports a number of different external buttons, switches, mounts, and joysticks. This provides the players with a unique set of possibilities to create a custom individual accessibility solution. The copilot option enables two players to play as one, and share the gameplay workload. Xbox Accessories app enables full customization of button mapping to make gaming experience easier and more natural. A number of other accessibility functions are also available, such as narrator, magnifier, closed captioning, and high contrast.

Logitech G Adaptive Gaming Kit for the Xbox Adaptive Controller (Logitech G Adaptive Gaming Kit, n.d.)

A set of 12 components that includes large buttons, small buttons, variable (pressure-sensitive) trigger, and light touch buttons. This kit is compatible with Xbox Adaptive Controller, and it unlocks its full potential. It can be customized, and it supports a wide variety of individual needs.

SubPac M2X (What is SUBPAC?, n.d.)

SubPac M2X is a wearable vest that provides video game players with a means of translating video game audio into a tactile experience. This feature enables players with a hearing impairment to experience the audio aspect of video games.

Tobii Eye Tracker 4C (Tobii Eye Tracker 4C, n.d.)

Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is an eye-tracking peripheral that features eye and head tracking that can be used by a wide range of players with different disabilities. Tobii Eye Tracker 4C is currently supported by more than 150 video games (Tobii Eye Tracking enabled games, n.d.).

Custom Accessible Controllers – SpecialEffect (SpecialEffect, n.d.)

SpecialEffect, which is based in the UK, provides the service of building customized individual controllers for players with different types of disabilities.

Custom Accessible Controllers – AbleGamers (AbleGamers, n.d.)

AbleGamers, based in the Washington, D.C. area, provides individual, accessible, customized controllers, as well as advices on how to make gaming as easy as possible for players with disabilities.

Several different strategies can be implemented when trying to produce an accessible gaming technology.

  • Enhance sound levels, color contrast, magnification level, font size, etc.

  • Replace one media with another: visual objects with sound, sound with haptic cues, etc.

  • Make necessary input simpler and easier

  • Make video games simpler, with lighter gameplay and fewer objects

  • Make video games slower-paced

  • Make custom controller solutions

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) launched its IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group in 2003. The goal of this initiative is to make video games accessible for players with various disabilities.

There are also other projects and initiatives that raise awareness about the need for accessible video games and provide useful guidelines to players and developers. One example is DAGERSystem, a well-known website that is designed for video gamers with different disabilities. DAGERSystem provides video game reviews with a special emphasis on video game accessibility. (DAGERS, n.d.). Another example is the website Can I Play That? (CIPT), a video game accessibility website designed for both players and developers (Can I Play That?, n.d.). It provides accessibility video game reviews and guidelines for developers (Can I Play That? – Accessibility Reference Guides, n.d.). Comprehensive video game accessibility guidelines are also available at the website gameaccessibilityguidelines.com (Game Accessibility Guidelines, n.d.). Many other resources are also available (NLS – Video Gaming Accessibility, n.d.).

To better understand the needs of players with disabilities, video game designers can use several types of capability loss simulation devices. An example of these devices is Inclusive Design Toolkit from the University of Cambridge (University of Cambridge – Inclusive Design, n.d.). This toolkit includes (University of Cambridge – Inclusive Design – Capability loss simulation, n.d.):

  • Cambridge Simulation Gloves – simulate limitations in hand movement

  • Cambridge Simulation Glasses – simulate the effects of vision loss

  • Impairment Simulator Software – simulates visual and hearing impairment effect on images and sounds

How Can it be Used in the Classroom?

Multimedia has made a huge impact on the way the teaching process is performed in the classroom and outside the classroom. E-learning has brought a lot of benefits that multimedia-rich content can provide to students. However, rich multimedia content can be quite inaccessible. To solve this problem, the most frequently used method was to make content simpler and more suitable for students with various disabilities. This approach, however, has removed many benefits of immersive multimedia content.

Video games have shown potential in the classroom as a valuable learning medium. This potential has also been detected regarding learning support for students with disabilities. However, it is important to note that game-based learning is still a new and developing field in the scientific and academic world that has both supporters and detractors (Hays, 2005; Torrente, del Blanco, Moreno-Ger, Martínez-Ortiz, & Fernández-Manjón, 2009).

There are video games that are specially designed to be educational (Manesis, 2020), and video games that are oriented towards entertainment but can provide a useful insight into teamwork, communication, collaboration strategies, etc.

The reason why video games can be a useful teaching tool is the fact that learning requires effort and is often perceived as work. On the other hand, video games are perceived as something that is fun and relaxing. By combining these two aspects it is possible to get the best of both worlds and provide students with a way to learn by having fun. Video games are immersive (Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014) and engaging for players which makes them especially suitable for prolonged learning activities. Video games enable students to learn by doing. Since video games can be played repeatedly without losing interest it is very easy to use them to learn through repetition. Video games can also be an effective way to motivate students to learn (An, Haynes, D’Alba, Chumney, 2016; Huizenga, Ten Dam, Voogt, & Admiraal, 2017; Papadakis, 2018). Making video games more accessible is imperative since only this course of action can make all mentioned benefits available to students with disabilities.

The first educational gamified software was the programming language Logo that provided a way of learning programming by directing a turtle-shaped icon via coding its movement and path. There are many other educational games that can be mentioned, such as Oregon Trail, SimCity, Lemmings, Quest Atlantis, Brainiversity, Civilization, and Hearing Music.

Challenges and Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

There is a huge opportunity in the field of education to make learning as fun and immersive as possible by using educational video games. As already mentioned, this does not even mean that these have to be video games that have been designed with the education in mind since many entertainment-oriented games can be very educational in many aspects.

The benefits of learning through video games apply to all students, including students with disabilities. Video games bring immersive ways of learning that are both fun and relaxing. The assessment of students and their skills can be done in a prolonged way which reduces pressure that comes with standard testing. However, students with disabilities face a number of challenges that make video game education harder and, in some cases, still impossible for them. In a number of cases, assistive technology has been developed to make video games more accessible. This technology includes customized controllers, voice-based controllers, and tactile controllers. Many configuration options have been included in many video games and gaming platforms, such as closed captioning, high contrast, scaling the details in the games, and scaling the game speed.

Accessibility in general relates to the environmental characteristics of the system input and output which enable particular groups of users to access and use all the facilities of the system (Federici et al., 2005). Another important aspect is the usability of the system. Usability is the ability of the system to carry out the intended function(s) or achieve specified goals effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction when used by particular (groups of) users in their particular context (Federici et al., 2005). Both accessibility and usability are important when talking about video games in education, and must be achieved at a satisfactory level in order to provide students with disabilities with the suitable means of education since both accessibility and usability aspects can result in a number of barriers for students with disabilities.

All this means that video game designers have a key role in making game design that works well with assistive video game technology in order to provide an accessible and usable video game experience for all students with disabilities. For example, sound effects could be replaced by more intense animations to aid players with a hearing disability, and colors could be replaced by different shapes to aid players who have trouble recognizing colors. In general, video game accessibility for players with physical disabilities has two main components: accessible game control and the option to change the game or add additional functionality to the game (Gonzalez, 2012).

The questions about video game accessibility and usability have started to emerge recently. Some of the earliest literature on these topics was published in 2004 (Bierre et al., 2004; Bierre, 2005). The reaction to this, and this is still mostly true today, was to create different assistive devices or to design special video games for particular groups of people with disabilities (Grammenos, Savidis, & Stephanidis, 2009). Some of the examples are video games based on audio that are made for people with visual disabilities and single switch games for people with various physical disabilities. Over time, assistive video game controllers and other assistive technology have become more sophisticated, but many mainstream video games lack proper accessibility features. This disparity separates students with disabilities from the rest of the students who are able to fully participate in certain educational games.

Some of the guidelines for developers of educational video games are (Hersh, & Leporini, 2012):

  • The use of inclusive design and design for all approaches which consider user diversity in preferences and characteristics.

  • The provision of an enjoyable and high-quality learning experience for all students.

  • The involvement of students with disabilities and teachers as experts regarding their own requirements.

  • The consideration of both general principles of accessibility and usability as well as issues specific to the particular game, the learning context, and the target students.

  • User diversity, accessibility and usability requirements should be seen as an opportunity to use creative approaches rather than a problem.

Examples of What is Being Done for Special Populations

There are many examples of using video games in education that can be mentioned. Some of the examples are given below.

Quest to Learn (Q2L) is a public school in New York City for grades six to twelve. The school implements an innovative approach called game-based learning (Kapp, 2016). Q2L uses the entertainment and engaging effects of video games to motivate students and reports that the average rate of growth of a Quest to Learn 8th–10th grade student in one year is comparable to the average rate of growth of a college student on a similar test called the CLA – across all four years of college (Q2L – Research, n.d.). Also, 54% of Q2L students were proficient on the 2015 ELA exam compared to 30.4% of students citywide (Q2L – About, n.d.).

Alien Rescue is a problem-based 3D learning environment for sixth grade science (Alien Rescue, n.d.). It offers an immersive learning experience, and it has been used as a part of the science curriculum by schools in 29 states (Alien Rescue, n.d.). Alien Rescue was developed by a team from the University of Texas at Austin. This learning environment received the 2012 Interactive Learning Award and 2013 Outstanding Practice Award (Alien Rescue, n.d.).

Mrs. Cross, teacher from Loftis Middle School, Tennessee, gave the following feedback (Alien Rescue, n.d.):

I have never seen middle school students so engaged in reading and using data as when they were ’playing’ Alien Rescue. When we were finished they asked if they could do it again because it was so much fun!

Minecraft: Education Edition is an open-world game that promotes creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving in an immersive environment (What is Minecraft, n.d.; A new venue for video games: K-12 classrooms, 2018). It is used by many K-12 teachers to teach a number of different subjects, from history and chemistry to sustainability and foreign languages (Why Minecraft, n.d.). Along with Minecraft, there are many different educational video games available that can be used in K-12 education (50 Sites & Apps for K-12 Education Games, 2020; Felicia, 2009).

There are many more examples of successful video game-based education efforts in the area of math, science, languages, physical education, and so on. (Arias, 2014).

Conclusion and Actions for Parents, Educators and Students

Video games provide much more benefits than just entertainment. Using video games in education has shown promising results, and many initiatives in this domain are ongoing. Video games provide a new way of learning-by-doing that is both immersive and engaging. This kind of learning process can significantly boost student motivation and enable prolonged learning.

In order to provide students with disabilities with an accessible gaming experience, many different efforts have been made. In most cases, accessible gaming is achieved by providing students/players with accessible controllers, with aiding video game technology, such as unique sound effects for specific actions, or with various accessibility configuration options. However, more initiatives are needed in order to further increase awareness of video game designers about the need to produce natively accessible video games that will provide a truly accessible video game experience to all students/players with disabilities.

Actions for Parents

  • Get informed about the benefits of video games in education

  • Familiarize yourself with accessible video gaming solutions

  • Talk to teachers about accessible video game solutions that are available in the classroom

  • Suggest additional video games and assistive technology to the teachers

  • Spend time in educational video game activities with your child

Actions for Educators

  • Find out how video games can be used in the classroom

  • Familiarize yourself with various video games that are available for educational purposes

  • Get to know about different aiding technologies, such as modified controllers that can be operated with only one hand, larger buttons for students with limited dexterity, or eye tracking technology, that can help making video games accessible

  • Learn about video games that can be used for educational purposes

  • Use accessible video gaming as a part of the educational process

Actions for Students

  • Get informed about how video games can help you in your education

  • Talk to your parents and your teachers about these video games and about the accessibility issues that need to be supported by appropriate aiding technology

  • Get familiar with existing accessibility support that can enable you to play video games and explore their educational benefits

  • Talk to other students and share your experiences

References


Published: 2020-08-31

Ideas that work.The DIAGRAM Center is a Benetech initiative supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (Cooperative Agreement #H327B100001). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. Department of Education.

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