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Gaming interview: ‘Tau Station’ – making a whole universe accessible

As the accessible gaming community grows at a rapid pace, so too does the number of games being developed with accessibility for all users in mind. ‘Tau Station’ is a fascinating example of good practice in this area.

A free, text-based MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) with a science fiction theme, ‘Tau Station’ gives players an entire universe to explore – a universe which its developers have taken great care to make accessible for players with impairments, through a huge range of features.

e-Access Bulletin chatted to Lainie, one of the game’s developers, to find out more about the quest to make ‘Tau Station’ accessible for all.

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Video games without the visuals for blind gamers

A series of five new audio-based video games for blind and visually impaired users are being designed, after a crowdfunding campaign to support the project achieved over 150% of its target funding.

The games, including versions of classic arcade title ‘Frogger’ and a cricket game, will be available on mobile devices, tablet computers and desktop computers, through the iOS and Andriod operating systems, as well as Windows PC.

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Academia and industry combine forces to push forward gaming accessibility

Research into how video games can be made more accessible is being led by a computer science team from a UK university, who will work with game developers and partners including the BBC.

Dr Michael Heron and Dr Michael Crabb from the School of Computing Science and Digital Media at Robert Gordon University, Scotland, will also explore how academic institutions can help identify problems faced by gamers with disabilities.

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Video gaming charity expands its reach by delivering bonus packs

A gaming charity has begun giving out ‘Expansion Packs’ containing assistive technology and video games to specialist care homes and organisations working with individuals with disabilities around the United States.

The AbleGamers Foundation gives video game fans with disabilities the chance to play games and connect with others, through what it claims is the largest community for gamers with disabilities in the world. The Expansion Packs project is a way of providing games and assistive equipment on a larger scale, says the charity.

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Accessible video gaming: gateway to modern life

This month SpecialEffect, a charity pioneering access to video gaming by people with disabilities, won top prize in the Accessibility category at the national Technology4Good Awards. Here, the organisation’s head of communications Mark Saville talks to E-Access Bulletin editor Dan Jellinek about how it goes about bringing games to everyone – and why this matters.

– How would you summarise the work you do?

SpecialEffect is a charity that is helping people with physical disabilities to enjoy video games for fun, inclusion and rehabilitation. There is no one-size-fits-all way of doing this, so we visit people to find out exactly what they want to play, and what they need to play it. We will then match, modify or create equipment to lend to them, and give support so they can get the best out of it. It takes time, patience and expertise, but it opens the door to self-esteem, confidence and a better quality of life.

- Why is access to gaming important?

For a whole bunch of reasons, not least to level the playing field. The people we see often cannot play real, physical games with their friends and families, so virtual games offer an important opportunity for inclusion. It is also the case that, love them or loathe them, video games are here to stay and are a huge part of modern life. It is estimated that more than 50 million people in the UK have played video games at one time or another, whether that be the latest [XBox or PlayStation??] shoot-em-up or a few minutes of fun on a smartphone. And this figure is only going to rise, along with the number of potential players who cannot join in because of a disability.

- Why is it so important to customise gaming support for each individual?

In the six years that we have been around, no two people we have seen with the same disability have had exactly the same physical abilities. And that matters when you’re talking about getting to grips with a standard handheld games console controller with a couple of small joysticks and around 10 tiny buttons and triggers on the front, sides and sometimes rear of the unit. People also want to play different games, so there is a big variety (and speed!) of button and trigger combinations to factor in.

When abilities change over time – for example with muscular dystrophy – we will make several visits to adjust or change the technology if necessary, so video games can be accessible for as long as possible for that person.

Our occupational therapists play a massive role in everything. They bring a huge amount to the process, including making sure the mounting and positioning of the equipment is safe, and sometimes enabling tiny extra finger or hand movements which can make the difference between a particular individual being able to play games, or having to just sit and watch. They have a whole assortment of wonderful stuff in their boxes, from padded garden twine to heat-mouldable resin, and different types of Velcro… all useful in some way, at some time or another.

- Do you receive much recognition and support from the mainstream gaming community?

We do not charge for our help, so we are 100% reliant on the goodwill and generosity of people to keep going. We are very fortunate in that many in the gaming community do understand what we are trying to do.

We encourage game developers to get in touch if they are interested in learning more about how their games could be made more accessible to a greater number of people, and that is beginning to happen. However, because of the complexity of video games and their controllers, we took the conscious decision not to prioritise the advocacy of accessibility within video games directly. Instead we put our efforts into working with individuals with disabilities, and by demonstrating the difference in quality of life that this level of personalised support is able to bring, we hope to inspire developers to make their games more inclusive.

- Are the techniques you develop useful in other areas of digital access or communication?

We are mixing, modifying and matching hardware and software all the time, and yes, there is often overlap into other areas of digital access. To take an obvious example, if we enable someone to access a drop-down menu in a video game, then that might have implications for other areas of computer control for that individual. It is the same for eye gaze technology, and there is plenty of crossover there in terms of using the same technology for both games and everyday communication.

- What new technologies are the most exciting for future access possibilities?

We have pretty much got our hands full trying to keep pace with the constant changes and innovations in mainstream video game control technology, but we are also currently keeping tabs on development of brain control interfaces and other biosignal systems. We’re also looking at facial and other gesture recognition systems. These all offer interesting potential for future access to video gaming.

- Why is recognition from an award such as Tech4Good important?

It was an honour and a privilege to receive the Tech4Good Accessibility Award this year. I think it is a recognition of the positive impact that our work is having on individual lives, and is a real encouragement to us that we’re doing the right thing. I also think it is a recognition that video games are becoming a huge part of society.

We are not just helping people to play video games for fun, we’re increasing their quality of life by opening the door to integration into a massive digital social network. We have often heard people say: “I can’t imagine life without video games.”

Accessible gaming guidelines win US award

A set of international guidelines to make computer games more accessible to gamers with disabilities has won an award from the US-based Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Game Accessibility Guidelines won the intellectual and developmental disabilities category of the annual FCC Chairman’s Awards for Advancements in Accessibility.

Launched in 2012, the guidelines were created by an international group of game developers, accessibility specialists and academics and cover six categories of impairment: general, motor, cognitive, vision, hearing and speech, and are divided into three levels of complexity: basic, intermediate and advanced.

Examples of guidelines at different levels of complexity include basic: to provide details of accessibility features on game packaging or website; intermediate: to allow difficulty level to be altered during gameplay; and advanced: to allow settings to be saved to different profiles, at either game or platform level.

Ian Hamilton, an independent user experience designer and consultant from the UK who contributed to the guidelines’ development, told E-Access Bulletin: “Having a US government body make such a public statement about the importance of accessible recreation is a great milestone.

“It is recognition that other people are actually listening and paying attention, and they do value the work that various groups of advocates for game accessibility are doing to advance the field.”

Since launching in 2012, the guidelines have been constantly developed and updated as a “living document” following feedback from gamers and developers. There is a continual open call to contact the authors, to keep the guidelines as inclusive as possible.

Hamilton said he hopes the FCC award will help bring to prominence what remains a niche area in the field of digital accessibility.

“We’ve seen some pretty rapid development in the past couple of years, but the industry is still way, way behind others”, he said. “Despite the progress that is being made, by far the biggest barrier to accessibility in gaming is just a simple lack of awareness amongst developers. So anything at all that results in more conversation about it is always a fantastic thing.”

In an article on the guidelines written in a previous issue of E-Access Bulletin, Hamilton wrote that research commissioned in 2008 by US video game developer PopCap found a higher proportion of people with disabilities among gamers than in the general population.

“Games can be a huge contributor to quality of life for people who have limited recreation options, but they also enable access to culture and socialising, and can have therapeutic benefits”, the article found. “In multiplayer games and virtual worlds, everyone is able to participate on a level playing field, with players’ first impressions of someone being based on how they play the game and what they say, not on any disability they may have.”

Accessible Video Games: Serious Fun, Serious Business

By Ian Hamilton

Video games are now a major part of our culture, but one in which accessibility for people with disabilities is comparatively low. Work in this field has been accelerating greatly in the past couple of years, however, making it a very exciting and fast-paced area of accessibility to be involved with.

Major players include the charities SpecialEffect and AbleGamers Foundation, and the International Game Developers Association’s game accessibility special interest group, alongside many other smaller groups and individuals working on advocacy and development in industry and academia.

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Video Game Communities Could Boost Social Inclusion

Online communities built around popular video games could help build social inclusion for disadvantaged groups including disabled people, a digital games expert involved in a new European research project told E-Access Bulletin.

The Digital Games for Empowerment and Inclusion (DGEI) research project, funded by the European Commission, held its first meeting in Seville last month. The project aims to examine uses of digital games for social purposes such as health, training, education, social inclusion and other public services – so-called “serious games”. After the researching the current state of play it aims to develop an action plan to help realise games’ social potential.

However the use of games for social benefit is wider than simply the use of gaming techniques to create “serious games” with a social or educational purpose, says Scott Colfer, project manager of internet channel Young Dads TV and participant in the Seville event.

He told E-Access Bulletin there was big untapped potential in building support communities around existing popular games, which already feature online player communities.

“The big computer games have a budget bigger than a large motion picture,” Colfer said. “It’s hard to match that, so it might be better to see how communities around games can be used.” One model might be the UK-based group GamerDads, a group of young fathers who set up their own online community to play games online (http://www.gamerdads.co.uk/ ), Colfer said.

“They were tired of playing in normal gamer groups where if you leave during a game, it’s frowned on. But they may have to leave the game because they are looking after their kids.” From coming together as gamers, the group had developed into one of the largest online communities of fathers, and members were offering each other informal support outside the gaming sphere, he said.

“Now they work on other things together, they support a particular charity, and they do it all themselves, there’s no government input.” Similar communities could work well for disabled gamers, Colfer said.

To receive more stories the moment they are published, subscribe by email to E-Access Bulletin. Simply email eab-subs@headstar.com with “subscribe bulletin” in the subject line.

Accessible Kids’ Computer Games: Serious Fun

Each time I hear those commercials on TV of kids having fun with learning games, I ask myself how much of this is or can be available to blind and sight-impaired children. The truth is that, as modern technology develops, we find that more and more blind children are struggling to keep up when it comes to being able to enjoy the excitement and fun. But with more and more toy manufacturers coming out with nifty ways for kids to learn to read, write, do maths and spell, blind and sight-impaired kids need to be given ways to enjoy all of this as well.

It’s true that some major strides have been made in making mainstream games – whether educational or otherwise – more available and accessible to blind and sight-impaired kids but there is a great deal more that needs to be done. Blind and sight-impaired kids need to be able to access more mainstream technology. In short, they need to have equal access to whatever game or learning tool is out there for the mainstream kid.

Some strides have been made in the area of ball games; a beeping baseball or hockey puck, a beeping ball for lawn tennis, and look how Goalball has been developed for blind people. So all is not lost.

So progress continues to be made.

For example Spoonbill Software, run by “happily retired computer programmer” Ian Humphreys in Albany, Western Australia, now offers some 18 free computer games for sighted, vision-impaired and blind players. The Spoonbill’s newest accessible game, BG Codebreaker, substitutes all the letters of the alphabet with numbers and then invites you to decode words. You can browse all 18 game descriptions online.

Other useful sites include AudioGames.net, a portal for games based entirely on sound;

Accessible chess puzzles, hosted by Mario Lang;

And One Switch, a gaming resource for people with physical and learning disabilities.

So can we allow ourselves to dream and hope that the blind children of tomorrow will have a better opportunity to move a bit closer to the mainstream world of games and toys? That they will have more to choose from and that they will be able to enjoy them that much more? Will they have a greater chance to participate in mainstream fun or will they continue to lag behind and need substitute games and toys?

I am sure that as time goes on, more and more toys and games manufacturers will develop products that are more accessible. Products that will benefit all kids. This may even be closer to becoming a reality than many would think, though we can lend a hand by lobbying these companies to move in the right direction.

NOTE: Donna Jodhan is an accessibility consultant who is
involved in an ongoing legal battle with the Canadian
government over accessibility of its websites (see E-Access Bulletin, September issue).

Inclusive Island ‘Discovered’ In Second Life

A new island themed around disability and inclusion has been ‘discovered’ in Second Life, by the man whose online character or ‘avatar’ was the first to use a wheelchair in the virtual world.

Llamdos (try reading the name backwards) was created by Simon Stevens, a consultant who in 2006 created Wheelies, the first virtual night-club in Second Life aimed at both disabled and non-disabled users.

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