Chuck Bittner is one of the most prominent advocates for adding accessibility to videogames.
Photo: Chuck Bittner
Chuck Bittner would love to saddle up and lasso some lawbreakers in Red Dead Redemption. But the videogame’s controls are impossible for him to use.
Bittner has quadriplegia, a type of paralysis that limits the functionality of his arms. His hands can only reach certain buttons on standard Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game controllers — he can’t use two joysticks at once, for example.
It’s not that Bittner, a New Hampshire resident who grew up on Nintendo and Sega, can’t play games at all. The 36-year-old gamer can do battle in Bethesda Softworks’ first-person shooter Brink, for example, which is just as complex as Rockstar Games’ Wild West adventure.
Why? Unlike Red Dead Redemption, Brink allows players to fully remap the game’s control scheme, the layout that determines which button is assigned to a certain action. It’s a common feature of PC games, but not so much on the Xbox.
By tweaking the button layout in Brink and other games that allow such customization, he can hold the controller in his hands and push the buttons with his face.
Relatively simple and inexpensive to implement, button-customization functionality is just one of many ways gamemakers can make their products more accessible for players with physical disabilities. And it’s not just people born with medical problems who could potentially benefit from the implementation of accessibility standards: Genetic diseases and injuries can affect anybody at any time.
“We have ticking time bombs in our DNA,” said Mark Barlet, co-founder of AbleGamers, a nonprofit that has been agitating for gamers with disabilities. “A bad day at work or a split-second at a stoplight on the way to the store and your life could change.”
Barlet, who has limited use of his legs because of a spinal cord injury he incurred while on active duty at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., says button remapping is just the tip of the iceberg. As games get more complicated, poor design choices can make them difficult even for gamers without disabilities.
“So many games are using button combinations that make it almost impossible for all but the most practiced able-bodied person to play a game, much less a disabled person,” Barlet said in an e-mail. “Just because you can use all the buttons at once does not mean you should.”
Pushing for Accessibility
Brink player Bittner is doing his damnedest to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by disabled gamers and has started a petition to get game developers to add accessibility features.
He’s probably the most high-profile gamer calling for increased accessibility. A fellow gamer even wrote a song about him, immortalizing Bittner’s quest in a YouTube video (above). “You see our friend Chuck/He dreams of Kinect/But he suffers from the quadriplegic effect,” sings the songwriter, who goes by Typhoon Boon.
Despite the obvious benefits to disabled gamers, it’s not that easy to get developers to commit to the cause.
“These are not features that nobody has ever done before, or features that need lots of exploration and research,” said game designer Matthew Burns, who has worked on titles in the Call of Duty and Halo series, in an e-mail. The problem, he says, is that accessibility options are often the first thing cut during crunch time, when time and money are at a premium.
Another oft-requested accessibility feature is closed-captioning. Most games include subtitles for spoken dialog, but that’s only half of the auditory experience. In many games, nonverbal sound cues can be essential for success. AbleGamers’ Barlet says text-based representations of a full spectrum of sounds and visual cues would be immensely helpful for the hearing-impaired.
Game designer Reid Kimball, who has worked on titles like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Tony Hawk: Ride, said it’s sad how rare closed captioning is in games.
“It’s cheap to develop compared to other game technology,” Kimball told Wired.com in an e-mail. “The players love having it as an option and there’s tons of opportunity to innovate in this space.”
It can take from two weeks to a month for a full-time, professional development team to create a closed-captioning system, which Kimball says is inexpensive for large studios. Portal 2 creator Valve, for example, adds closed captioning to all of its games.
“The technology can be used in subsequent games across the entire studio and it doesn’t age, unlike expensive graphics-rendering technologies,” Kimball said.
But there are still snags in the process, says Matthew Burns, now the head of Shadegrown Games. The detailed nature of closed captions usually means a game must be completely finished before developers can add them, he said. By that point, there’s often no time left in the schedule.
“Most of the games that I have seen finish with barely enough time to put all of the audio in, let alone [closed captioning] on top of that,” he said.
Advocates for accessible games face a tough battle. Even if they can convince a game studio to consider closed captioning or button remapping, those features will likely be the first things to get scrapped when deadlines loom and developers start working 10- to 12-hour days to finish games.
As the industry matures, developers are becoming more aware of accessibility challenges, but it will take more than awareness to cause an industry sea change.
“It will continue to be piecemeal and slow unless a large, influential company took a stand and made a conscientious effort to be better about this stuff across the board,” said Shadegrown’s Burns. “That would be the turning point.”
‘What game creators do not truly understand is that as we get older, we are more likely to be disabled.’
AbleGamers’ Barlet says hardware makers hold the most power. Should Microsoft mandate that all Xbox 360 games ship with certain accessibility options, developers would have no choice but to make them a priority. But he doesn’t see this happening.
“We have high-level contacts at one of the big [hardware makers], and they have shown little interest beyond lip service at pushing content producers to think about accessibility,” he said.
Still, the issue’s not going away.
“What game creators do not truly understand is that as we get older, we are more likely to be disabled,” Barlet said. “We have two wars going on, and our soldiers are not all coming back in the same condition as they left. Those men and women are gamers.”
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