The Secret World of Disabled Gamers

Studies like this one could begin to make digital games more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities. by Emerging Technology from the arXiv
Originally posted July 3, 2018

By some estimates, as many as 2.6 billion people take part in digital gaming, a significant fraction of the global population. There is much ongoing study by games makers and researchers into why and how people play: for fun, for the challenge, to relax, to engage with friends, and so on.

And yet one group of people are conspicuous by their absence in this research: people with disabilities. There is growing anecdotal evidence that many disabled people enjoy gaming and are increasingly involved in it. But little is known about who these people are, what games they play, and what challenges they face. And that is a significant barrier to improving access for the disabled.

Today that changes, at least in part, thanks to the work of Jen Beeston and colleagues at the University of York in the UK and the AbleGamers Charity in West Virginia, an organization devoted to improving access to video games for people with disabilities. These folks have surveyed disabled gamers to find out what they play, why they do it, and what kind of assistive technologies they use, along with other feedback.

The team surveyed 230 volunteers identified through the AbleGamers Charity. Of these, 156 were male, 52 female, and 16 non-binary (six preferred not to say).

The volunteers managed a wide range of disabilities. More than half had an upper or lower limb disability, a quarter experienced mental health difficulties, 19 had autism, and others had visual or hearing impairments, learning disabilities, and so on.

Beeston and co asked them how much time they spend gaming in a typical session. Around half said they play between two and four hours at a time, and a quarter said they played for more than five hours at a sitting.

PCs were the most popular gaming platform, with over half of the respondents using them. “[This] is consistent with common wisdom that up until recently PC gaming was more accessible than consoles as accessibility is more mature on that platform,” say Beeston and co.

Volunteers used various types of adaptations, including customized controllers and PC mouses, subtitles, and key remapping. “This suggests that even such relatively straightforward adaptations provided in games can help to enable play for many people,” says the researchers.

The types of game the AbleGamers volunteers favored were similar to those played by able-bodied gamers. These include Super Mario Odyssey, Grand Theft Auto V, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They reported playing online and offline games in single and multiplayer configurations. “[This] strongly suggests that the gaming preferences of these players is no different from non-disabled digital game players,” conclude Beeston and co.

Perhaps most interesting are the reasons why disabled gamers play. They say their primary reason is to have fun and to personally challenge themselves. But unlike able-bodied gamers, they are not strongly motivated by the competitive element of games.

Many respondents said they played for health reasons, such as managing stress, combating depression, and engaging in physical therapy for their hands. Also, about a third of respondents said they played to help with pain management.

All this provides a foundation for future research that should reveal in more detail what kind of assistive technologies are most useful and how they can best be improved. But more work is clearly needed, not least because this survey suffers from some weaknesses.

The volunteers are a self-selecting group from the AbleGamers Charity. Thus, they are likely to be experienced gamers and well versed in the necessary assistive technology. But what of the broader community of disabled people? It’s quite possible that many are excluded entirely from gaming because they do not have the necessary assistive technology or a way to access it.

The survey also lacks a detailed comparison with the gaming habits of able-bodied players and does not clearly identify differences in behavior. For example, how common is gaming among disabled people compared with the able-bodied? How does this vary with different types of disability?

Still, the key point is that Beeston and co are making important steps to change that.

The disabled community is hugely neglected and discriminated against in many areas of life. Gaming should not be one of them.

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