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Dragging accessible computer games into the 21st century

by Adrian Higginbotham

5th August 2010

Over the last 3 months, Ouch! technology correspondent Adrian Higginbotham has drawn attention to recent developments in technology and ease of access. Though practical and employmnet access have been addressed, has the same effort been put in to designing accessible digital leisure time pursuits?
A person playing a computer game using a switch control
They provide the opportunity to blast the life out of every sort of life form, excel at sports you’re not brave enough to even try out for real, or rule over worlds that only a mind as fiendishly intelligent as yours could possibly create. In short, computer games are the ultimate escape from reality, the chance to reign supreme for a few hours over your family, friends, total strangers, or if needs must, just the humble machine. But how do they stack up for accessibility?

What if you don’t have the full complement of senses, or if your motor skills and reaction times don’t fit the parameters of the game’s design? Can you still find titles to enjoy? Is there anything available which puts you on a par with your peers in terms of exhilaration and that you can easily play in harmony with your friends and family?

This month I’ll be spending hours locked alone in a darkened cell in the name of research, so that you don’t have to.
Two people playing a computer game.
Here I am at the controls of my world war II submarine, off the coast of an occupied island. I've threaded my way through a minefield to get here and am sitting, torpedoes at the ready, awaiting the enemy troop carrier that two days ago, a radio transmission alerted me to.

Navigating through this 3D sea-scape, keeping track of compass bearings, radar scans, on-board sonar, periscope views, and target acquisition systems, takes as much concentration as any simulation game you’d find in your local computer store.

With up to 32 sounds playing at any one time, no one could accuse GMA Games Lone Wolf of not being exciting and challenging, even with zero graphics. For this is an ‘audio game’, Made with blind and visually impaired people like me in mind and based exclusively on complex stereo sound.

Sadly, scanning through several excellent websites which pull together details and reviews of accessible games - including OneSwitch.org.uk, GameBase.info, AudioGames.net and AbleGamers.com - it becomes immediately obvious that, disappointingly, this is as good as it gets. In the nearly ten years since Lone Wolf was first released, the accessible games arena has seen little to rival it.

Complex society simulation games, motor racing, shoot-‘m ups, Space invaders, sword fighting, virtual dog racing and even remakes of popular titles such as Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, do exist, either in audio only, or playable with a single key (or switch). Very many are free and those which aren’t will set you back no more than a few pounds (prices which recover the costs of licensing, sounds and images, but which give the developers no real profit).

Enjoyable as these can be, the fact remains that there isn’t an accessible game out there to come close to the quality of commercial equivalents on the highstreet .
A group of teenagers playing a Playstation game.
The availability of top-quality, fully accessibleComputer games is becoming all the more important now that playing them is no longer the solitary geek activity it used to be. Thanks to modern consoles, and especially the Nintendo Wii, gaming has moved from the bedroom to the sitting room, from the domain of the teenage boy to the hub of family life. And we disabled people are missing out.

The current generation of consoles have technology on-board which lends itself well to a diversity of players. There's haptic feedback which lets you feel the inpact of incoming blows, ergonomic controls that are logical and comfortable to use, high quality audio, often connected up to a large screen, and all at a price lower than that of the average home workstation. Very disappointing it is then that the fully accessible options remain little more than retro arcade games with bright colours and louder bangs as their only concession to the 21st century.

For those of you tech-savvy enough to get through the complicated set-up processes, it is possible to cobble together a game of golf on the sony playstation using switches, or tennis for the visually impaired using Wii controllers connecting wirelessly to a PC, but somehow it doesn’t quite have the same appeal.

Where are the games disabled and non-disable people can play together with equal enjoyment?

Disabled people are being excluded from a 21st century family activity and it’s just not good enough! I demand the right to waste hours of my life fragging characters that don’t really exist, beating virtual opponents at sports I’m no good at, and having bragging rights over my kids as to who can keep up with the dance routines from whatever the latest trashy tween flic is.


Have you found any console or desktop games that you can enjoy equally with your friends and family? Tell us your ideas for a game that could be universally accessible and worth playing. Come on geniuses, spill your ideas in the comments below. Accessible family life is at risk here, even if i'ts just Adrian's.
The switch control picture included in this article was provided by Able Gamers.

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