In 1984, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a tragic car accident. Considering his role in the band there couldn’t have been a worse injury to suffer. Many looked at him and were convinced that this was it. How does a drummer drum without two hands? Allen, determined to continue his career with the popular rock group, persevered. With the help of friends and people within the music injury, he was able to develop a drum kit specially designed so that those actions he would have once performed with his left arm could be replicated with his left foot. In 1986, Allen returned to the drummers seat and the band went on to continue their success, selling millions of albums and remaining popular, even today.
It might be hard to imagine ever playing video games without the benefit of two, or in some cases, any hands at all, but similar feats of recovery can be found throughout the gaming world. Men and women who were born with physical disabilities or suffered grievous accidents restricting their bodies have been able to find alternative methods of control to help keep them in the game. Modified video game controllers have even been used to help injured war veterans through physical therapy. Wii-hab, as some professionals who have integrated Nintendo’s motion controlled console into health care call it, has become more and more common. Tech whizzes have even found ways for injured gamers to play games like Guitar Hero, using controllers adapted for their physical handicaps.
The development of accessible controllers isn’t a new idea. Tinkerers, generally working independently from the mainstream gaming industry have been working with video games since the days of the Atari. Ken Yankelevitz was one the earliest people working in this field. He began his work in 1981, when Atari referred him to a quadriplegic teenager who, lacking the means for conventional recreation, wanted to play video games. He would go on to do much more of this work through his company KYE, designing custom controllers based on the personal and individual needs of each client, a process which has grown increasingly complicated as games and controllers have advanced.
"The way I interface to the different game consoles is by wiring into one of the manufacturer’s game pads and connecting my custom setups to the game pad. The Atari was very simple: Start, Select, one button, and an 8-way joystick. Now the game pads have twelve switches and two analog and one digital joystick. Since some games use all these operations I try to offer them on my custom setups," said Yankelevitz.
How does one go about designing a modern controller for a gamer who only has use of their mouth? For many designers of accessible controllers, this is precisely the challenge they are overcoming — a challenge often tackled by people with disabilities, themselves.
"I’ve never personally been a huge gamer." said Mark Felling, whose company, Broadened Horizons, works to develop accessible technology. "I’m more of an electronic/technology hobbyist. What electrical engineer isn’t? For example, when the PS2 first came out there was quite a big craze and they were hard to get a hold of. I picked one up and had as much fun hacking it and figuring out different ways of using it as I did playing games on it."
Paralyzed from the armpits down, Felling deals on a daily basis with the same disabilities that many of his clients do. Using his expertise, he has redesigned a number of controllers multiple times for a slew of varying levels of disability — a process that often varies in difficulty. “The more complex the control requirements…the more difficult it is for individuals with upper extremity/dexterity limitations to play those games. For example, a racing game that only requires steering and gas and brakes is far more easy to interact with than a first-person shooter where you have to move two analog joysticks in a coordinated fashion while simultaneously activating multiple buttons or even worse, complex multi-button combinations.”
While less extreme disabilities might be accommodated for via simpler methods, paralysis like Felling’s often requires more advanced methods of control. Head and eye tracking, or in many cases, controllers designed for the mouth are required to play the current generation of video games. Other adaptations, like the ability to activate “bullet time” (where the game is slowed during more difficult parts for easier control), are also common.
Considering the unique needs of each person however, sometimes adapting controls isn’t enough and games themselves must be designed to meet the needs of disabled gamers. One Switch Games, for instance, are titles designed so that they can be played with only a few buttons. These might seem primitive compared to many more modern offerings, but often many retro titles fit the bill perfectly. The recent resurgence of retro styled games has actually worked well with this sort of accessibility. It’s notable, however, that among those companies responsible for games like these, some are motivated very little by the needs of disabled gamers.
“They don’t consider the various niche markets’ customer base is big enough to pursue,” says Felling. “Those of us who tried to make specialized or custom controllers have to reverse engineer everything. That adds significant cost and complexity. We could do much more, for example, if basic information on the ports, such as on the bottom of the Nintendo Wii-mote, was shared. I think everyone understands their desire to maintain some control over their products, but at least some willingness to work with those of us serving disabled populations with unique needs, possibly through specific agreements, would be very helpful”
At times, some of the practices of game makers are detrimental to a degree that can be labeled only as extreme. “When Microsoft charges $500,000 just to talk to them about creating a controller for their XBox platforms… it is rather frustrating.” Felling’s assessment of Nintendo and Sony isn’t much better. “Sony and Nintendo leave their platforms a bit more open to third-party manufacturers but are not forthcoming about sharing information.”
This isn’t to say there haven’t ever been examples of game companies working to provide alternatives and modification for physically disabled gamers. At its peak, Atari created many games for their VCS console featuring the option to slow down the gameplay or modify the difficulty in other ways if the player wanted. While this feature, indicated on game packaging by a special bear logo, was more directly aimed at marketing games toward young children, it held some obvious uses for gamers in need of accessible software. Additionally, while Nintendo’s interest in the area seems to have waned since then, the company did in fact release a hands-free controller in 1988. The NES Hands Free Controller sold for around $120 dollars when it was first released, or $179 for the console, the controller, and a game.
Imagine if tomorrow, you woke up and couldn’t use one of your hands. What if you couldn’t use either of them? What if you couldn’t move anything from the neck down? This level of disability is a reality for many people, but thanks to a dedicated community of gamers, engineers, and tinkerers, many of whom are disabled themselves, fans of gaming needn’t find themselves left behind. Mark Felling sums up the importance of gaming accessibility rather succinctly: “Gaming enables a father teach his disabled son how to play baseball, or a disabled father to teach his non-disabled son the strategy behind football. No one is asking for anything free, special, or exceptional.”
They just want to play, a privilege many of us take for granted.