Motion Control and Disability

In this week’s feature piece, Jennifer Allen discusses whether there’s room for the physically disabled in the new world of motion-control gaming, an issue that’s all too relevant to her and her family.

Project Natal offers an exciting, new area of gaming, but not for everyone.

Since the Nintendo Wii’s inception in late 2006, Nintendo’s latest system has been hailed by many as the perfect introduction to gaming for a new section of the population, namely the so-called casual gamer. The ability to control via physical actions with the Wiimote, rather than having to adjust to using an analogue controller or trying to remember complicated button combinations, has made things much easier for many who were originally intimidated by such technology. I can count many friends, young and old, who have been captivated, easily getting the hang of games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Then there’s the ridiculous sales, currently standing at an impressive 52.6 million units sold worldwide, and a staggering 20 million copies of Wii Fit sold since its launch.

That’s all well and good for people if they’re able to jump around and make fast movements with a swing of their arm. There is, however, one key demographic that seems to be missing out a great deal right now: those with physical disabilities and impairments. As much as physically disabled people have vastly improved quality of life than in the past, unfortunately there remain restrictions on what they are able to do – but is now the time when that is more the case than ever when it comes to gaming?

There’s been some irony for me since starting this piece, as I’ve become part of the group temporarily, thanks to recently breaking my foot. This has halted my very mediocre Rock Band 2 drumming performance, much to my neighbor’s delight. It also means I won’t be using the Wii’s Balance Board any time soon. But why this piece occurred to me was not my own temporary misfortune, but because of what my mother suffers through permanently.

Thanks to my life-long obsession with gaming, my mother inevitably learnt a lot about video games through me. She’s beaten me at Tetris, teamed up with me through Bubble Bobble, and we’ve played mostly anything that she could get the hang of. Now she’s pretty much commandeered my PlayStation 2 and Wii, and she even has her own Xbox 360. It might sound arrogant, but I’m pretty confident that I have a very cool gaming mother. She actually understand my madness when I explain my need to boost through multiplayer games on the 360 just to gain ten more achievement points. Sadly, my mother suffers from one frustrating disadvantage with gaming, and one that can restrict her somewhat – her physical disability.

Since a car accident nearly 25 years ago, she has trouble with her right arm and her neck. To many she looks perfectly fine, but in reality she has great difficulty lifting anything vaguely heavy, driving for long distances, and swinging her arms around quickly – something that’s crucial when it comes to games with motion control. In previous console generations she hasn’t had any real problems, but now with motion control becoming more and more relevant and prevalent, she is starting to become restricted in her choices of games to play.

She’s always loved RPGs, particularly turn-based ones because it means she can take her time to think out each move rather than having to react quickly, something her right arm lets her down with. She was watching me once play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the N64, and liked the look of it, so I thought I’d purchase Twilight Princess for the Wii. She loved, but there was just one big problem: the combat. She was great at everything else, loving the puzzle-solving elements and the exploration, but every time she got into a fight with more than one enemy, she needed me to do it for her to allow her to continue. This became very frustrating for both of us, and was certainly very demoralizing for her because she had to admit defeat, something that no disabled person ever wants to do.

Another perfect example is the latest Harry Potter game for the Wii. I was fortunate enough to be given a copy, and immediately thought she would love it, given that she enjoyed the films and had played the PS2 titles in the series. Now, to me the PS2 titles looked painfully bad, but she enjoyed them – and Mum knows best. That was until I played this latest Wii iteration, and found it to be incredibly physical. So physical, in fact, that my arms were actually aching quite badly the following day after frantically trying to create potions and win duels. Every minigame focused heavily on the Wiimote controls. This admittedly made it much more fun than if it had just been a matter of tapping a few buttons, but what of the many disabled gamers who’ve had this opportunity closed to them? With no ability to adjust the controls to something a bit less physical, the only option available is the game’s motion-based controls.

It’s the sort of issue that I’m sure wouldn’t occur to the vast majority of players, but one that I feel developers really need to start taking notes of. On the whole, society is improving in its acceptance and appreciation of the difficulties that disabled people face, but no-one could argue against saying that it’s been a slow process. Only in recent years has British law ensured that all shops, restaurants and businesses have to provide access to disabled people for fear of prosecution. Such changed have even reached the Internet, with websites being greatly encouraged to be accessible to those who use bespoke browsers that aid those with visual impairments. But huge changes are still required to truly ensure equality for the physically disabled members of society, and while there are tales of disabled people overcoming the odds and being able to live a perfectly able, unprejudiced life, there are just as many tales of those being refused employment because of a company’s alleged difficulty in accommodating them, or simply because someone thinks there is something inferior about a physically disabled person. So you could argue that this aspect of gaming is merely a reflection upon society. Motion-based games ignore, or more likely forget, the disabled simply because the rest of society tends to do so too. At least that’s the case until enough noise is made and people begin to realize that things need to be changed, much as was the case with ensuring equal employment laws and disabled access to stores.

Things can certainly change within the world of motion-control based games, and I suspect that they will in the future. As much as many of have grown up with gaming, it’s still a relatively new medium, and one that only comparatively recently caught on with the mainstream to such an extent. But it’s certainly something needs to be taken into account soon. With technology like Project Natal on the way, and with Nintendo focusing more on motion controls with their new and improved MotionPlus, motion control is not going away. In which case it needs to adapt in some way for those who are less physically able than others. I would love to say that I know the answer, but I honestly don’t. The obvious solution would be to have games with motion controls and the option for traditional controls, but that will increase development times and costs to the point where it’s just not practical. It’s a different problem to deal with than adapting a PlayStation controller for someone with limited hand movement, for example, something that ably discussed by my colleague Stew Shearer a while back. This problem is more varied, more wholesale, and altogether tougher.

I do think a solution will present itself in time. After all, who would’ve thought the casual dollar would’ve been worth so much now? Presently, the physically disabled are perhaps not seen as relevant to gaming as they should be, but in time developers will come to appreciate that if they manage to combine motion controls with something that can also be used by the physically disabled, then more people will purchase their titles. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 53 million Americans have some form of disability – around the same number of people who’ve bought a Wii worldwide. Yes, not all of those disabilities relates directly or at all to motion controls, but a significant number do – and that’s just in the U.S.

It sounds harsh, but unless you have been in every situation humanly possible, odds are you’re going to have a certain amount of ignorance to certain things. It’s simply human nature. I can certainly attest to that; two weeks ago it had never occurred to me just how awkward it would be to do simple things such as go up as set of stairs, or get out of a car if I wasn’t able to put weight on one of my feet. For some reason, it just never really occurred to me how difficult it would be to not be able to walk, simply because I took it for granted.

There is one notable thing on the horizon that does have great potential, despite already dividing opinion, and that’s Nintendo’s Demo Play feature. It’s expected to be seen first in the New Super Mario Bros Wii game that’s currently being developed, and will allow a player who’s stuck on a certain part of the game to simply press a button and let the game play itself for a bit, until you’re ready to take over again. It’s already produced controversy, with some claiming that it’s taking gaming away from people and making things too easy. But I think it could be a great idea. It’s no different than simply getting a friend to get you past a difficult section, something I’m sure many of us have done in the past.

I told my mother about Demo Play as soon as it was announced, and her eyes lit up at the prospect. She explained it finally meant she could complete games without requiring my help for certain bits that she finds difficult because of her disability, something that she’s always found demeaning. My mother can’t be the only one that feels this way, in which case Demo Play can only be a good thing in bridging the gap between games and the disabled. Until then, my mother will be restricted to older, slower and less physical games. For me, I’m fortunate enough to know that’s not the end of the world if I have to wait a couple of months to play the drums again in Rock Band 2, but the mere thought of something disabling my arm, and keeping me away from gaming permanently, brings me out in a cold sweat.

Author: Jennifer Allen