Games for the Disabled: Semaphore & AbleGamers’ Accessibility Arcade

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Semaphore Lab’s Sara Grimes and AbleGamers’ Mark Barlet speak at the opening of the Accessibility Arcade at the University of Toronto on Saturday, April 26.

At first, the Axis-3 controller it looks like a unique arcade fighting game stick: large, convex buttons mounted on a sturdy metal frame, and a pair of bat- and ball-topped sticks on either side. You could mistake it for a controller designed solely for the dedicated Street Fighter tournament player.

Another look reveals another purpose: the joysticks can help left-handed and ambidextrous players, sure, but they’re also looser, allowing someone with limited motor skills to move them with his or her elbows, or even chin.

The Axis-3 controller is designed for gamers with disabilities in mind, just like the other devices at the Accessibility Arcade at the University of Toronto.

Housed in Robarts Library in downtown Toronto, the first Canadian chapter of the Accessibility Arcade is a joint effort of the U.S.-based charity the AbleGamers Foundation and the Semaphore Research Cluster, a team of researchers that, as part of U of T’s Faculty of Information, examines accessibility issues about emerging technology.

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Sara Grimes, who co-launched the Accessibility Arcade, is associate director at Semaphore, and looks specifically at accessibility and exclusivity as it relates to video games.

“A variety of types of players aren’t necessarily thought of as ‘the normal gamer,’ and so we hear a lot about gender, ethnicity, and racial background,” says Grimes. “But we’re also looking at how disabled gamers are excluded in various ways, as well as identifying ways to enable inclusivity and to promote inclusive play and opportunities for all players and all gamers to be able to play together.”

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Multiple input devices are hooked up to the Adroit Controller to play Hexic.

Enter the AbleGamers Foundation.

AbleGamers was founded in 2005 by Mark Barlet and Stephanie Walker to develop new interfaces and products that allow gamers with disabilities to play games, overcoming the challenges that a traditional Xbox controller, or keyboard and mouse present to them. They also review games based on how inclusive they are for people with disabilities – the more inclusive a game or platform is for people with wider varieties of disabilities, the better their rating.

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Barlet, who was in Toronto to help launch the Arcade, said he became frustrated when multiple sclerosis took away Walker’s ability to play games.

“Disabilities were something that was in my family, and I was watching them take away the quality of life of one of my best friends,” explained Barlet, “and so we started looking online to find ways to help her game better, and we weren’t finding anything. So we created it.”

AbleGamers collaborates with other peripheral game controller manufacturers, and through the creative process have helped launch several devices with the broadest possible accessibility in mind.

“We don’t look at a specific disability, because if you show me five people with multiple sclerosis, I can show you five different diseases,” says Barlet. “Multiple sclerosis affects everyone differently. We’re really looking at flexibility; we kind of think of this as a Swiss Army Knife.”

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The Axis-1 controller uses old-school arcade stick parts to make a controller that someone with a disability such as multiple sclerosis to play mainstream video games.

Case in point: the Adroit Controller, by the somewhat ironically named Evil Controllers. A pair of modular joysticks is connected to what is largely a switchboard, allowing the user to connect multiple input devices and map them to any command on a keyboard or controller.

In the station setup at Robarts, players used the joysticks, a series of mouse-like click pads and multi-touch sensor pads to control games for the Xbox 360, from the relatively simple tile game Hexic to Valve’s blockbuster Portal. In Barlet’s words, the Adroit “blows up” the traditional controller’s layout, allowing people with different disabilities to customize it to their needs.

Barlet has made it clear that he’s most interested in enabling people with disabilities to play games that everyone else can play – your triple-A Halo, Portal, Angry Birds or Peggle. He’s less interested in the experimental side of games that focus on experiences with one kind of disability or another in mind.

“People with disabilities don’t want to play games that are made for handicapped people,” says Barlet. “They want to play the games their friends are playing.”

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Early in the Accessibility Arcade’s open house, about 50 students – most of them freshly recruited members of the Faculty of Information – visited as part of their orientation. Many students showed interest in the Semaphore cluster’s projects, and a few sat down to talk with Barlet about his work with AbleGamers.

The Accessibility Arcade at Roberts Library will be permanently hosted by the Faculty of Information, and appointments for researchers as well as people hoping to try out accessibility-focused controllers can check them out via appointment.

Initial reception for Canada’s first Accessibility Arcade was positive; here’s hoping the collaboration leads to new and exciting things both for research and inclusive technologies.

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