Disabled Gamers: How the Landscape Is Changing

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A deeper look into the world of disabled gamers featuring an exclusive interview with Mike Begum, a.k.a. BrolyLegs – high level Street Fighter pro who has limited mobility.

Gaming is a pastime enjoyed by millions of people, from all walks of life. For gamers who suffer from limited mobility issues, it’s an entirely different experience.

The mountains that many players in this group must climb to play video games are extremely large. Most situations are unique to the person, plus their disability and the way in which they overcome the challenges they face is amazing.

A ground-breaking piece of equipment was announced last month in May: Microsoft’s brand-new Xbox Adaptive Controller. It’s an Xbox controller that’s ‘‘Designed primarily to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility’’. It’ll hit the shelves in September later this year.

It’s the first official controller developed by a major manufacturer specifically for those with limited mobility. Currently, this group of players must rely on specialist charities (which Microsoft worked alongside to develop the controller) and bespoke equipment to suit their needs. The Xbox Adaptive Controller will certainly change the future for many disabled gamers.

The controller acts as a central hub that allows gamers to plug in different switches, touch-pads and joysticks to replace the traditional buttons of the Xbox controller. It’s one piece of equipment that will meet the needs of many players.

Information Solutions Group conducted a survey in 2008 on behalf of PopCap, a subsidiary of the popular developers – Electronic Arts. This revealed that disabled gamers made up 20% of the casual gaming audience.

The value of the global video game market in 2015 accumulated to over $71 billion, and it’s predicted to rise to over $90 billion by 2020. It comes as no surprise that Microsoft have designed a controller that will greatly improve access to this proportion of customers.

Video games have been proven to improve every player’s cognition, creativity and social skills. In an article written by American psychologist Peter Gray, he explains, ‘‘By now, many dozens of studies have examined psychological correlates of and consequences of video gaming, and, taken as a whole, the results overwhelmingly support the idea that video gaming produces many of the same kinds of benefits as other forms of play.’’

Gaming offers an even wider variety of benefits to those with limited mobility. The most common benefits cited by disabled gamers that are provided by the games they play are stress relief, a lift in mood, a distraction to their issues, improved coordination/dexterity and positive mental stimulation.

Out of the 2,728 disabled gamers that took part in the PopCap survey, 10% had casual games prescribed or recommended to them by a doctor. 44% had recommended playing casual games to others who suffered from similar disabilities. It also showed that players with disabilities played for longer, more often and for different reasons than your average gamer.

Playing provides these gamers with a different style of social interaction they may not find elsewhere. Since communities are blended through video games, players are all in the games together, regardless of their real-life situations.

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Mike Begum/BrolyLegs is a pro Street Fighter player and author of his autobiography “My Life Beyond the Floor”. He was born with arthrogryposis, a disease that severely limits muscle growth and development. Begum doesn’t have full use of his hands, which means he struggles to hold a controller and push buttons in the conventional way. Instead, he uses a combination of his face and tongue to press the buttons on his controller.

Mike says video games have benefited him hugely. “Gaming allows me to fulfil my desire to compete with everyone else,” he says. “I usually play fighting games in general and compete in tournaments against others solely to show what I am capable of doing. Growing up, I was always really into sports, but could not take part in them because of my physical disability. Learning how to play video games became my one obsession because it allowed me to be a part of something big in society.’’

This inspiring figure of the Fighting Game Community once climbed to the top of the rankings to become the #1 Chun-Li player in Ultra Street Fighter IV. These days, you’ll find him playing in tournaments with some of the best players in the world, and you can even get Street Fighter coaching sessions with BrolyLegs.

There are currently many innovative forms of bespoke equipment that enable sufferers of limited mobility issues to play video games. A lot of thinking outside the box is required by the manufacturers since many situations are unique.

A notable piece of equipment is the QuadStick, a mouth-operated controller designed for quadriplegics. It provides gamers that have limited use of their limbs with an option to play via using only their mouths. The QuadStick uses a sip-and-puff sensor to send signals to the console using air pressure by inhaling or exhaling. It comes in three different models: the FPS, the Singleton and the Original. All three have slightly different uses and cater to the different needs of many gamers.

Gyorgy Levay, a Johns Hopkins University graduate, designed a foot-based controller after losing both of his hands. The device is known as the GEAR and uses three separate sensors to detect the movement of the user’s feet. Tilting the foot up or down provides the motion to simulate eight different buttons.

Evil Controllers created an innovative and highly customisable Xbox 360 controller for a sufferer of muscular dystrophy, Steve Spohn. A bag of rice, velcro and duct tape is used to create a makeshift device that users customise depending on their situation or the game. Buttons can be moved, joysticks can be removed, and controls can be assigned to specific sections.

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The Adaptive Controller is not the first time Microsoft have built a controller that gamers with limited mobility can use to their advantage. The Xbox One Elite controller wasn’t entirely designed to become an accessible controller for disabled gamers, but it turned into a great solution. Its affordable price and easy to use features enabled the controller to become a solid option for these players.

Mike Begum is pleased with how the gaming audience with limited mobility are currently being served, he says, ‘‘I think developers today are taking the right steps in their games to accommodate players with limited mobility. It has been a long road of getting developers aware of disabled players and their struggle with accessibility, but I am very encouraged at what I see in today’s games.’’

The Xbox Adaptive Controller may encourage other console and gaming manufacturers to produce similar technology to cater specifically for the limited mobility gaming audience. This piece of news certainly points towards the start of an even brighter future for disabled gamers.

Buy Mike Begum’s ebook, My Life Beyond the Floor, on Amazon UK or US.

For more information on gamers with disabilities, check out the AbleGamers charity.