BOB GARFIELD: On the website AbleGamers.com, video games are rated and reviewed not only for how much fun they are, but how accessible they are for users who have mobility, visual or hearing impairments. The site, founded by disabled veteran Mark Barlet and written by gamers with a variety of disabilities, quickly became a success, drawing more than 100,000 readers a month and filling a niche that most in the gaming industry didn't even know existed. Next week, as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Games for Health Conference, Barlet will host the third annual Game Accessibility Day. Mark, welcome to the show.
MARK BARLET: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Disabilities are sliced and diced in many, many different ways, and it may not be cost-effective to adapt every game for every category of impairment.
MARK BARLET: Well, that’s why we've really kind of published a top-ten of things that are best practices. A game that was very popular here as of late, Dragon Age, is almost a perfect example of what an accessible game should look like, and it’s very commercially successful as well.
[SOUNDTRACK FROM DRAGON AGE] It’s fully closed-captioned. You can pause it at any moment and queue up your moves, which is great for someone with a cognitive disability or a mobility disability where they might need a little more time and they're not as quick on the mouse as other people would be. Their closed-captioning was actually multiple levels. You could turn it on to just give you the characters and you could also turn it on to give you ambient sounds, which is just amazing. It had colorblind components in it. They made parts of it which were color-sensitive also have symbols that went along with it so that the one in seven males in the United States who are colorblind had no problems playing it. So if you use good best practices in standard game development, a lot of the disabled population could be able to play the game.
BOB GARFIELD: You, for example, have mobility problems. You have difficulty walking because of nerve damage sustained in the military.
MARK BARLET: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: You can't play football, but you can play Madden Football.
MARK BARLET: Not very well.
BOB GARFIELD: But when you’re streaking down the sideline, is there some sort of special vicarious thrill that you get that maybe the able-bodied do not?
MARK BARLET: One of my good friends, and the Associate Editor of AbleGamers.com, has a muscular dystrophy called SMA, spinal muscular atrophy, and it’s a terrible disease. But he plays World of Warcraft and is just completely free, and can run and jump and fight monsters, and things that you can't do in real life anyway, but he could never do if they were running around. So I think that there is something really liberating that video games give the disabled market that a lot of able-bodied people probably take for granted.
BOB GARFIELD: So you’re about to host the third Game Accessibility Day. Tell me who the speakers are at an event like this.
MARK BARLET: Well, Chuck Bergen is the CEO of VTree Inc., who actually did something amazing. They went to EA -
BOB GARFIELD: That’s Electronic Arts. That’s the big gorilla of video game publishing.
MARK BARLET: Correct – and licensed some of EA’s software - EA makes Madden and makes Tiger Woods Golf and some of these really great sports games – and actually adapted the game specifically for the physically disabled, cognitively disabled. And he’s had an amazing success at the VA hospitals where some of our men and women have come back in some pretty bad shape, and the impact that he’s making just blows my mind.
BOB GARFIELD: And, what about Rock Band?
MARK BARLET: Just for full disclosure, Rock Band has a very special place in my heart because the CEO of Rock Band was one of the first people to actually write a check to the AbleGamers Foundation and said, hey, turn this into something really real. So Rock Vibe, a university project, are bringing Rock Band to people with visual impairments.
BOB GARFIELD: And how can it be fitted for the use by the blind?
MARK BARLET: Well, what they've done is they've put electrodes on the arms of the gamer and sent little electrical pulses to indicate what action needs to be taking place on the actual electric guitar. So they feel the notes on the screen versus see the notes on the screen.
BOB GARFIELD: Whoa!
MARK BARLET: It’s pretty amazing stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark, I asked you about disabled people enjoying the fantasy of being not just able-bodied but extremely able-bodied, like a professional football player. I wonder if you get involved in the reverse, games that allow the non-disabled to experience life with a substantial impairment?
MARK BARLET: One of the great things that we’re doing at Games for Health is we're running our AbleGamers Accessibility Arcade. And what we do there is we have a lot of technology that is used by the community to help them game, and we actually set that technology up. And we, you know, have Xboxes and racing games that you play with your chin. And you have what’s called a sip-and-puff switch, which is a straw hooked to a switch, and you blow into the straw or you suck into the straw, and that’s your gas pedal and your brake pedal. And you play the entire game with a straw in your mouth, and your chin. And it’s an off-the-shelf racing game.
BOB GARFIELD: We've been talking about people with physical disabilities, but there’s another category of special gamers, and that’s people who are just old.
MARK BARLET: Eleven percent of households that are headed by people 65 and older have gaming consoles in their house. Eleven percent! I mean, that’s up tremendously from, like, two percent only ten years ago.
OLD MAN: Bernice! Bernice! Where are my game controllers?
BOB GARFIELD: I'm sorry, go ahead, Mark. I'm just -
MARK BARLET: They're by the reading glasses.
[BOB LAUGHS] Well, I mean, there’s news right now of nursing homes who are bringing in Wii, because what’s great about some of the games that Wii have come out with is they're games that older people understand. They've bowled before, so you show them that they can actually make the actions of bowling, and some of that “technology fear” just kind of drops off the face of the earth because there’s something that they can truly understand. But beyond that, you've got games on Facebook that a lot of what we like to call the “gray gamers” are enjoying. You have World of Warcraft and some of the multimedia online games that are being adopted by communities because they can socialize and they can be comfortable in their own home, still. And you can't break a hip in World of Warcraft.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, Mark, I very much appreciate your joining us.
MARK BARLET: Thank you very much for having me.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Barlet is president of the AbleGamers Foundation and founder of AbleGamers.com and AbleGamers.org.