Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Until fairly recently, video games were considered niche, maybe even nerdy as a hobby. Although, I do think most of us are familiar with an Italian plumber racing through castles.
Mario: Look at me, Mario. [jumps]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Pac-Man chomping on ghosts [pac-man eats ghosts] and, of course, that hedgehog with a furnace for speed and golden rings. [ring collect]
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the decades, since the release of Atari's Pong, the gaming industry has continued to expand and evolve. US consumers spent $56.6 billion last year on the hobby. Look worldwide and the number comes closer to $170 billion. It rakes in even more than the global movie industry and with numbers like these, questions arise. Who are video games made for? Which gamers should have access? What does it mean to talk about an accessible video game? Grant Stoner is an accessibility journalist who documents and examines the video game industry from a disabled perspective. His work has appeared in TheWashington Post, WIRED, and IGN. Grant joined us here on The Takeaway.
Let's start with how you got into gaming. When did that love for video games show up for you?
Grant: When I was a young child, roughly three or four years old, I was playing video games with my brother, and at the time, my occupational therapist encouraged my parents to let me play games because it was helping exercise my fingers and my hands. Because of that, I grew up playing games across a variety of systems, which not only fuel my love for it but helped keep my hands nimble.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talk about the therapeutic benefits for your hands, but maybe you can just give us the broadest definition for you of what accessibility means. What does it mean to say that a game is accessible?
Grant: Accessibility is different depending on what your disability is. For me, it's being able to play with as little barriers as possible. Every game has certain goals and accomplishments that you need to complete and when you're disabled, you encounter barriers that others don't experience whether through lack of controls, difficulty with certain encounters and accessibility helps alleviate those barriers so that we can have the same experiences as everyone else.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You talk about having the same experiences, but isn't that part of gaming, that different players really do experience games differently?
Grant: It is, but if you spend time on social media and such, you'll see people actively fight against that notion, but in truth like you said, everyone experiences games differently. There isn't a single right way to play games and that's the message that a lot of my stories give out, is that disabled people want the same experiences as everyone else. We need to continue pushing and advocating [unintelligible 00:03:43] developers to make their games as barrier-free as possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this language of barrier-free. Talk to me about what is both simple and complicated about making games accessible.
Grant: As a player and as someone who is regularly interviewed by developers and other disabled players, it's something as simple as maybe adding customizable controls so people can change their buttons or perhaps to give it more complicated like difficulty modes so that people can seamlessly switch between easy mode, maybe normal difficulty, perhaps there's even varying subtitles options that you can use for deaf and hard-of-hearing players. It all depends on what the game is, how developers want their players to experience it. Whenever they understand that, then they can begin layering accessibility throughout all processes of the game development.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It may seem obvious, but I want to ask anyway, why does it matter? This isn't about accessibility to a restroom or to a workplace or to a classroom. Why should we care if games are accessible?
Grant: Video games are the most profitable medium in the entire world. They beat music, they beat movies and then you consider that the vast majority of people on this earth play video games, whether it's on your phone, a simple computer game like Solitaire or Wordle for The New York Times or more complex games like Call of Duty, or say Elden Ring. If you're preventing disabled people from interacting with the biggest medium, you're effectively pushing them out of society.
You're not allowing them to engage in conversations about pop culture phenomenon, you're not allowing them to connect with other individuals, you're not allowing them to decompress after a hard game. If we don't open these games to disabled players, what we're doing is we're effectively shutting them out from the biggest medium.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I so appreciate that answer although I am also absolutely tripping that it is the most profitable medium.
Grant: The newest Avatar movie make over $1 billion within a few weeks, but Call of Duty with its newest release this year made over $1 billion dollars in three days, and that game comes out at least once every two years, sometimes once every year.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking with Grant Stoner about accessibility in video games. More right after this. All right, we're back with accessibility journalist, Grant Stoner. We're talking about video games and the disabled communities. I know that Call of Duty: World at War was particularly difficult for you to play. Can you talk about the accessibility hack that you used?
Grant: That was my own accessibility awakening, where it was the first time that I was playing an online game with friends, and I wasn't able to fully compete alongside them. My brother taped a popsicle stick to the back of my controller. With that modification, I was then able to compete much better, and it was the first moment where I was like, "Oh, maybe I do need accessibility."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Where'd you get the popsicle sticks?
Grant: My freezer. Many popsicles. Every time one of them would break, my dad or my brother would start just eating a popsicle really fast so we can wash it off and tape it to the controller. We've gone through many popsicles.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Grant Stoner, thank you so much for taking the time out to spend a little time with us here on The Takeaway.
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