Electronic Gaming Monthly Brazil

Electronic Gaming Montly Brazil issue 66.The following accessible gaming magazine article has been translated from the original Brazilian Portuguese in Electronic Gaming Monthly Brazil issue 66. The translation is not in perfect English, but you'll get the gist. Great job Guilherme!

Innovative designs make life easier for the physically disabled.
by Guilherme Linhares

For some time now, video games are not considered kids play anymore. This activity is acquiring power and notoriety year after year. Millions of dollars are invested in the development of the technology and in advertising, reaching an expressive number of people in all the corners of our planet. The manufacturers are no longer targeting only the young crowd, but aiming to persons of all ages. The ATARI generation has been witnessing the "evolution" – of consoles, games, controls… More keys, more resources and an infinity of options have made the electronic games more attractive and much more complex. Undoubtedly this evolution has attracted many people, but the new complexity was also an excluding factor, chasing away the older gamers and mainly the players with special needs. Even though the big manufacturers, who lead the business, may not be conscious of the problem, some private enterprises have been working to remove the barriers of inaccessibility from electronic games, designing adaptable controls and games that use only one key. In Brazil, these initiatives creep slowly, but there are professionals using PC games in the rehabilitation of physically disabled children. An era is dawning when the videogames will become a tool for inclusion and social responsibility.

A new Reality

Because of one of those surprises of Life, I became temporarily part of this group of excluded people. After a motorbike accident, where I lost an arm, all the skill I had gained with my Dual Shock 2 was lost, transforming into anguish my former relationship with the game. This enormous disillusion made me appeal to Sony. Their answer was very objective: "We do not carry a control that may satisfy your needs". More recently, as a new owner of a Xbox 360, I tried Microsoft and got the traditional reply: "At the moment we can not help you, but keep in touch and watch our future products…".

For the apparent lack of a better solution, I tried hard to adapt myself to a 14-key control, using only five fingers - not very gratifying. The only solution I found then was a control shaped as a mouse, made for RPG players, who play and write at the same time. In the RPG DuoCon2, made by parts manufacturer Dragonplus, all the 14 keys, the two analogic levers and the digital directional are accessible to one hand only, the right or the left hand.(there is one directional on each side of the controller). It is not easy to handle, but at least there is a chance of overcoming the problem. Even though it was not made for the purpose of accessibility, one can not disregard the merit of its designer (by the way, it was not Sony).

This search for a complete solution has led me to the acquaintance of Barrie Ellis, from England, and his site One Switch (http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/). Barrie sells controllers of all types, adaptable not only to videogames, but to several electronic devices (remote controllable cars, film cameras, etc), always with the same purpose: to use only one switch.

The One Switch aims to render accessible certain entertainments used by most people, such as computer games, videogames, remotely controlled toys and other devices.

In 1994 working as a voluntary in a help center, Barrie found out a void in the entertainment of people with serious dysfunctions. He started with the creation of an interface in a music program for an old Commodore 64 computer, allowing children and adults to make musical arrangements using only one key. The development of this work reached present day toys and games, bringing this type of entertainment within grasp of most people. This was how the One Switch institution was born, with the purpose of spreading the following message: "Anyone may have fun and do things by himself, if the right equipment is available."

The difficult art of adapting - and being adapted

In several articles displayed in his site, Barrie shows the countless physical hurdles that a controller may present to a person physically disabled and how simple measures can help to overcome them. One example would be the possible change of the controller layout, since presently the games have limited key configurations; or even the incentive to create alternative controllers, allowing the adaptation to several types of limitations. The One Switch site records a very interesting fact: the first known adaptation of a videogame. The Englishman John Dutton , bearer of a muscle dystrophy, modified the joystick of his Atari 2600, fastening with rubber bands a pencil over the switch, so that he could press it with just a slight touch in the pencil, while he used his mouth to move the joystick. At the time John had enviable marks in several Atari games.

The ingenious Benjamin Heckendorn, known for his adaptations of desk consoles into portable format (among them a laptop style Xbox 360), devised on his own, a controller completely accessible with only one hand – a masterpiece made for a friend who could only use his left hand. This controller needs help from one of the legs, because one of the analog levers points down and needs a little "push" from the knee.

The Wii, one of last year's great introduction, comes with new proposals, made possible by way of the singular Wii Remote. This new controller uses an efficient motion sensor and, since it does not use wires, shows very easy handling. Most important: several games may be played using only one of the hands (left or right). But it is too early to determine if, besides offering inclusion, they will also provide exclusion, because the games need some flexibility for the Wii Remote motion.

Games not so Friendly

It is worth mentioning that the controller is not always the villain. Every month the market receives a series of new games and many of them demand skills not natural even for those with full physical resources. One of the recent games of the new generation, that shows very well how much a game can be inaccessible, is the Spider-Man 3.

There are simply no options for changes in the command configuration and handling is extremely dependent of certain triggers, keys of difficult reach for those who play, for example, with only one hand. Thus a "naturally complex" game, featuring an worldly famous character, a hero for lots of children and teenagers, is completely inaccessible for those who have a small physical or motional dysfunction.

Aware of these problems, small time developers have been creating surprisingly nice games that require only the click of one key (on the keyboard or on the controller).

For these games, the Englishman Barrie Ellis provides at the One Switch, a variety of controllers, with different shapes and colors, all of them with only one switch. Some of them can be played by more than one person, in the same game: "Imagine two children, one with a severe disturbance and the other perfectly able, playing a race simulator. One child may take care of the navigation menus, and maybe the gear shift, and the other may act on the throttle and brakes. All that is needed is a console and an interface that can divide the controller functions into two controllers", says Barrie.

Besides One Switch there are other interesting schemes, like the one of the Japanese giant Namco. The company established in 1985 the Hustle Club, to promote the Namco Barrier Free Entertainment program. Beyond offering technological assistance, the club promotes what they call "Rehabili-Tainment" (rehabilitation + entertainment), a treatment for disabled adults and children, offering access to electronic games, but focusing in rehabilitation.

Another scheme that promotes accessibility is the Game Accessibility (http://www.game-accessibility.com/), that aims to show the feasibility of games and accessible functions, besides acting as a fountain of resources for game programmers.

Therapeutic Results

One of the benefits of the games was exposed in the end of last year, as the result of ten years of research on the value of videogames and other forms of virtual reality, to help children and their parents in the fight against anxiety and pain, caused by surgery. Keck Medical School, in California, has released details of a survey among 20 children who had to use intravenous probes. Half of them wore a especial helmet to play a virtual version of Street Luge (a kind of sport where one races down a ramp laying on a board with little wheels); the other half did not. The children that did not play complained, four times more, of pain during the treatment.
In Israel, at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, the doctors have been using the EyeToy of the PlayStation2 in the rehabilitation of patients with severe burning. For the researchers it is an efficient and accessible method for the treatment of burns.

In Brazil, some therapists are already using computer software for the rehabilitation of patients with physical and motional dysfunctions. In the Associaçao Fluminense de Reabilitaçao (AFR), for example, "the games are utilized and developed in accordance with planned objectives and desired gains in each case, motional and/or cognitives", says Doctor Raquel Ramos Moreira. "The Occupational Therapist must analyze all possibilities of each program, of each software, in order to reach the objectives of the treatment for each individual, in an educative, therapeutic, and pleasant manner. Obtaining the plenitude of the occupational being, which is the main object of study" elucidates the doctor.

She adds that the gain obtained by the patient using electronic games included in the treatment is clear-cut, especially in the percept-cognitive area (attention, concentration, reasoning, visual and hearing perception, etc) and the physical area (motion coordination, holding power, motion range, etc). "In most cases, children and adolescents find it more pleasant and interesting, because it is a playful form of therapy", the doctor concludes.

As for the adaptation, she says: " Many patients with physical limitations need adaptatios for the proper and efficient use of the computer". The AFR doctor has noticed that many people have problems to use the keyboard and the mouse, for many reasons. Some caused by motional dysfunction – making it impossible, for example, the dragging of the mouse – others because of the total immobility of the limb.

Perspectives for the future

There is evidently a long way ahead to make a difference in the accessibility of the games, specially in Brazil. But to start walking, we must take the first step. All the enterprises in this area must have social responsibility, because every month there is a downpour of new products and tendencies. Many of these products become fads among children and adolescents. Since they are not designed for ease of accessibility, they create an enormous frustration for the disabled who cannot use them. The feeling of exclusion caused by inaccessibility is bitter, because for every human being it is hard to accept what they can not change. Thus, the more limitations a deficiency brings, the greater the desire of not being disabled. And when it is permanent, it is even harder to accept it. Therefore, the aim of promoting accessibility is to open the way to people to overcome their limitations, easing the barriers that exclude these people from normal life among people with no limitations.

We have seen how a few initiatives may show clearly to our minds the diversity of barriers that exist since the "Stone Age" videogames. A few simple measures may render the games accessible to everyone, as the closed caption for deaf people, controllers with accessible keys for people who have full use of only one upper limb, design of games the be used with a minimum of motions, etc.

Disable persons should not depend only on the solidarity of those that devise creative solutions to lessen this "exclusion barrier" existing today in most electronic games. Even though this subject is not sufficiently discussed in magazines and other forum, we must learn to view this topic with a more human and equalitarian mind, so that we can fill this void. It is also needed that the major enterprises which dominate the market assume the responsibility for this social problem.

Little is going to change before a large number of people reach the necessary level of sensibility to be able to see clearly this shortcoming in the life of many children and adolescents.
I sincerely believe that one day in the future the movement for accessibility will gain power, especially in our country, reaching even those that do not face these problem. Who knows if accessibility will become an important item, as graphics and playability, in determining the success or failure of a new game? The present day reality is that thanks only to a few enterprises and interested people disabled persons may have a better quality of life. Much more is needed. This is my plea."

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