AbleGamers Is Bringing Accessibility Services to Video Games

Video games are a great stress reliever, but what if you don't have the physical dexterity to manage the controllers due to disability? Enter Mark Barlet's AbleGamers, an organization that uses partners with tech companies to open up the world of...

May 2 2014, 4:17pm

The Adroit Controller. All photos via the author.
What’s required to play the average video game? Not in terms of tech, television resolution, or optimal viewing angle; but how about the functions of your body? Well, to start, the common controller needs your index and middle fingers for those shoulder buttons. Your thumbs need to be pretty dextrous, manning the joysticks, buttons, and directional-pad in harmony. Then either your ring or pinky need keep that controller hoisted while your other fingers whip about. And that’s all assuming you can draw two hands close enough together to fit into gaming’s mould.

If, for a large variety of reasons, you simply are not capable of this, what can you do?

“Games are great stress relievers, pain relievers,” says Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamer “There are so many different things science is proving that video games do for the greater population, so why shouldn’t people with disabilities benefit?”

When Barlet started AbleGamers ten years ago, he was investigating options for his friend and co-founder, who had developed MS. This enquiry became a blog, which then expanded into a non-profit that has opened labs in Brooklyn, Washington DC, and most recently Toronto. In late April, AbleGamers and U of T’s Semaphore Labs, which will be permanently hosting AbleGamers, held an arcade to show some of their peripherals. I stopped in to see their solution to a greatly overlooked problem.

The arcade was on the main floor of Robarts Library in a small and sometimes really packed room. The first surprise is that AbleGamers’ focus is far flung from making new games, or exploratory titles designed explicitly for the disabled. While they do advocate for more closed captioning and colour blindness modes in software (looking at you, red-gridded real time strategy games), their overwhelming goal is to find general methods of allowing any game to be played by anybody. The second surprise was that no one seemed to take any of the free juice available.

“They want to play Grand Theft Auto, they want to play Halo,” says Sara Grimes, Semaphore’s associate director. “They want to play the games that everyone is talking about. What disabled players want to play is what everyone else is playing.”

The solution AbleGamers pursues is in the controller mapping, or the dismantling of it. One of the stations, playing the puzzle game


, was outfitted with two long crane-arms. One at the end of a joystick box and the other attached to a large green touch-pad. The arms could be manoeuvred and locked, hypothetically letting the user position button functions wherever they’d be most comfortable. Later on, Hexic was swapped out for Portal, and a tall dudely visitor decided to twist the arms around to play with his knees—just for fun.

Mark Barlet, middle, holding court.
This contraption was put together using the Adroit Controller, a box that lets you completely customize the configuration of an Xbox 360 controller as needed. Oddly enough, the generous device was created by a company called Evil Controllers.“I always thought it was pretty funny since they’ve partnered with us,” says Barlet. “One of their slogans is ‘Evil Controllers, when evil goes good.’”

“See, there’s the game, there’s the system it plays on, there’s an interface, and there’s you. The interface most of us use is a keyboard or mouse, controller, and then there’s the game. We’re just interrupting that middleware, taking the interface, blowing it apart and making different modes of operation for it than the lockbox controller.”

They weren’t in use, but around the room were mammoth game pads, similar looking to the type Street Fighter pros use, but built to withstand any damage that may come to them. They can also be mounted on most surfaces. Barlet said he once sent one to Malaysia in nothing more than a manila envelope. “It was probably holding up cargo on the airplane,” says Barlet.

One of the most ambitious items in the arcade is the Ergodex DX1. A tablet that lets you place buttons anywhere on the surface, and each button memorizes their function, allowing you move and paste the buttons wherever they need to be. Barlet says it was originally created with flight sim fanatics in mind, but it’s proven to be far more useful than that niche. A lot of these devices have overlapping functions for non-disabled players; Barlet happily quoted a Microsoft run study that suggests 83% of people use assistive features in Windows without even realizing it.

“A lot of controller layouts are quite tricky,” says Grimes, “and the number of people that feel excluded just from the traditional controller layout far exceeds what we envision as the disabled community. Even if you have a small issue with your hand, or a fatigue issue or spasticity as a result of cerebral palsy or MS, that can affect you quite a bit. These small controllers and all the buttons they require in that particular configuration is quite exclusive. These look complicated but we’re really just remapping controllers, to make devices that are easier to manipulate.”

The Ergodex DX1.
Barlet hopes that one day his foundation won’t be needed, his exit strategy being a general awareness that the standard concept of a controller isn’t universally inclusive, and that the alternatives will be easily accessible for those who need them. He also isn’t fazed by Kinect or motion control, since we’re over half a decade in and Dance Central and Wii Sports have remained the few highlights for those platforms.

While the kid-friendly Peggle and Hexic were in play most of the time, a stack to the side built of Fallout 3, Bioshock Infinite, and friends shows this isn’t some precious operation, investing in experimental programs or the dreaded edutainment. This is about concretely creating alternatives so that if someone can only use some of their fingers, or no fingers, or fingers in unique configurations, they won’t have to sit out while everyone dismembers organs with the next Mortal Kombat. It’s just about including everyone in a recreation most schlubs take for granted.

The Toronto lab is permanent, and the public can visit, but for those interested an appointment must be made ahead of time. Contact information is available on Semaphore's site.