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Meeting Ian Hamilton, One Man Championing Gaming for the Disabled

This isn't just a job – it's a mission to spark lasting cultural change.
27 July 2015, 11:30amUpdated on 28 July 2015, 7:48am

Ian Hamilton had a nomadic childhood. Bath, Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and even Australia are among the places he's once called home. And wherever he went, video games followed, his personal and professional paths converging to the point where, today, he's a pioneering advocate for making games more accessible for disabled players.

"Games are all kinds of things to me," Hamilton says. "They're a way to experiencing things beyond everyday life: exploring new places, situations and feelings, accomplishment, achievement, teamwork and competition."

Like many people of his age, Hamilton has played games since his childhood. He began with a Commodore 64 in the mid-1980s, later upgrading to an Atari ST. It was here – playing games like Another World, Populous and The Secret of Monkey Island – when the medium left its biggest impression.

Accessibility options on the CBeebies game 'Something Special'

Inspired, Ian would go on to work as a designer for the BBC's websites and video games. In the latter he did everything from designing characters and user interfaces as well as doing game design and art. This split – working across two industries and in many disciplines – gave Hamilton a valuable perspective that would serve him well in the days to come.

His future arrived in the form of footage of CBeebies games adapted to be playable with a single key press. Like with Stephen Hawking's PC, motor-impaired children can now use various technological advances – tubes to blow into, buttons on headrests or infrared blink detectors – to interact with other bits of technology, like computers and consoles. Seeing these children experience this deeply affected Hamilton.

"So what I was seeing in this video footage was young children – three to five years old – with profound motor-impairments, who just a generation ago would have been lying there being cared for," Hamilton remembers. "Now, through a minor advance in technology, they were laughing, playing, doing the same things as their classmates. It was hard not to be amazed and inspired by that, so from that point on I negotiated whatever time I could to work on my own disability-related projects."

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As his career advanced, Hamilton oversaw multiple projects, some internal and some from outside the BBC, and he noticed a pattern: "What I kept seeing was well-meaning developers spending huge amounts of time and effort on little bits of polish to help make the game that bit more enjoyable, while – through some trivial design decisions – making it a thoroughly unenjoyable experience for big swathes of players. For example, using red and green to indicate good and bad pick-ups is meaningless for the eight percent of males who can't tell the difference between those colours."

Hamilton wanted to fix this, so he started training people internally and drafting up best practice guidelines. Later, when it came time for the BBC to move to Salford, Hamilton couldn't relocate. He was already working partially for the BBC's accessibility team by this point.

"I loved that aspect of my job, so started to look around for other companies where I could carry on doing the same. What I discovered was that the number of companies I could move to was zero. This was a real shock, as in other industries – such as web or construction – 'accessibility specialist' is a standard career path."

Ian at 2014's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco

Hamilton couldn't believe how far behind the games industry was. This sudden realisation pushed Hamilton into advocacy work, changing his goal from finding a new job into joining others trying to make a wider difference. He had already seen the implications of lack of awareness, not only the loss of audience but also loss of human benefit, particularly for people who have restricted access to other facets of life

"When it comes to disability, gaming can mean so much more," Hamilton says. "Gaming is used for everything from escapism to empowerment, physiotherapy to simply being able to take part without being judged on anything other than your own merits. What games actually represent is access to culture, recreation and socialising – all essential parts of quality of life. So through being accessible to disabled gamers, gaming can make a profound difference to people's lives."

Robert Kingett is a gamer with disabilities, and the awareness Hamilton and others are raising means so much to him and others. As a child, Kingett used video games for escapism – respite from an alcoholic and abusive mother. Growing up with cerebral palsy, a stutter and partial blindness was difficult enough, but his mother constantly berated him, calling him "lazy fucker" and "retard".

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Video games weren't just an escape for Kingett, though – they were a way to prove that he was better than the words of his intoxicated mother.

He wasn't just playing games; he was picking up their different systems and rule sets. He was learning. "When people usually think of learning, they think of memorising and repeating facts, but I think learning is taking original concepts and making new ideas or solving puzzles with them," Kingett tells me. "Video games in particular have helped me learn so many things about problem solving. I'm a gamer who firmly believes that gaming can, indeed, make a person smarter."

Still, barriers remain. Kingett hopes that people like Hamilton will raise enough awareness so that things like quick time events become optional as standard, crosshairs on shooting games become adjustable in size, mono sound is an option and environmental audio cues are inserted into more games.

Hamilton is breaking down barriers. Whether consulting with studios, performing accessibility audits, drafting up internal guidelines, organising events or speaking at conferences and universities, he's always educating. If you bring up a game design problem related to disability on Twitter, there's a high chance Ian Hamilton will pop up to advise on a solution. It isn't just a job to him – it's a mission to spark lasting cultural change.

Another huge contribution has been Hamilton's work towards establishing accessibility advice and criteria in Global Game Jam, a worldwide event that takes place in January every year, which last year saw over 1,000 developers considering people with disabilities in their games.

He's also advised on government funding in the EU and Australia, helped get industry awards for good practice set up and contributed to a White House policy briefing. All this when he's not designing colour blind modes or handing out advice on how to avoid common epilepsy triggers. Hamilton often gives advice expecting nothing in return, even going as far as leading work on a free online resource for developers, Game Accessibility Guidelines.

This resource means a lot to disabled gamers. Josef Parlock, who suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – a condition that gives the afflicted chronic pain, joint dislocations, visual problems and poor mobility – explains: "Ian's work, particularly with Games Accessibility Guidelines, has done so many fantastic things for the gaming scene. It's pushed the discussion of disability in a way that is productive and doesn't erase anybody's disability.

"So often, accessibility in gaming is so reduced: 'Here are rebindable controls, and here's a colour blind mode. Boom, done – every disabled player's sorted forever.' And that's simply not how it is. The guidelines point out the many disabilities that need adaptations made, and it presents them in an easy to digest and difficult to quibble way."

With Parlock's condition, games like Dark Souls that can't be paused or manually saved are a real problem. Sometimes the pain can mean he has to come off at a moment's notice, yet many games just don't consider him – this is mainly down to a lack of awareness, which is what makes Hamilton's work so invaluable.

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Hamilton hopes that one day it will be common practice for publishers and large companies to employ someone with his knowledge, so more people can enjoy this unique entertainment medium.

"Gaming is a huge and deeply embedded part of our culture and society," Hamilton says. "It's an industry that's now worth around $80 billion (worldwide), which is a figure pretty close to the total of all recorded entertainment put together. So it's a significant thing to be denied access to, especially when it's just off the back of a trivial design decision, such as which button does which action, or use of red and green for team colours."

Being colour blind myself, I know the relief of going into a menu on a competitive shooter like something from the Call of Duty series and seeing the option to turn on a filter to more easily tell allies and enemies apart. I can only imagine the joy felt by a motor-impaired child as they explore a virtual world. Ian Hamilton is helping developers create tools for everyone to experience their games – access ramps to another world.


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