Back in the hazy days of my childhood, I remember a letter from an enthusiastic Mario fan in Nintendo Power. His thumb muscle had been severed, so he learned how to play Super Mario Bros. 3 with his feet. That was a dedication to gaming that was on a level which I could barely comprehend. My thoughts returned to that incident as I looked over AbleGamers.com, a website devoted to helping disabled gamers. How much dedication, I wondered, does it take to overcome a disability to play games? Could some of them be the most hardcore gamers I could find?
The exact definition of a hardcore gamer is up for debate, but I believe that every definition has this criteria: How much trouble are you willing to go through in order to play a game? Whether it’s honing your skills for hours or learning the game mechanics’ formulae, dedication and perseverance are the mark of a hardcore gamer. And what requires more dedication than overcoming a physical limitation in order to play a game?
Mark C. Barlet is dedicated to helping the disabled play games. He founded AbleGamers not for himself, but for Stephanie, a long-time friend and gamer diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “I was mad. I was mad at her and I was mad at Everquest and I was mad at Google,” he said. “I wanted answers and no one had any … I turned that anger towards building AbleGamers.com and we want to make sure that as many people that want to play, can.”
Among AbleGamers’ offerings are reviews on the latest games, including Dragon Age, Bayonetta, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Its game reviews differ from other sites because they contain additional information on accessibility. With a large spectrum of disabilities to account for, reviewers have to check quite a few things. Mike Myers, a reviewer for the site, listed many of the things he considers: “Colorblind issues, deaf issues, can it be played one-handed? Would someone who has trouble with large movements have problems? What about small, quick and precise ones?” Mike, who has underdeveloped hands from tetrophocomelia, was very familiar with the issues that disabled gamers face. “My right ‘hand’ is more developed than my left. The left hand looks kind of like a manatee head, and the right has a few useless fleshy nubs and a random knuckle. I basically have only two usable fingers.”
Steve Spohn, Associate Editor of AbleGamers, has a similar problem, but his hardship comes from a lack of strength, not digits. He has muscular dystrophy, which slowly deteriorates his muscles as he ages. “I started playing videogames on the Nintendo, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be exact. At first, I could use the controller just like anyone else but, as time marched on, it became increasingly difficult to hold the controller. Sega came along around the same time, with its 3-button controller, which made things even more difficult. I quickly learned that I could make small adaptations to continue playing.
“First, I would put the controller down on the table and use it like a pianist plays the piano. Later, I would invest in controllers that would give me easier ways of playing, like turbo functions. I loved games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat but it took a lot of work to play those. Nevertheless, I continued to play until I would get tired.”
Spohn’s explanation for determining accessibility is simple: “Generally we look for options. Can you turn subtitles on? Can you adjust mouse sensitivity? Can you alter the colors and fonts? If I had one hand could I still play?” The last one is particularly important to him; his muscles have degraded to the point he can no longer use a keyboard. He must play computer games using only the mouse.
Spohn and Barlet’s friend Stephanie are not the only gamers whose disabilities appeared or worsened as they grew older. As the first generation of gamers ages, more and more of them develop health problems over time. “There are some issues, like muscular dystrophy, that you are born with and it is debilitating from birth,” Barlet stated. “That said, you are also born with multiple sclerosis, you just will not know it until you are in your thirties. There are so many issues that fall into that category: some muscular dystrophies, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson.”
For these gamers, it is encouraging to have a website categorize which games they will be able to play as their abilities degenerate. But there is another group of gamers that were disabled by accident. That’s what happened to Barlet. “I just went to work one day and before the day was over I was flown to Bethesda Naval to have my back operated on,” he said. “Slipped on the stairs and broke my back.”
I shuddered at the mention of accidents and how a single incident could irrevocably change your life. Like anyone, I worry about my typing being hindered by carpal tunnel syndrome or, maybe, losing a finger. What would it be like to lose more than that? Would I still be able to game?
Michael Clinton, known as 1armbandit on AbleGamers, certainly can. In 2002, he had an accident while working on a high-voltage power line. Over 14,000 volts of electricity coursed through his body. His left hand, which took the brunt of the damage, was amputated. He was 19 at the time, and an avid gamer, but Clinton refused to let his injury keep him from enjoying first-person shooters like Modern Warfare 2 and Global Agenda.
“It took me a few months to get somewhat skilled at the PS3 controller,” Clinton said. “I just needed to find different tactics and ways to play. I control the left movement joystick with my chin and use right hand to hit most of the buttons. I use my left stump arm to hit L1 and L2 if I need to.”
I paused to make sure that I was forming the correct mental image: In order to play Modern Warfare 2, Clinton held up the controller by his face, moving with his chin, using his right hand to aim and fire, and his left stump for the shoulder buttons. Amazing.
“How well do you play like that?” I asked.
“I hold my own,” he replied. “On a scale of 1 to 10, maybe a 5 or 6.”
Playing games on the computer has a whole different set of issues for Clinton. Keyboard use is especially tricky. “I use my mouse hand and just try to be quick about it,” he said. “I also have Ctrl bound to forward movement for lots of games and just use my left stump arm to hit that.”
“What about strafing and backing up?” I asked.
“Can’t do it really,” he answered. “I play Global Agenda at the moment and use jump and jetpack to make up for no strafing.”
I sat back, humbled. This sounded like an insane challenge that a “hardcore” gamer would set for him or herself once the thrill was gone. To think that someone would go through that just to play the game struck me as incredible. Had I ever been that dedicated?
Each of the gamers I spoke to went to fantastic lengths just to play their favorite games. Mike Myers bought an arcade-style controller, complete with giant joystick and large buttons, just to play GoldenEye. (“Worth every penny?” “Yeah, definitely.”) RenderB, a gamer with impaired vision, sets up macros and uses physical and software magnifiers to deal with buttons and text that is too small to read. As Steve Spohn’s muscular dystrophy has progressed, he’s had to set his mouse sensitivity extremely high, higher than some games allow, in order to play. “Fortunately, there are usually hidden XML files that can be edited,” Spohn said. He hacks the configuration files to play the games that he loves.
Configuration. That word popped up again and again. Just about every irritant that disabled gamers had towards game developers stemmed from not having the option to change something. It’s extremely frustrating not being able to completely reconfigure the keys, not being able to set the mouse sensitivity high or low enough, not being able to change the text color or increase the text size, or not having a subtitles option. To play these games, these gamers were willing to dive into the guts of a game’s files or buy custom reconfigurable controllers. That effort could have been saved if their $60 game had a few more options. Barlet has a single request for game developers: “Just make the game flexible. Have your out-of-the-box settings that 80 percent of people will never go into, but for that 20 percent that are going into those detailed settings, they are there for a reason.”
Disabled gamers want flexibility because they grasp something fundamental: It doesn’t matter whether you hit a button with your thumb, tap a pedal with your foot, or have your pupil’s motion traced by an eye tracker. Any input can be converted into any output. It doesn’t matter if your muscles are deteriorating, you don’t have all your fingers, or you’re missing a hand. If you can make an input, Mario can still jump, the space marine can still shoot, and you can still play with the best of them.
Still don’t believe me? Then let me introduce you to Randy “N0m4d” Fitzgerald. He’s a professional gamer with underdeveloped arms and legs from arthrogryposis. He competitively plays Street Fighter IV and Rainbow Six Vegas by manipulating a custom Xbox 360 controller with his face. Can you get any more hardcore than that?
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