AbleGamers.com is a site that evaluates the accessibility of games, reviewing them based on how playable they are for gamers with disabilities. It is a unique resource for both game players and developers, and one that is likely to be of interest to many of our readers, so I asked founder Mark Barlet to answer a few questions about himself and the site for us, and he graciously agreed. Thank you to Mark for taking the time to speak with me over e-mail.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into gaming?
My name is Mark Barlet, and I was born on my birthday. I am a little uncommitted on my favorite color, so I picked clear. I got into gaming just like everyone else did. I am a child of the late 80’s so gaming is in my blood. I love MMOs I started playing Asheron’s Call and went from there.
How did AbleGamers get its start, and what are the goals of the site?
The goals of the site started simply, my best friend was diagnosed with MS and I watched it try to steal her love of gaming away from her. I was disabled myself from my days in the military, but my disability did not effect my gaming. Steph on the other hand had a disability that drastically altered her approach to gaming. We went and looked for info on the web looking for answers, and found nothing… so we started AbleGamers.
What are some important things to look for when determining the accessibility of a game?
It is very hard to say “THIS” is what we are looking for. Depending on your disability game accessibility can mean anything. So what we look for are options. I am not deaf and do not need subtitles when I play, but is there an option for subtitles? Steve [Spohn, Associate Editor of AbleGamers] does 99% of his interaction with his PC by use of the mouse, so a game must be playable using just a mouse. That said, others can not use a mouse at all, so we look to see if a game can be played by using the keyboard.
Right now the highest rated game on AbleGamers is Dragon Age: Origins. Does DA:O have any unique qualities that make it particularly accessible?
There are so many. It is almost 100% mouseable, it is also almost 100% keyboardable. It also has some great features for the cognitive disability community. An example, the ability to pause the action and chose the next moves in battle with no timer and no need to rush. For some in the disabled community that is a homerun! It is close captioned, and more. It really is as close to a total package as you can get.
[Ed.: since conducting this interview, AbleGamers named the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins their 2009 Accessible Game of the Year.]
AbleGamers not only provides valuable information for disabled gamers, it’s also a community. What surprises or challenges have you encountered in trying to foster a community around the site?
This is anecdotal, but I have become aware that the gamer approaches accessibility in different ways depending on when they were disabled. Not every time, but many times, when someone comes on to the site and asks the community for help, and they have been disabled all of their lives they look for a solution prescribed for them. If they have MD, they want a “MD solution” and if you tell them that this “Y Solution” will help them out, they are less willing to try it because it is not an “MD” fix. While those disabled later in life are much more willing to to try ANYTHING that works no matter if it is an X, Y, or Z. I can not answer definitively why this is, I have some theories, but it would take pages to explain what I think is going on. So this is a challenge, and sometime frustrating when you want to get a gamer back into the game, and you think you have the answer, and they rebuff you. I know that this has caused some frustration within the community.
The fact is to get a community to really work, you need lots of people… and to reach that critical mass has taken time.
AbleGamers has been featured on some major gaming blogs, like Joystiq. What has the reaction from the mainstream gaming community been like? Have you gotten any backlash, or have folks been generally supportive?
Well, it depends. If you took a poll of the comments on some of these stories then the hard core gamers do not care for us. They fear we are going to ruin their gaming. All I can say to that is not going to happen. We are gamers who are disabled… not disabled gamers. We are gamers first and I do not think that there are many in our community that would want to ruin a game for everyone so that they could play. As we said before… options are the key. Would we like to be able to slow a game down? Sure… what a great OPTION.
Have you had the chance to work with any game developers? What has the reaction been from the development community?
Oh my yes! We talk to developers all the time. We have contacts within Blizzard, EA, BioWare and so on. We do interviews when we can, we were at BlizCon this year, GDC for 2 years in a row and so on. Most listen, and want to make sure that there game can be played by everyone. They key to a game being accessible has a lot to do with WHERE in the development cycle we can talk to them. The closer the game is to GOLD, the less likely we are able to advocate for changes.
What are your plans for the future of AbleGamers?
Well this year AbleGamers became the AbleGamers Foundation a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity. We are taking all the things we have learned in our 5 years and advocating more actively for our community. We are not well funded at the moment but we are working on it, and as our ability grows so will our mission. You can check out where we are on our nonprofit site, AbleGamers.org.
Is there anything else you would like to let our readers know about yourself or AbleGamers?
Everyone is welcome at AbleGamers.com.