When his best friend developed multiple sclerosis, Mark Barlet became an advocate for accessible gaming. Now AbleGamers, the organization he built from the ground-up, advises some of the industry’s biggest studios on how to make software and hardware accessible for all. While Digging Deep talked with Mark, he was prototyping a button box that could be retrofit to a Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller, helping people with mobility and dexterity challenges access the world of games.
Digging Deep: Can you tell us about your friend, and how you got involved with accessibility in gaming?
Mark: I’m a service-disabled veteran, but my disability doesn’t affect the way I game; it affects the lower extremities. But my best friend from 6th grade has MS. We use videogames to stay connected. We played games every Friday, and one Friday, she didn’t log on like I was expecting her to. I picked up the phone and she told me that MS had affected her mousing hand. She wanted to be able to game and I was like, that’s not cool. I started searching for information to help her game and wasn’t finding anything that was going to get my best friend back in the game. I’m an engineer by trade, so I decided to make it myself. If disability was affecting how the people I care about approach video games, I figure others must be having the same problem. That’s what led me to found AbleGamers.
Digging Deep: What was support like for disabled gamers when you started.
Mark: Five years after we started it, AbleGamers was just a website and a community. And we were also discovering that the problems were greater than we thought. There wasn’t any hardware out there, and more importantly, even if we could find hardware solutions, the games just weren’t there. They didn’t have the features people needed to be accessible. So we turned our energy to working with the game-making community. In 2009, Alex Rigopulos, maker of the game Rock Band, said, ‘Look, Mark, you keep telling me I need to make games for people with disabilities but how do I do it?’ Until then, I’d been focused on the why but not the how. We put together a publication describing how to make games accessible.
Digging Deep: What was the support like from the gaming community for accessible hardware and software?
Mark: I always kind of say that everyone who believes in game accessibility, we could fit on a school bus. And there would be empty spaces. For a long time, it was people on the outside advocating for accessibility – we were an outside organization somewhere in the fandom-sphere trying to advocate for change that had to come from inside the studio. But the hard work of my organization – and I do believe we are the driver of it – means that we’ve filled up the bus now. What’s really been the shift is that now the people who feel strongly about accessibility, the champions, are inside the game studios. Now, after 15 years, studios know that gamers with disabilities are out there – and now those people who believed in us all along are sitting in the studios. That’s the big change: Advocates have gone from outside the industry to inside it. One of my old volunteers works for SONY, another for Xbox – these high school and college kids who cared years and years ago are now in the middle of their careers in the studios.
Digging Deep: What does AbleGamers look like now?
Mark: Now that people with disabilities realize they can become players with disabilities, we may be able to do the thing I thought we were going to do 15 years ago and that is help people with disabilities play video games! Fast forward to today. I helped 1,400 people last year get back in the game, but we have waiting list of 5,000 that want our help. We need funds to hire peer counselors. The demand has far outstripped our supply. I’m meeting with every major game company out there – if you can pick one, I’ve been there. We were part of Microsoft’s accessible controller. We’re working to stabilize to the success we created. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Digging Deep: It sounds like you’re busy! Have you had time to see any of your success firsthand?
Mark: I remember this young lady who was in 6th or 7th grade. She had just joined a new school, and because she was in a wheelchair and the halls were really narrow, she didn’t move classes until after the bell rang. So she ends up in the back of the class by the door, not really seeing anybody, and after the fourth day, no one had said a single word to her. One day, the teacher had finished a lesson early and said students could talk among themselves and the guys in front of her start talking about World of Warcraft. Four days, no one has said anything to her at all – and she says to these guys in front of her, ‘Oh, I have a level 40 hunter in W.O.W.,’ and all of a sudden they’re talking about what server they’re on, blah, blah, blah. They ended up friends through middle school and even all through high school. Two of them went to college together. With games, they had a shared experience. We build relationships based on commonalities, like, we work together so I have a reason to know you, or our kids go to the same school so I have a reason to know you. But for people with disabilities, finding those commonalities can be really hard. The idea that all of sudden these three able-bodied boys, because they shared the common experience of World of Warcraft, were able to have something to build a friendship on – that’s why I do what I do.
Garth Sundem is a parent, husband, and author of books including “Real Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change”.