Living with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy has taught me to be the type of person who enjoys finding solutions to problems caused by either muscle degeneration or the need to adapt standard equipment. It taps into my creative ‘outside the box’ mentality. My Mum also happens to be great at understanding a problem and helping me implement a potential fix. 

About 3 years ago, I was having serious problems with gaming, due to the heavy controller. I couldn’t lift my hands high enough to a) hold the controller, b) rotating both analog sticks and c) reach the face buttons. The solution was to rest each wrist on two regular sponges positioned at the optimal height. An iteration is still in circulation now. However, the yellow sponge has been upgraded to a less conspicuous black sponge. 

Displaying my Special Effect PS4 gaming setup. On the table is my first adapted controller by Remap.
[Alt text: Displaying my Special Effect PS4 gaming setup. On the table is my first adapted controller by Remap]

I can remember one disaster rearing its ugly head before a trip to London. A wire had snapped in my buddy button, which allows me to independently choose between wheelchair functions. It meant that, for any positional adjustments, I had to be tied to my carer. So, I called the charity ReMap, who make or adapt standard equipment for disabled people. The solution was to strengthen the connection between the broken wires using the magic product Sugru.

A Horipad PS4 controller having its analog sticks redesigned using Sugru.
[Alt text: A Horipad PS4 controller having its analog sticks redesigned using Sugru]

Sugru is the world’s first mouldable glue that sets strong by turning into a durable, flexible silicone rubber. This magical product gives users the ability to practically mod everything, or bring back to life unloved or damaged items. Everyone can become a fixer through the versatility of Sugru and the power of their imagination. Sugru can be a valuable tool for people living with disabilities. I’ve used it to create a new wheelchair control stick to improve grip and comfort during mobilisation. 

Gaming has always been a huge part of my life, it was my friend helping me through the dark isolated periods. I’ve saved Princess Peach from the nasty Bowser, wielded a Lightsaber, chased a few terrified squealing Grunts in Halo, thrown a Batarang, chainsawed a Locust using a Lancer, and saved the universe as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect trilogy. Not bad, eh?

A 'Critical Mission Failure' screen.
[Alt text: A ‘Critical Mission Failure’ screen]

Ready for PS4 Gate 2015? After buying a PS4, I just couldn’t wait to boot up the console and jump into Dragon Age: Inquisition as a rogue. My elation only lasted up until I held the heavy controller. “Hold on, mate. Don’t forget about me,” said the PS4 controller. It was a huge step backwards from my beloved PS3 controller and impossible for me to even press the face buttons. At that time, I wasn’t aware of accessible gaming so I thought that the only option for me would be to completely stop gaming.

Ben Heck pointing at some retro technology.
[Alt text: Ben Heck pointing at some retro technology]

After months of research, I found a YouTube video of the genius Ben Heck modding a controller. My first thought was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if Ben Heck created a custom controller for me?” 

Since then, I focused on improving accessibility within the gaming industry, working with the wonderful accessibility community. Through research, I found the great gaming charity Special Effect, who visited me at home to help me find the right gaming setup. I couldn’t have been happier when they provided me with a PS4 controller with sensitive buttons, four switch ports and lighter analog sticks.

Close up of me using my current PS4 gaming setup, you can see 2 switch ports for the buttons L2 + R2.
[Alt text: Close up of me using my current PS4 gaming setup, you can see 2 switch ports for the buttons L2 + R2]

As a blogger (@uncannyvivek), I thought that sharing my rollercoaster ride with gaming will be beneficial to others currently having trouble. My blog led Tom Brett from Sugru to contact me about an interesting project where they had partnered up with Ben Heck to design a custom controller. They thought I’d be the right person for the project. I literally couldn’t believe that my wish had actually come true. How can you say no?

Ben Heck pointing at my custom controller's orange and green Sugru stick toppers.
[Alt text: Ben Heck pointing at my custom controller’s orange and green Sugru stick toppers]

The project powered-up when the awesome Sugru team visited me at home in my natural gaming environment to a) talk about my current setup, b) find out exactly which problems I wanted improving, c) film some gameplay footage. The project initially focused on enabling me to play my favourite game(s) the Mass Effect trilogy on Xbox One X.

Starting screen for the game Mass Effect 3.
[Alt text: Starting screen for the game Mass Effect 3]

I discussed the Titan Two adapter, which enables me to connect my preferred adapted PS4 controller to use whilst gaming on an Xbox One X, alongside utilising the switch ports on the innovative Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). Its true greatness empowers all gamers, regardless of the console through inclusion and accessibility.

Ben Heck's initial design drawing with all the discussed modifications.
[Alt text: Ben Heck’s initial design drawing with all the discussed modifications]

With the information gathered from the first meeting, Sugru created a Google Doc for ease of communication to discuss information and share design drawings. Ben would be strengthening the controller adaptations and smoothing out button transitions using the fantastic Sugru.

The front panel of a Horipad PS4 controller.
[Alt text: The front panel of a Horipad PS4 controller]

The controller design is based around a Hori PS4 controller due to my ideal stick placement and, importantly for Ben, it’s easier to mod without hardware restrictions. 

Ben made the following adaptations to the final controller:

  • Trigger Extensions moulded with Sugru
  • Custom Sugru joystick toppers
  • Ultra-light press buttons
  • Buttons replacing the traditional D-pad
  • 2 touch-sensitive sticks to tap instead of pressing R3 + L3
  • Moved the Options + Share buttons closer to the PS button
  • Raised the Triangle + Circle buttons
  • Analog sticks with more sensitivity 
  • 3D printed stand to hold the controller
Ben Heck pointing to the touch tap buttons for the buttons R3 + L3.
[Alt text: Ben Heck pointing to the touch tap buttons for the buttons R3 + L3]

Making the analog sticks sensitive was a small hurdle for Ben, in order to do that he had to cut the internal springs. Unknowingly, this created the side effect that whenever you fully push the analog sticks towards the edges, they stuck to the rim.

The inner workings of the custom face buttons held together with Sugru.
[Alt text: The inner workings of the custom face buttons held together with Sugru]

Ben really is a genius as all of my wishes were always possible for him. Ben’s Maker videos are compelling viewing, watching him work is so fascinating as I’ve never seen the complicated, inner workings of a controller before. Most importantly, you also get a genuine sense of his enthusiasm to help. Mind you, I would never have the guts to take a controller apart, or drill a hole in it! 

 The Motherboard inside my custom controller.
[Alt text: The Motherboard inside my custom controller]

After about six months, Ben finished his brilliant design process. He posted the magical parcel with my custom controller, stick toppers and accompanying stand. The delivery date couldn’t come fast enough, but I thankfully didn’t have to wait that long for it to arrive! It arrived on a Friday, which was perfect as I had a whole weekend to test it out!

Ben Heck opening a packet of Sugru.
[Alt text: Ben Heck opening a packet of Sugru]

Opening the box was so exciting, it contained a controller that could potentially change the way I play games forever. However, I had to contain my enthusiasm remembering PS4 Gate 2015 – that a small change can turn into a big problem. I’m sure Schroedinger felt somewhat similar when opening his Box. 

Completed custom controller and stand made by Ben Heck.
[Alt text: Completed custom controller and stand made by Ben Heck]

I obviously had nothing to fear. The controller was easier to use in comparison to regular controllers. The adaptations were perfect, extended triggers, sensitive buttons, the 3D printed stand, and the new layout means that I can now play for longer periods without fatigue due to holding a heavy controller. I now have the ability to fully access all game mechanics, without accessibility issues with game control schemes using R3+L3 inputs, buttons previously impossible to press without assistance. One of the best features was the D-pad buttons which along with being easy to press give me additional remapping choices. Obviously, it did take me a few hours to find the best position and optimal hand position to reach the two new touch sticks. I decided to use the tallest stick toppers that Ben designed using Sugru as they required a little less pressure and were high enough for my thumb to reach/grip. 

I'm using the custom controller to aim and move into cover by pressing 'X' in Mass Effect 3.
[Alt text: I’m using the custom controller to aim and move into cover by pressing ‘X’ in Mass Effect 3]

A week later, the Sugru team visited me again to see the finished product and film me using the custom controller playing Mass Effect 3 and FIFA19. I was happy to showcase my upgraded skills with the new controller. I can now enjoy gaming without losing immersion by having to battle with controls that reminded me of my physical limitations. Upgrading my enjoyment was ultimately the point of this whole collaboration.  

 Side view of the custom controller, in the background you can see me pressing the elongated L2 button.
[Alt text: Side view of the custom controller, in the background you can see me pressing the elongated L2 button]

The only issues I have with the controller are quite simple. The tall stick toppers are too long, so I need medium height toppers with textured circumference edges for more grip. Ben will send the new toppers through the post. Finally, the back of the controller needs to be flatter for more comfortable finger positioning and grip. This alteration would finalise the build and can be easily done at home using the hero sidekick called Sugru.

Ben Heck holding a packet of green Sugru.
[Alt text: Ben Heck holding a packet of green Sugru]

I can’t be more thankful to have been chosen for this wonderful project. I want to thank Ben Heck for using his legendary mod skills and valuable time to create a unique controller for me – I can’t wait to explore more game worlds with my wingman controller. I’m also grateful that Sugru asked me to be part of this amazing project, the team has been lovely to work with during the whole process. It’s rare to ever have a controller made for you, but it demonstrates the versatility of Sugru to give YOU the power to creatively mod your life.

Learn more about this project and read the Q&A on the Sugru site.

If you’ve been inspired to customise your world, grab some Sugru for yourself.

Hacked! @BOM

Me & Karen in front of the poster for the Hacked! Games Re-designed xhibition

Diving head-first into the ocean of the art world and integrating with the diverse ecosystem has been such a brilliant, motivational and educational project. I’d say that my main exposure to art originated from my love of beautiful imagery in comic books & graphical splendour in gaming.

For the past few months, I’ve had the great pleasure to collaborate with the Birmingham art gallery BOM as a guest curator selecting videogames to feature in their Hacked! Games Re-designed art exhibition.

Front enterance of BOM, words Where art, technology and science collide.

Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Front entrance of BOM, the sign says ‘Where art, technology and science collide’.
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

BOM is completely wheelchair accessible, has free entry and a fantastic café. Located on the vibrant Dudley Street in Birmingham. For more details about the Hacked! exhibition please go to https://www.bom.org.uk/event/hacked/

Working in partnership with Karen Newman the Director of BOM and the whole BOM team has been a wonderful experience. It all began through the power of social media, thanks to the disabled artist Abigail Palmer suggesting to Karen that I’d be the best choice as curator.

Sign for the Hacked! Exhibition 
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Sign for the Hacked! Exhibition
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

The Hacked! exhibition celebrates the innovative world of accessible gaming by capturing a unique moment in time when game developers are designing for all ability gamers. Improving user experience by removing unnecessary barriers in order to lead us towards an altogether more inclusive future where enjoyment has no limits.

Closeup of an Xbox Adaptive Controller, 2 switches & 2 PDP joysticks loaned by Ian Hamilton
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Closeup of an Xbox Adaptive Controller, 2 switches & 2 PDP joysticks loaned by Ian Hamilton
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

We had to publicise the BOM exhibition through social media, so on the 10th September, I had the chance to spread awareness of the preview event by appearing on BBC West Midlands afternoon ‘Sunny and Shay’ show. Sunny and Shay were lovely people, slick radio hosts and super supportive of the whole exhibition. It was a great experience to speak with passionate genuine people who could take a ribbing. I’m looking forward to appearing on the show again in December to discuss the progress of Hacked! and give the lowdown of the best accessible games to buy for Christmas.

“We believe that when you do not intentionally deliberately include, you will unintentionally exclude. Xbox recognizes that tradition game controllers can’t be used by everyone, so we made the Xbox Adaptive Controller to empower gamers with limited mobility to play.”

Bryce Johnson (Inclusive Lead for Microsoft Devices)

On the 12th September, the BOM had its grand preview event of the Hacked! exhibition which runs until 21st December. Seeing people enjoy your collective hard-work with a smile on their face is priceless. It was my first art gallery exhibition and it was a roaring success, 100% better than I ever imagined it would be. It’s definitely due to BOMs peaceful atmosphere, the lovely energy of the BOM team and a great accessible environment.

Talking to Peta from the Art Council with people enjoying the Exhibition in the background 
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Talking to Peter from the Art Council with people enjoying the Exhibition in the background
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

Hacked! takes you on a journey to discover the hidden depths of accessible devices offering radically different ways to interact with games. The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) is the big star of the show showcasing its flexibility to allow varying micro-light switches and joysticks to be plugged in. Also, highlighting the ingenuity of the hacker movement to create controller hacks, accessible switches, mods & instructables. Ultimately benefiting the wonderful work of specialist gaming charities like Special Effect and OneSwitch.

“For some there’s no such thing as a one size fits all controller, and no such thing as an easy mode. Accessibility features allows the controller and gameplay to fit around the gamer”

Barrie Ellis (Creator for One Switch)

Magic Moments, disabled gamer using a switch setup by Special Effect
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

It was the first time that I actually had to put my skills and knowledge of accessible gaming into something tangible, it wasn’t the words that counted it was the action plan. I had to choose games with limited violence, artistic flavour and showcasing accessibility. Games with great accessibility but with violent content like Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Fortnite, Uncharted 4, Gears of War 5, God of War all ended up on the cutting floor. It pushed me to investigate deeper into accessibility not just relevant to me but for all types of disability or impairments. The eclectic selection of games have beautiful artistic styles and chosen to  highlight great accessibility solutions ranging from big AAAs titles:

Horizon: Zero Dawn (developed by Guerrilla Games) plunges you into a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by animalistic machines as Aloy trying to uncover her mysterious origins. This award-winning game not only broke down barriers for accessibility but for female representation. Aloy isn’t typical to previous videogame heroes, she is non-sexualised, independent and compassionate. Or jump into the exhilarating web-swinging world of Spider-Man (developed by Insomniac Games) Developed-1 with an accessibility mindset, allowing options to skip minigames and auto-complete challenging Quick-Time events involving fast button presses for gamers with motor disabilities. Insomniac used their great accessibility power with great responsibility.

Both games showcase the flexibility of the XAC to connect to any console using the Titan Two adapter, we utilised the XAC ports for 2 PDP controllers & a multiple switch setup.

Gamer playing Spider-Man using a XAC switch setup
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
A gamer playing Spider-Man using an XAC switch setup
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

Explore historic Britain in Forza Horizon 4 (developed by Playground Games) the driving game with an amazing fleet of accessibility options. Forza Horizon 4 was developed with disabled gamers and accessibility consultants, the plethora of options available are tuned to work in harmony with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Forza has simple controls designed to be playable with the XAC so the game only needed 2 switches for accelerating and braking & 1 bespoke joystick.

Watching a gamer play Forza Horizon 4 using the Xbox Adaptive Controller with switches and joystick 
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
A gamer playing Forza Horizon 4 using the Xbox Adaptive Controller with switches and joystick
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

It’s not all about the big developers though its time to praise the indie developers similarly displaying creative out-of-the-box solutions and pushing the field forward:

Blackbox (developed by Ryan McLeod) twists the mobile puzzle genre conventions with inventive puzzles solved by discovering and exploring the device’s hardware and operating system without even touching the screen. It won the 2017 Apple Design Award for innovation and excellence in design and accessibility.

Display for Black Box developed by Ryan Mcleod
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Display for Black Box developed by Ryan Mcleod
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

” … I used to only communicate everything needed to solve the puzzles visually but now the game has an additional sonic interface in addition to Voice Over support throughout. There’s still work to be done here but hopefully it’s proof that nearly any game can be made accessible.”

Ryan Mcleod (Creator of Blackbox)

Eagle Island (developed by Pixelnicks) A beautifully modernized pixel art aesthetic with falconry-inspired gameplay and innovative layers of accessibility features. Friendship is the key to survival as Eagle Island can be challenging. Player feedback shaped Eagle Island’s accessibility journey, multiple difficulty settings allow players to blast through the game with no barriers. The innovative and unique technical advance in the platformer genre allows you to slow down the speed of the game to continue playing Quill and Koji your way.

 Talking to a gamer playing Eagle Island with a keyboard
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Talking to a gamer playing Eagle Island with a keyboard
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

Sequence Storm (developed by Special Magic Games) An Extreme Rhythm & Racing game where you press buttons in time to music to build up speed, power & special abilities. With accessibility options for colour-blindness and options to slow down gameplay, fully remap controls, generous timing mode so the game can be played without ever needing to press multiple buttons at once. 

Gamer playing Sequence Storm wearing headphones
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Gamer playing Sequence Storm wearing headphones
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

Bubbles the Cat (developed by Team Cats & Bears) Leap and blast your way through over a hundred levels of retro pixel art 1-button platforming action!   The multi-layered and challenging levels unlock clever special abilities which are easy to pick up but difficult to master. Invincibility and infinite jump accessibility features allow you to explore and plan your DIY journey. If you’re a hat collector then this is the game for you!

Guest playing Bubbles the Cat
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
Guest playing Bubbles the Cat
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

“Bubbles was designed from the very beginning to be a game with accessible controls and options as a core pillar of the game’s design… the game’s ‘boost’ features… had depth and challenge but also presented a way that allowed everyone to progress, practice and experiment with the game. I want as many people as possible to be able to play my games, so accessibility will always be a cornerstone for all of my games”
Team Cats & Bears (Creator of Bubbles the Cat)

Mood Pinball where you become a pinball in a virtual machine, entering the world of the neurodiverse artist, Edie Jo Murray.

People enjoying playing Mood Pinball
 Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM
People enjoying playing Mood Pinball
Pictures credited to Alison Baskerville / BOM

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to feature the imaginative Crip Casino fruit machines designed by Abigail Palmer. Through pulling the slot machine lever players can learn about the daily energy level gambles that people living with disabilities have to make.

Innovative musical instruments accessible for everybody are displayed in the space upstairs, from the Haptic Baton allowing blind or visually impaired musicians to sense the conductors baton movement through haptic feedback, Touch Chord (2015) designed by Human Instruments to be played using a mouthpiece & the Monome with buttons that when pressed plays musical patterns designed with school students to provide calming activity during ‘time out’.

Without the assistance of the following people Hacked! would not have fulfilled its brief of showcasing innovative accessibility devices. Gratitude goes to Ian Hamilton for sending us 2 PDP joysticks, multiple switches and providing valuable advice. Barrie Ellis from One Switch for lending us 2 bespoke joysticks and a special switch setup. I want to thank Ryan McLeod, Team Cats & Bears and Pixelnicks for supporting us with free download codes for Blackbox, Bubbles the Cat & Eagle Island. Finally, I want to thank all the game developers that for creating such wonderful accessible worlds and supporting inclusive gaming. 

2019 is the year of accessible gaming so I can’t wait to see what advances are in the pipeline for the future of the gaming industry especially in the field VR technology.

If you want to visit the Hacked! Games Re-designed and I highly recommend it then for more details please go to https://www.bom.org.uk/event/hacked/. BOM is wheelchair accessible, has free entry and a fantastic café. Located on Dudley Street least then a minute walk from Birmingham New Street train station (South-side Exit).

PlatStation 5 and Xbox Scarlett console logo
(Disclaimer: All views & opinions featured in this article are my own)

As a gamer who has experienced 3 console generations, late 2020 will be the time for another evolution as the next generation of consoles will be unleashed. Questions will be answered, games will be unveiled, SSDs will be filled, minds will be blown. I can’t wait to experience what is possible for game developers to create with these consoles.

From the perspective of a disabled gamer, my excitement will also be accompanied by apprehension since change carries its own problems. Without accessibility information, it’s difficult for gamers with a disability to make an informed decision before purchasing a fairly pricy console.  

Mock-up graphic of the PS5 console
Mock-up graphic of the PS5 console

Firstly, here’s some context regarding why next-gen consoles ring alarm bells for me. In the previous generation (PS3 to PS4) upgrade, I never envisioned that I would have to make the decision to completely give up gaming due to the PS4 controller. It highlighted the physical limitations of my hands/fingers which were perfectly formed to the shape of a PS3 controller. Confronting the evident hardware inaccessibility made me discover the gaming accessibility and inclusion community.

I’ve been prowling various gaming websites sniffing out next-gen related news, I found juicy information (from the Playstation blog) of the proposed features in the PS5 controller. So here is my preliminary assessment regarding the new features: Haptic Motors and Adaptive Triggers.

Haptic Motors which replace the existing “rumble” technology will provide amplified feedback to convey a wider range of sensations to gamers through touch. With haptics, players will be able to detect different terrains when accelerating a vehicle, crashing into a wall in a race car might feel much different than making a tackle. Taking an attack that does a few hit points of damage could feel drastically different from the attack dealing a final blow. It illustrates PlayStation’s focus on upgrading gameplay with touch inputs, from the PS Vita to the PS4 touchpad.

Mock-up image of the PS5 controller
Mock-up graphics of the PS5 controller

Adaptive Triggers will allow studios to program the level of resistance players can detect when pulling the triggers (R2/L2). So gamers can experience the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain.

Both controller features will work in harmony to create better immersion. While haptic motors and adaptive triggers will not completely revolutionise gameplay mechanics, they allow game developers to empower players to connect with their games on a totally new level, no longer just relying on graphics or audio.

Graphic showing a wireframe of Adaptive Triggers

I’m all for better immersion and I can see how innovative Haptic Motors and Adaptive Triggers will be for the future of PlayStation VR. However, as a disabled gamer, Haptic Motors and Adaptive Triggers do have some problems. Haptic motors increase the weight of the controller making it heavier than the already heavy PS4 controller which easily saps my energy levels if I didn’t have a controller stand. Vibrational feedback is quite painful for me and easily disrupts my already poor grip. Regarding adaptive triggers, due to my muscle weakness, I can’t apply strong pressure when pulling triggers so programmable resistance levels would increase fatigue during extended gaming sessions.

I hope that the Haptic Motor and Adaptive Trigger features in the PS5 controller will be optional and can be disabled either from system-level or in-game.   

The PS4 controller touchpad is on the chopping board which makes sense as current generation games rarely use the feature. However, the touchpad is great for accessibility as I program all 4 corners to act like 4 buttons activated by a tap thanks to the Titan 2 adapter. I usually assign the inaccessible Options, Touch, Share, PS or L3/R3 buttons to each corner depending on the game.

The PS5 console will apparently allow PS4 games to be playable through backwards compatibility. Personally, I would want backwards compatibility to allow gamers to use a PS4 controller on the PS5 console. I currently have a fantastic PS4 and XboxOne gaming setup thanks to Special Effect so I would prefer to carry on using that setup in the future.

Mock-up of Xbox's Project Scarlett console
Mock-up of Xbox’s Project Scarlett console

I’m super excited to explore the evolution of game design brought by the next generation of consoles, let’s see what brilliance Xbox Scarlett and the Xbox Adaptive Controller has in store for us. It will be the first console generation that acknowledges the necessity of accessibility and inclusion for all gamers.

Close-up of the character Ellie from the Last of Us Part II
Close-up of the character Ellie from the Last of Us Part II

2020 will be the year of the gamer. Prepare for the epic Cyberpunk 2077, Watch Dogs Legion, Doom Eternal & the Last of Us Part II.

Alt-text: Front view of my new Surface Pro 6 holder wheelchair attachment
Alt-text: Front view of my wheelchair attachment holding  my Surface Pro 6

In preparation for attending my 2nd #GAConfEU in London on Monday (Oct 21st). I’ve upgraded my #accessibility & #independence to access #technology.

I finally found the best attachment method to securely hold my #Microsoft Surface Pro 6 on my wheelchair when away from home. The purpose of this arm is to allow me to tweet or use Instagram (because of the in-built camera) during conferences, to stay connected to the conversation on social media. The touch feature of the Surface allows my PA to also tap / type on the screen for me.

Alt-text: Front and side view of my new wheelchair attachment holding my Surface Pro 6 

You may be wondering how I would control the laptop, I’ll have a lap tray which would hold my #Logitech G903 wireless mouse. I would not be able to use the laptop when driving around but it’s perfect for when I’m stationary during a lecture etc or to read my notes.

It’s been quite a challenging task to design an attachment method that allows for quick & easy attachment / detachment so it could be easily carried around in my bag when not in use.

Attachment details 👇👇👇

  • Initially, I was using a gooseneck arm as a holder but that wasn’t strong or secure enough. Also, the gooseneck stuck out of the side of my wheelchair meaning that I could easily hit it on a door frame.
  • I already had a few #RAMMount attachments laying around which are usually used to secure gaming switches onto a wheelchair. These mounts don’t stick out of the side of my wheelchair as they extend parallel under my armrest.
  • The actual holder part was bought on Amazon, nothing too fancy but with a good strong grip.
  • The metal bar attachment (designed by ReMap) under the wheelchair armrest is actually where my wheelchair table slots in. When not in use this bar can slide back completely hidden under the armrest.

Video version 👇👇👇

Alt-text: Video demonstrating my new wheelchair attachment holding my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 
Group photo with Cindy Rose, Chris Capossela and me kitted up with a chin switch, connected to an Xbox Adaptive Controller

Technology is woven into the fabric of modern society, it’s our road to the future. Personally, technology allows me to live with autonomy, independence and most of all happiness.

The beauty of the technology industry is that it exists in a constant state of evolution pushing against the barrier of possibility to instigate change. It’s a platform to create the future, right now. The question is would this future be accessible or inclusive? Disabled people are an avid user-base of technology so designing for accessibility is crucial for any industry. Accessibility is basically usability.

Hector Minto the Technical Evangelist for Accessibility at Microsoft is at the forefront of advocating accessibility, assistive technology and inclusion.

In front of the boarded-up Microsoft Store with a sign saying “Opening 11th July 2019”

[alt text: In front of the boarded-up Microsoft Store with a sign saying “Opening 11th July 2019”]

As an MDUK Trailblazer passionate about accessible gaming and assistive technology, I along with various other Trailblazers were invited to attend the Pre-Launch of the Microsoft Store London which opened on 11th July on Oxford Circus.

“Our flagship Microsoft Store in London represents a unique way to deliver on our mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.” – from the Microsoft London Store website.

Group photo with Cindy Rose, Chris Capossela and Me kitted up with a chin switch, connected to an Xbox Adaptive Controller

[alt text: Group photo with Cindy Rose, Chris Capossela and Me kitted up with a chin switch, connected to an Xbox Adaptive Controller]

Before I write about the Microsoft Store, I want to thank the whole Microsoft team. Especially Cindy Rose the CEO of Microsoft UK for speaking to me, her dedication to inclusivity is evident. I was happy to tangibly illustrate how important the store is not just through the Xbox Adaptive Controller but through the community aspect.

Group of us talking to Hector Minto outside the inclusive gaming room

[alt text: Group of us talking to Hector Minto outside the inclusive gaming room]

The Microsoft Store has been designed from the beginning with accessibility thinking, creating an inclusive and accessible space for everybody. The main shop floor is where you get hands-on with the tech, Surface, Windows, Office, Xbox, PC gaming, HoloLens mixed-reality. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, providing valuable tech support.

The floor has a fantastic surprise though, a McLaren Senna kitted out with awesome tech. That’s as much as I’m willing to say as I don’t want to spoil it!

The Store is the perfect educational place for schools to teach their students all about coding through games like Minecraft. Basically, Future-Proofing Education. Businesses can also use the place to upskill employees. Microsoft wants to empower everybody through the awesome power of ‘assistive’ technology.

The best part of the store for me is the inclusive gaming space. Environmental Accessibility = Empowerment. Usually, I’m not able to access gaming away from home but here it was different. I didn’t realise how necessary inclusion was to my sense of worth until I actually saw the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC), with switches and mounts everywhere. Environmental Accessibility equals empowerment. It was quite a liberating experience to feel fully included as standard which best of all keeps the focus on gaming.

[For a bit of context, I usually play single-player games with captivating narratives, the huge RPGs or Sci-Fi epics. Surprisingly I have never jumped into the world of multiplayer especially FPSs.]

alt text: Playing co-op with Judith Merry using the XAC

[alt text: Playing co-op with Judith Merry using the XAC]

I had a blast playing Forza Horizon 4 with a fellow Trailblazer Judith Merry. The XAC and the Co-pilot feature on Xbox allowed us to share controls, my chin switch was for acceleration and hand switch for braking whilst Judith handled the steering. It brought a sense of freedom and teamwork to a single-player game, instead of worrying about the controls we could just enjoy the game together. At times we were terrible, if we saw a tree or house, we would crash into it. Was that fun? Absolutely.

Me and Sightless Combat playing Gears Of War 4 Horde Mode

[alt text: Me and Sightless Combat playing Gears Of War 4 Horde Mode]

On the second day, I was privileged to play Gears of War 4 with SightlessKombat the awesome gamer with no sight. I was in charge of shooting and melee, we had to find a rhythm and flow so communication was key. It was such a profound experience gaining a deeper insight into a completely different perspective. Excuse the pun but it was eye-opening to game his way, using sound cues instead of visuals. I never in a million years thought that it would be possible for a blind gamer and physically disabled gamer to play co-op. Our teamwork was pretty amazing, for the first time, I could enjoy gaming away from my home setup. I’m glad that Cindy Rose had the opportunity to witness this important moment.

It demonstrates how crucial intersectionality is, challenging our perceptions and building a bridge towards a better inclusive world. All thanks to the XAC and the Microsoft Store London.

I couldn’t leave without buying new technology, so welcome to the family Surface Headphones! Fun Fact: I might have been the first customer at the Microsoft Store.

The future of technology has just landed in London, I’d recommend that you visit it!

To read the MDUK Trailblazer version of this blog go to -> https://www.musculardystrophyuk.org/blog/diary-of-a-trailblazer-microsoft-store-pre-launch-event/

 

The Post-Apocalyptic game genre has recently bloomed, releasing the delightful bounty of Far Cry: New Dawn, Metro: Exodus, Days Gone & the soon to be released Rage 2 & Borderlands 3. These examples of games set in the aftermath of an Apocalypse suggest that the world will either be:

  • Slathered in pink, neon, vivid colours, powers, mutants, fancy weapons and explosions. Glorious carnage.
  • Reclaimed by nature, ready to extinguish the humans prey struggling to survive in any way possible. Basically, our days are numbered. Wonderful.
Borderlands 3 Poster, various characters  holding different weapons.
Borderlands 3 Poster

A post-apocalypse is a symbolic (what if?) future in which the existence of humanity has been threatened somehow by nuclear war or virus outbreaks. So, nature starts reclaiming Earth unfettered by the environmental devastation of a growing human population. Without advanced technology, humans are forced to revert back to their simple hunter/gatherer origins. It’s in this world that a new era for humanity begins, a glimpse into actually living rather than just surviving. Horizon: Zero Dawn has a beautiful post-apocalyptic world, a great narrative exploring what makes us human? and portraying nature in its purest form.

Horizon: Zero Dawn Poster
Horizon: Zero Dawn Poster

The use of mutated or zombie-like enemies goes one step further by giving us a tangible example of societal decay, the mindless consumption of the previous world. The parallels with reality can be quite shocking if you look at the current plastic crisis or global warming, a throwaway society full of advances forgetting to care for the world they live in.

The Last of Us Part II Poster featuring Ellie bearing her teeth.
The Last of Us Part II Poster

The Cordyceps fungus in The Last of Us is symbolic of how the media around us can slowly corrupt our mind, mutating our thoughts and ultimately our actions. The virus removes our perception, robbing us of clarity by firstly attacking the eyes. Beautifully tied into the ending. Ellie asking Joel “Swear to me that everything you said about the Fireflies is true.” Experiencing the previous hospital scene, we know that Joel is lying when he says “Yes”, metaphorically illustrating his corrupted perception. That lie waiting to mutate.

Days Gone Poster, picturing Deacon St John leaning on his bike while a Freaker Horde is running after him.
Days Gone Poster

The Freaker Horde in Days Gone mirror the toxicity of social media crowd dynamics, finding the inherent power in anonymity in order to troll a minority. Asking the question “Can one-person weather this storm alone?” It explores the link with mental health, the tagline “This world comes for you” is a common theme in depression, the feeling that the world is against you, that you’re alone and unwanted. But you’ll keep going, you have the strength to persist, to exist.

Personally, living with a disability draws easy parallels with existing in a world out to get you. Instead of zombies clogging up elevator space we have people who could easily walk up the stairs clogging it up.  Instead of escaping a zombie by hiding inside a shop, we would get eaten while facing the steps.

Thank you for reading my post, apocalypse.  

Review: Logitech Gaming Mice

Can you imagine a world without access to the Internet, Social Media or YouTube? Well, for many disabled people computers can be inaccessible due to keyboard and mice design or from the lack of alternatives available.

Writing from a personal perspective, I was forced into the tough task of transitioning from a Laptop trackpad to a PC with a mouse. Initially, I resigned to the fact that it would be impossible for me to use a regular mouse. Facing this obstacle made me feel powerless, unable to communicate with friends, play games or continue my work.

My PC setup is completely mouse-only however I effectively use the inbuilt Microsoft On-Screen Keyboard. A mouse is placed between both of my hands, whilst my wrists rest on 2 sponges so that my fingers end up at the right height to reach the mouse.

Holding a Logitech G903 Mouse

Let me paint a picture for you of the biological barriers I face. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy causes progressive muscle deterioration, so presently I can only move my hands and fingers. It also drastically effects my energy levels, causing me to quickly fatigue especially after prolonged repetitive movements.

I decided to persevere in my search for the right input device by testing the different options of mice available. A tough task when there isn’t a one-stop shop for disabled people to try out accessibility devices before purchase. So, after numerous purchases of unsuitable mice, from touchpads, trackballs, upright mice even joysticks. I finally found the perfect mouse for me.

Click for the Logitech G502 Video Review

The Logitech Gaming G502 Hero. It ticked all the boxes, clearly designed with quality in mind, reliability, innovative customisable features and user comfort. Aesthetically the G502 looks gorgeous, especially with the bright RGB lights flashing.

What attracted me to the G502 was the 11 programmable buttons, adjustable sensitivity levels and the lightweight 121g design. It also comes with 6 adjustable weights to further tailor the mouse to you. The mouse has a unique feature to instantly swap between a notched scroll-wheel to a hyper-fast spinning one with a click of a button. Perfect for either reading a comic book online or should I say reading an article.

The G502 is ready for constant heavy usage, killing aliens is such a gruelling task so you expect to hear a reliable click from your well-oiled machine. The mechanical microswitches also activate with lightweight pressure so ideal to decrease my level of muscle fatigue. Increasing the DPI sensitivity levels enables the cursor to smoothly move around the whole screen with only minimal finger movement. The rubberized texture of the mouse is comfortable in your hand, with good grip. I always like to put my custom stamp on everything, so I further modified the grip by sticking Velcro strips in optimal positions for my fingers.

 

The Logitech mice all connect to the Logitech Software which it’s intuitive and easy to use. It allows you to program commands and macros to each of the 11 buttons, for example, I have radically altered the button for Right Click. The internal memory-slots store up to 5 profiles so you can take your personal setup anywhere. My favourite programmable command is called G-Shift, pressing it brings up a second layer of buttons ready for customisation. Just like a box of chocolates.

Logitech G502 Software & Button Placements

Logitech G502 Software & Button Placements

G-Shift Function of Logitech G502 Mouse

G-Shift Function of Logitech G502 Mouse

After speaking to Chris Pate, the Awesome (Logitech Gaming Project Manager) and discussing the unintentional accessibility of the G502 mouse. I thought that an ambidextrous layout would be better for me due to how I hold a mouse. I also was in the need for a wireless mouse for use at conferences, so Chris kindly sent me the new ambidextrous wireless Logitech G903.

Click for the Logitech G903 Video Review

The G903 has a fully-configurable button layout, 110g weight with an ambidextrous design ideal for all grip types. It functions superbly exactly like the G502 but with even more advanced functionality. The G903 mouse can switch between the LIGHTSPEED wireless and wired modes without any lag whatsoever. This portability caught my eye, as the wireless nature allows me to use my Microsoft Surface Pro 6 away from home. The buttons are all well positioned and as comfortable to press as the G502.

The Logitech Powerplay Wireless Charging Pad is revolutionary allowing constant power to your mouse through integrated wireless charging capability, with no lag or wires to halt your continuous battle to protect Earth.

I’m greatly appreciative of the work done by Chris Pate and Logitech for their innovative user-focused design. Accessible Technology like the G502 & G903 enable me to live a meaningful and productive existence, advances in the technology industry are vital for the evolution of accessibility.

Ending Video

Spoiler Alert: for the game Gris

Welcoming in the New Year has always been a contemplative time for me. Time to take stock of everything I’ve read, watched, done, played & heard in 2018. So I’m going to be speaking about Mental Health, in various forms of media from games to comic books.

2018 has seen the release of some brilliant games, from Spider-Man to Red Dead Redemption 2. Personally, Red Dead Redemption 2 has transformed my perspective on the importance of gaming, it’s the experiential element that is important for me. The realism of the living world is on another level. The world doesn’t revolve around you, the game could care less about you as a gamer. You’re only part of the world. Away from the incredible story and characters, the world allows a sense of unparalleled freedom. Riding around on your faithful horse, I spend my time cataloguing new animals, foraging for herbs and bringing back food for the camp. The simple things I call the ‘Silence Of Life’ draw me back into my second life as Arthur Morgan.

Image of a girl from the game Gris

The game that I really want to talk about is Gris. It’s one of those games that arrive at the right time of your life like the planets have perfectly aligned. I lost a close friend in December, so Gris was a tangible way to navigate through the emotional barriers inherent in the grieving process.

Gameplay Image of a Girl floating between 2 hands from the game Gris

The core of Gris is about unravelling the mysterious story of a girl. It’s a simple narrative with world-building symbolic of complex emotional concepts. The introduction of new abilities powering you up, teaching you that you own the confidence to take back control of your broken world. Gris is a chance for reflection to ultimately develop strategies to move towards acceptance and peace.

 Black and White contrast in the game Gris

Colour is symbolic of new growth, openness to new perspectives. You’re not simply moving through a beautifully designed environment, you’re moving through your own mental landscape. Every gameplay and the narrative element has symbolic value. Why would a journey through your mental landscape not be full of symbolic elements? Our unconscious mind is a mysterious place, with hidden secrets of meaningful value.

Image of the bird boss with beak open from the game Gris

The game uses different environments and sequences as tangible progression. The ‘Bird’ represents anger, the scream that pushes you back, letting you wallow in despair and reject help. The ‘Robot’ that joins you on your journey is your slow acceptance of help, his goodbye sequence teaches you that relationships are transient and maybe life can continue.

Girl walking up a hill with a Robot friend from the game Gris

The ‘Water’ level signifies your tears, diving deep into your sadness ready to unravel your mental pain. The ‘eel’ chases you out of the water demonstrating your ability to escape the total darkness. Releasing your guilt which blocked you for seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, the ‘Flower’ section, you discover that your voice activates the beauty of nature, that you control the happiness in your life. This liberation of your mental landscape gives you the freedom to focus on the beautiful happy memories of your loved one.      

Ending image from the game Gris

Gris has a perfect ending, we arrive at a beautiful place where our separate mental jigsaw pieces slowly fit together. Illustrating that even through the toughest of times you are able to unite with your sense of self even after grief.

Games like Gris elevate the gaming medium into an art form able to express mature emotional themes.

Lenny Summers quote from Red Dead Redemption 2 "Living free out here, like this... I wouldn't have it any other way."

 

 Click Here for the abridged version of this article in Disability Horizons

The gaming industry recently is going through positive changes becoming much more inclusive for gamers with various abilities. 30% of gamers have a disability so companies cannot afford to alienate that valuable user-base. The awareness and application of accessibility has grown exponentially, now that developers are making their long overdue venture into this forgotten field. However, the effective usage of singular voices all working towards similar goals mean that those influential voices need unification.

Playstation & Xbox have both made great efforts to include accessibility features with varying success. PlayStation developers like Naughty Dog (Uncharted 4: the Thief’s End), Insomniac games (Spider-Man), Santa Monica Studios (God of War) etc champion accessibility features in-game creating a gold standard to follow. This has pushed other developers to innovate with accessibility. The recent release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider was groundbreaking for a number of reasons taking the crown from Uncharted 4 by adding another layer of inclusive features for gamers with cognitive disabilities. You are able to alter the difficulty of these key gameplay elements: Combat, Exploration and Puzzles. For example, if you lowered the difficulty during puzzles Lara would instruct you exactly what to do step-by-step.

God of War is a game known for epic fast-paced challenging fights, this is still the case. After release, many gamers were unable to activate the important ability of Rage Mode as it involved simultaneously pressing both analog sticks (R3+L3) so Santa Monica Studios listened to feedback and added an alternative configuration. Having the power of Playstation developers behind inclusion is a great win for all gamers but there’s definitely more the company could improve on.

The accessibility leaders are definitely Microsoft & Xbox, they recently launched their paradigm-shifting Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC). The XAC was designed primarily to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility through strong partnerships with The AbleGamers Charity, SpecialEffect, Warfighter Engaged, and the disabled gaming community. Input from these groups helped to shape the design, functionality and packaging of the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

At the back of the XAC device there are 2 big buttons in the front corresponding to A + B and at the back are nineteen 3.5mm ports and 2 USB ports for external analog stick inputs. The XAC works in harmony with Xbox’s accessibility feature called Co-Pilot, this feature links 2 regular controllers together to act as 1 controller. So, whilst using a regular controller you can link it with the XAC. This means that gamers have the power over the controller and button placements, allowing you to connect a variety of switches or joysticks in the right place for you. It’s basically a unified hub connecting your own abilities with your gaming experience. Freedom & possibilities in a box.

I was lucky enough to test the Xbox Adaptive Controller before launch. I’d never played on an Xbox One X before but now with a working setup I can play the racing game Forza 7. However, I’ve found that it does take time to find the right configuration and the right assistance. The possibilities are endless but it’s sometimes difficult to know the range of products available which connect to the XAC. It definitely will change gaming, it’s a simple idea with a huge impact, nobody can ignore accessibility now that Microsoft has made this bold statement.

I’ve been asked several times by parents about how to adapt a controller for their son who is struggling with their favourite activity gaming. I had to face that fear a year ago, I thought the only solution to that problem was to just stop gaming. I recommend that if people are having difficulties with gaming don’t despair but contact the gaming charity, I mentioned earlier Special Effect. You can either visit their workshop in Oxford or they will visit you at home and help you to create a setup to ensure that you can continue enjoying gaming again.

Gaming is more than just enjoyment, it’s been a lifeline for me especially during periods of isolation so I’m glad to see the beginning of accessibility thinking. All these positive steps are brilliant however the industry can definitely improve, we need Playstation & Nintendo to follow in Xbox’s footsteps.

“Accessibility shouldn’t be console exclusive, it’s bigger than the industry, inclusion will make gaming accessible so that the beauty of gaming can be appreciated without any barriers.”

In dedication to the eternal legend Stan “the Man” Lee. #RIP.

The ancient being named Uatu The Watcher ponders “The year 2018, it started off relatively similar to any other year so why am I here?” Uatu’s presence signifies the commencement of a major universal shift.

Stan Lee meeting with Watchers

That shift is occurring in the gaming industry, it’s called the Accessibility Revolution. 30% of gamers have a disability so companies cannot afford to alienate that valuable passionate user-base. The awareness and application of accessibility have grown exponentially, developers are making their long overdue venture into this hidden field to create an inclusive sanctuary. However, the effective usage of singular voices all working towards similar goals mean that those influential voices need unification.

Image of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris

The GA Conference EU 2018 held in Paris on the 22nd of October was the perfect platform by bringing passionate disabled gamers together with talented developers to discuss the present and the future state of accessibility. Ian Hamilton (Director of GA Conf 2018 & an Accessibility Consultant), stated that consistent feedback from the “first two events in the USA were really successful” however potential guests or speakers from Europe “were unable to take part because they couldn’t make it across the Atlantic.” This meant that the “good work being done around Europe” wasn’t acknowledged or shared. True inclusion can only be created through spreading knowledge as widely as possible which was a key goal of the event. The GA Conf had brilliant sponsors, so thank you to Epic Games, Ubisoft, Paris Games Week, Shara and support from Microsoft.

Schedule of the Gaming Accessibility Conference 2018

The GA Conference featured valuable educational talks covering a whole range of topics, presenting eye-opening talks about accessibility even for me as a disabled gamer. Developers need to be open to change or new ideas so that they can design accessibility features with the proper knowledge, to fully connect with the idea of making the industry a more inclusive space. It was excellent to see developers from big studios like Epic, Square Enix, Guerrilla, Ubisoft, Microsoft, PlayStation connecting and sharing ideas.

Accessibility is gaining traction from every part of the gaming industry, so developers are attending in order to keep up with best practices. David Tisserand (Ubisoft Accessibility Project Manager) articulates that the event is “the single most informative conference… due to the diversity of the talks, from case studies, experts sharing detailed user needs and real-life stories”. The output of accessibility needs the input of collective knowledge so developers will not be at a disadvantage in the future when accessibility will become a vital part of game design.

Me speaking to Mark Friend from PlayStation

Mark Friend (Senior Researcher at Sony) said that this conference was a great inspiration as it was an opportunity “to see what different people at different companies are doing to make their products more accessible” His talk For All the Players: Accessibility, explored how PlayStation in Europe promotes accessibility, to incorporate it in games to fit their audience. “It’s also great meeting gamers with disabilities, hearing their stories, & getting a deeper understanding about what challenges they face…”

It’s important to think deeply about all forms of disability not just your own. I never realised the challenges faced by colour-blind gamers until Douglas Pennant the Associate Development Manager at Creative Assembly spoke about the invisible problem of designing games for colour-blindness. It’s impossible for someone without colour-blindness to detect these issues during gameplay design so it’s a tricky challenge to overcome.

The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild logo with Link climbing a mountain Jamie Knight BBC’s Senior Research Engineer explored gaming through an autistic lens. His talk on cognitive accessibility explored options that can aid users in receiving, processing & acting on information in a game world with too many cognitive stimuli. Open-world games with millions of icons can be overwhelming, games like Zelda Breath of the Wild provide a vast world that you can explore at your own speed.

Picture of the panel about gaming with motor disabilities

The panel Empower Us! Including Players with Mobility Disabilities was chaired by the inclusion advocate Cherry Thompson. Gaming with a mobility disability had never been covered before, so having the platform to discuss experiences with the panel & answering questions from developers was empowering. We all agreed that including remapping buttons in the game should become standard, along with developers listening to feedback and consulting with disabled gamers. The Able gamers VP Chris Power opened the conference he said “The next step goes way beyond providing a list of options to bypass inaccessible mechanics. Accessibility needs to be a key part of the creative process & include disability representation in video games.” We need to consider this realistically, accessibility thinking in the industry is just beginnings so there’s still a lot of education ahead to get the fundamentals right. Mistakes only create the next stepping stones on our journey towards inclusion.

Graphic about the Xbox Adaptive Controller

Tara Voelker (Co-Director of GA Conf, Xbox Gaming & Disability Community Lead) presented the Microsoft’s Inclusive Technologies Lab, a permanent space specifically dedicated to game accessibility. The lab has a multitude of vital applications from research, feedback from disabled gamers who visit & educating developers by tangibly demonstrating evidence of what an accessibility-centric space looks like. Personally, as a disabled gamer, finding my own setup was quite scary as it is a huge unknown. I wasn’t aware of the devices available, I couldn’t test the said equipment so a space like this would be vital. You don’t realise how powerful visual feedback can be especially for changing perspectives of developers who are fearful of designing accessibility features.

Picture of my Xbox Adaptive Controller setup

During the whole event, we were joined by Bryce Johnson (Inclusive lead at Microsoft) who was heavily involved with the creation of the Inclusive Technologies Lab. Bryce exemplifies accessibility by celebrating the amazing Xbox Adaptive Controller. The possibilities are endless with the XAC. It definitely will change gaming, it’s a simple idea with a huge impact, nobody can ignore accessibility now that Microsoft has made this bold statement.

Ablegamers Logo and the Xbox Adaptive Controller

“There is no room for pride when it comes to accessibility. We need to reach between companies and talk to each other, learn from each other. We all want the same thing, wins for disabled gamers”Meagan Marie, Senior Community Manager at Crystal Dynamics

Me with Meagan Marie the Senior Community Manager at Crystal Dynamics

The Tomb Raider retrospective by Meagan Marie illustrated how accessibility has been threaded throughout the whole Tomb Raider franchise. Earlier games included multiple pre-set controller configurations and lock-on aim, those options were accessible without Square Enix fully understanding the impact, they were decades ahead of their time. My first gaming memory was of playing Tomb Raider 2 and the safety of Croft Manor because combat scared my 7-year-old self especially when having to shoot tigers. This ability to explore Croft Manor in the earliest trilogy was a genius example of environmental storytelling, a safe playground reflecting Lara’s personality. Exploration not only had practical usage, but the mansion went beyond the detail necessary for a simple tutorial, it had the added benefit of unintentional accessibility. I personally loved searching for the secrets hidden in Croft Manor, this combat-free zone still allowed me to feel like a Tomb Raider without missing out on other gameplay elements. Throughout each iteration the Mansion evolved as part of the ongoing dialogue between developers and fans, so returning to it now, I admire Croft Manor as a feature ahead of its time.

Timeline of the evolution of Croft Manor from Tomb Raider 1, 2 & 3

The recently released Shadow of the Tomb Raider was groundbreaking for its accessibility mindset, taking the crown from Uncharted 4 by adding another layer of inclusive features for gamers with cognitive disabilities. You were able to alter the difficulty of 3 key gameplay elements: Combat, Exploration and Puzzles. For example, if you lowered the difficulty during puzzles Lara would instruct you exactly what to do step-by-step.

Lara Croft with a quiver of arrows and a scene inside hers head with her holding her signature pick-axe

Meagan Marie felt that “representing the hard work of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s accessibility advocates at the conference was a huge honour” and “a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge base and bring learnings back to stakeholders at Square Enix.” Spreading awareness of great practice is important internally as a foundation to build upon but also externally for other game developers to reappropriate great ideas. Accessibility goes beyond mere company rivalries it’s all-encompassing so it requires a holistic approach.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey logo with your character Kassandra ready for battle

Strong examples of successful AAA developers working with an accessibility philosophy, hopefully, that will create a positive and convincing example for all developers. David Tisserand, “We’re trying to do exactly that on all Ubisoft franchises. One feature at a time like the improvements from AC Origins to AC Odyssey.” Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassins Creed Odyssey and Spider-Man are huge commercial successes, so accessibility doesn’t hinder global sales.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey landscape with your character Kassandra on a rearing horse

Kirsty McKnaught from Special Effect explained Eye Mine, the wonderful way to play Minecraft only using eye-gaze assistive technology. It’s a revolutionary step for accessibility, illustrating how flexible assistive tech can be even if you have rudimentary knowledge, as Ian Hamilton said, “Simplicity and flexibility can go a very long way, and open the door to all kinds of great things being layered on top.” The new Tobii Eye-Gaze 4C supports games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey so even more exposure of eye-control efficacy can only be a good thing.

Tara Voelker (Co-Director of GA Conf, Xbox Gaming & Disability Community Lead) states that the best part of the event was the large “variety of studios presented. Everything from a one-person indie to a AAA studio. We wanted everyone to find the content they could relate to & I think we hit it.” Ian Hamilton said that “community building is a really essential part of advocacy work, the amount of good that can come from you spending 30 seconds preaching is really incomparable to the amount of good that can come from spending 30 seconds introducing people to each other. It’s through those connections that efforts multiply…” The life of an inclusion advocate can become quite isolating, as you’re “either working as a sole advocate or trying to be a lone voice of reason in a wider company. So being in a room full of 100 other people who all care about the same things, understand the struggle… it’s all really valuable at a personal level.” The awesome news is that ”a common story we get is of people leaving the events feeling re-energised and re-enthused.”

David Tisserand says “I always learn about new ways to communicate about accessibility. Be it, how to convince my colleagues to care and act, or a sentence/slide which describes very well a design challenge we must solve, or just learning how to communicate with the community. It may sound shallow to focus on communication, but I believe this is how you change mentalities and convince people to do the right thing.” I agree accessibility and inclusion rely heavily on advocates.

Me and Cherry Thompson at the Gaming Accessibility Conference 2018

Speaking of strong accessibility advocates, we ended on a high with Cherry Thompson passionately exploring disability representation in-games, it was absolutely insightful. Accessibility should be a key element during all aspects of the whole creative process and as Cherry stated, it can and should also consider disabled representation in video games. Cherry said that gaming “saved my life” and for me it’s definitely the truth. Disability representation is more powerful than our understanding of it as it reaches into our heart. As Jamie Knight said, “If I exist in a game world it helps me persist in the real world.” As creators, you can’t be properly focusing on narrative design if you are not considering what all your players want, how they might feel and the impact you have left behind. The talk discussed games with extremely negative representations of disability or wheelchairs like Bloodborne, Life is Strange and how damaging it can be to gamers living with a disability. Cherry openly spoke about difficult topics such as Suicide, which is a common narrative stereotype of a disabled character. However, she loves the gaming industry and appreciates developers, we celebrated positive representation in games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice so progression is happening. It was such an insightful, and powerful end to the conference. With strong advocates such as Cherry, the gaming industry will evolve even faster into a space ready to fully embrace accessibility.

I want to thank all the wonderful sponsors, everybody who attended, and the amazing people featured in this post. Without you, none of this would have been possible and the industry is now better for it.

Uatu the Watcher and Stan LeeExcelsior!

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