In 2018, when Sony Interactive Entertainment unveiled the latest versions of two of its top-grossing video game titles - "God of War" and "Marvel's Spider-Man" - they included new features that meant a lot to a specific subset of players: those with disabilities.
To aid people with motor skill impairments, for instance, "God of War" introduced an option to press and hold a single button instead of tapping it repeatedly; it also let players with hearing disabilities adjust individual audio settings such as volume, dialogue and sound effects. For players with visual impairments, the subtitles in "Spider-Man" are now resizable and include tags that always indicate who is speaking.
Five years ago, according to Sam Thompson, a managing senior producer at Sony Interactive, it was possible to count on one hand the number of video games that had features catering to people with disabilities. Today, there are hundreds of such games. The shift, says Thompson, is "kind of amazing" - and he gives credit to a small nonprofit in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
The group, called AbleGamers, was the brainchild of Mark Barlet, a 45-year-old disabled Air Force veteran and entrepreneur. Thompson met Barlet at a PlayStation event in 2016; since then, Sony PlayStation designers have used training cards developed by AbleGamers to help them better understand the challenges that people with disabilities face while gaming.
For Barlet - who grew up in Round Rock, Texas, playing video games on his Atari 2600 - making gaming more accessible to the disabled is about more than promoting a favorite pastime. "Video games give players with disabilities this amazing superpower," he says. "They can be with friends who are thousands of miles away, working on a single mission in a game."
When Barlet was in the Air Force, he suffered a back injury that left him with a bad limp; he still suffers from weakness in one leg. After he was discharged in 1996, he went on to start his own government contracting business. (He also works for the Department of Homeland Security as a software engineer.) He founded AbleGamers in 2004, inspired by the experience of his best friend, Stephanie Walker. One evening earlier that year, she didn't log on for their regular Friday night gaming ritual. "Multiple sclerosis had decided that her right hand wasn't going to work," recalls Barlet. "She couldn't use her mouse because she couldn't feel anything - she was crying and really upset."
Barlet searched online for something that could help her. "I thought everyone would be talking about how people with disabilities play video games and I was just going to jump on the Internet and buy the thing she needed," he says. "But when I made that search, no one was really talking about it. ... So, I thought that was a calling."
AbleGamers started as an online forum "to create a safe place for players with disabilities to share their thoughts, solutions and ideas," Barlet says. "I was hopeful that there were a bunch of really creative people solving problems, and if I gave them a place to hang, we would change the world."
But he quickly learned that the gaming industry's accessibility problems ran deep. And they were twofold: There wasn't enough modified equipment for people with physical disabilities, and the games themselves didn't cater to people with cognitive and visual impairments. Closed-captioning and colorblind mode, for instance, weren't common video game components at the time.
For 10 years, most of AbleGamers' work centered on advocacy. "We really started pushing hard to get the industry to understand that people with disabilities existed, they had money and if you wanted some of that money, you need to make sure that the features they need are included in the game," Barlet says.
In 2008, he met Adam Coe at an accessibility event. Coe is the founder of Evil Controllers, a company that modifies video game controllers to enhance play for gamers. "AbleGamers opened me up to all types of limitations, like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy," says Coe. "From my experience, they're pioneers in bringing awareness to accessibility."
In 2011, AbleGamers released a 47-page guide to gaming accessibility called "Includification." As more companies downloaded it, AbleGamers came to be seen as experts on accessibility in the industry. "We were no longer having to go to the game companies. They were starting to come to us saying, 'Here's the challenge that we have. Can you help us with this?' " Barlet says.
Now that Barlet no longer has to bang on industry doors for attention, he spends more time raising funds for AbleGamers' grant program, which pays for and ships custom controllers to disabled players. "Having a disability oftentimes means you're living on a fixed income, and a $450 controller is just out of reach for so many people," he says. The nonprofit sources the equipment through Evil Controllers and other gaming companies. On average, they receive three to four requests each day.
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One of those requests came from Brandon Amico of Asheville, North Carolina, whose stepson, Thad, now 11, was born without a right hand. When Amico first met Thad at age 7, the boy was using a traditional Xbox controller, which meant he had to toggle between trigger buttons on both sides with his left hand, making it cumbersome to explore, build objects and shoot opponents.
Amico wanted to bond with his then-girlfriend's son over a shared hobby and reached out to AbleGamers. A modified $150 Xbox Elite controller arrived within weeks. With the new controller, Thad was able to access buttons on the back of the controller's left side, letting him perform functions that he would ordinarily have to do with his right hand. "I just hold it regularly in my lap, and it has a bit of a better grip on the sides," says Thad, who spends most of his playtime navigating Fortnite, Minecraft and Overwatch.
"This is the way Thad is able to develop and maintain his friendships," says his mother, Catherine Campbell. "I didn't realize how important this was until AbleGamers came into our lives. It was pretty eye-opening to me as a mom."
Last summer, AbleGamers staffers taught patients at Children's Hospital in New Orleans how to manipulate gaming equipment with their heads, feet, knees and mouths. When patients leave the 10-bed rehabilitation facility, they're encouraged to apply for an AbleGamers grant so they can play at home. "It's really meaningful to the parents," says Jennifer Lyman, a recreation therapist. "Families can play video games together again. It improves quality of life for everybody."
For those who would rather go in person to AbleGamers headquarters in Harpers Ferry, it has a studio where visitors can test assisted technology. "We'll have someone come in on a Saturday morning, and by the time they leave," says Barlet, "they know what they need from a new controller, and they're back in the game."
This article was written by Christina Sturdivant Sani, for The Washington Post.