As Mark Barlet, the founder of AbleGamers, puts it, disabilities are an “equal opportunity” affliction, affecting people across all races and genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. “Disability does not discriminate,” he told us. But much of the modern world does.
He founded AbleGamers 17 years ago, a charitable organization that advocates for accessibility and that finds ways for people to play video games no matter their disability.
In just under two decades of work, he and AbleGamers have massively shifted the conversation on disabilities within the games industry. They've helped to standardize techniques, approaches and benchmarks that have enabled both AAA and indie games developers to create more inclusive, more accessible games.
Mark with player.
In Mark’s own words, his life has been a “confusing mess,” but in hindsight, his wide variety of experiences has served him well. His educational background is in microbiology, which led him to work as an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force serving in a hospital. An injury sidelined his military career, leading him to take a job at a software company that made laboratory software. “They wanted people that worked on their customer service to come from the hospital environment, because we could speak the language to support our customers.” From there, he worked for various branches of the government doing usability, UX design software, and software usability. It was an early education in the interface between client and product that would serve him well later on. “I was never a programmer but I was always the one understanding the way users wanted to interact with software and technologies.”
Mark’s desire to help others has a touching personal origin: his best friend from the sixth grade was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and that opened a window for Mark into the social isolation imposed on people with disabilities. “We used video games to stay connected. We used to get together every Friday and play EverQuest together. And one Friday multiple sclerosis decided her mousing hand wasn’t going to work.” Mark searched in vain for a way to help his friend recover her hobby and stay connected with her friends. “That solution wasn’t really out there. I wasn’t finding anything to help her. And video games were her window to the world. She was a military wife, stationed thousands of miles away from all of her friends, and video games were her family.”
Shifting the Industry’s Perspective
How do you change how a massive, multibillion-dollar industry operates? It’s a daunting task, but AbleGamers' approach appealed as much to the wallets of corporate leaders as to their hearts. “We talked about people with disabilities as a market. We talked about how people with disabilities had money to spend.” Mark pointed out to us that some 46 million people in the United States live with a disability, which makes them a larger demographic than the population of California. And then there’s an age component: “We talked about how there are more players over 50 than there are under 18. When you look at the estimates for total discretionary income among retirees in the next 10 years, we’re talking close to $10 trillion dollars.”
There was another tectonic shift in the industry happening around 2005, in the early days of AbleGamers, that helped Mark’s cause: the birth of indie developers. “Tool sets started becoming available, the iPhone came to market – there was this massive sea change in the industry that gave small developers the tools and the platform to push a game out there. The AAA game studio monopoly was broken, and we started seeing amazing stories being told by minority communities.”
As recently as 2009, Mark had been to a game developers conference where he conducted what he called a one-question interview with various developers: “Have you thought about how people with disabilities play games?” The overwhelming response was no. “One person even called me an ***hole for asking a question like that, because it seemed like such a gotcha – it was shocking.”
One way Mark shifted their perspectives was by talking in more concrete terms. The term “disability” is a catch-all, encompassing a wide variety of potential conditions – so Mark started asking developers what it would take to get their own grandmothers to play their games. “They would all kind if chuckle, but then they would list off features – ‘my grandmother doesn’t see well, so she’d probably need bigger text’ – and this seemed to shift their thinking. That was one of the tricks we played to get their brains working on the problem.”
The Mission Statement
Mark is extremely passionate about what he does, and that passion is most evident when he’s talking about the purpose of AbleGamers. “I eat, breathe, and sleep our mission statement. Our mission is to enable play in order to combat social isolation and foster inclusive communities to improve the lives of people with disabilities.” And with the help of their accessibility experts, they provide assessments to determine the right set of equipment for each individual.
"Our mission is to enable play in order to combat social isolation and foster inclusive communities to improve the lives of people with disabilities."
Was the last year of lockdowns and forced isolation hard for you? “The truth,” Mark told us, “is that for so many people with disabilities, 2020 looked just like 2019, looked just like 2018. Social isolation is an ongoing pandemic among people with disabilities. And we know that a well-crafted game and an okay internet connection allow a person with disabilities to make lifelong friends, to be happy and healthy and have richer social experiences.”
AbleGamers player setup.
Accessible Game Development
Both the need for inclusion and the desire to provide it are obvious, but what about the approach? How do you actually go about making games more inclusive for people with disabilities?
It’s a massive conceptual challenge, since disabilities can vary widely, and part of the appeal of video games is that they are, well, challenging. Can you maintain the degree of difficulty – and therefore the enjoyment – in the game while simultaneously making it playable for someone with multiple sclerosis, for example?
Through his work at AbleGamers, Mark has sourced demographic information from over 600 gamers with disabilities, and they’ve conducted their own independent research using that data. The result is what they call APX, short for Accessible Player Experience. It’s a set of 26 design patterns – available on the AbleGamers website – that encompass how players interact with the game and helps game developers increase accessibility features.
To help increase accessibility throughout the industry, AbleGamers also offers developer certificates for those companies willing to incorporate their accessibility advice. “Last year, in 2020, AbleGamers certified 114 developers in some of the largest AAA studios, including Blizzard Activision, Square Enix, Avalanche, Volition, and many others.”
The certification involves a two-day class that teaches the APX concept to developers, as well as concepts surrounding certainty of action and certainty of knowledge – what Mark calls the player loop – to help developers conceptualize how a gamer with disabilities might play and what challenges they would face. “Companies are using this knowledge to train developers across their different teams, so they have eyes and ears in their audio team, their graphics team, their UI/UX team, their story team.” This approach allows them to foreground the problem of accessibility, rather than make it a low-priority consideration taken up after the actual game development.
The AbleGamers Charity
AbleGamers is a charitable organization. “I emphasize that we are a non-profit organization,” Mark told us. “Everything we do – all of our salaries, all the grants, all the products we make – is paid for by donations. And if it wasn’t for those individuals out there supporting us, we wouldn’t be around to do what we’re doing.”
Check out AbleGamers' website to learn more about the important work they do to foster inclusion and accessibility in games.