“I have this friend Zane. He and his brother live in the same care facility. Both are profoundly disabled and they can’t really communicate … imagine how difficult that must be to be sitting in the same room but not be able to interact with your own brother or sister. AbleGamers brings in some equipment to get these two brothers playing Forza Motorsport together and the very first thing one of the brothers does is to ram his car as hard as he can into his brother’s [and send] it flying across the track and into the dirt,” says Steven Spohn, COO of AbleGamers. “Because, at the end of the day, brothers are still brothers.“
Founded in 2004, AbleGamers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that utilizes a multitude of technologies to empower people with disabilities interested in participating in one of the globe’s favorite past times—video games. Spohn is quick to point out, “We’re not a video game charity we’re a human charity, we connect people, and video games just happen to be the medium that we use.”
Hacking the World of Warcraft
Spohn’s introduction to AbleGamers came about through adaptations he had been creating to enable him to continue to play games. “I had been a gamer, like anyone else on the planet who loves games,” says Spohn, “I have spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) which is a disability that slowly takes away my ability to move my muscles as my brain cannot communicate with my muscles that they need to move. And over time my muscles are atrophying and dying,” Spohn shares. “I found a post on AbleGamers on World of Warcraft about how you couldn’t play the game if you couldn’t use the keyboard fully, and I knew that wasn’t true because I was doing it. The founder of AbleGamers, Mark Barlet said, ‘If you think you can do it better why don’t you write about it?’”
“I believe, If you’re disabled you should use what you’ve got while you’ve got it. For people with Cerebral Palsy and SMA the biggest enemy we have is gravity and time. The more you exercise the muscles you have control over the longer you will have that control,” says Spohn. “For me, exercise is twisting my neck muscles while playing games, rather than surrendering and using something that would be arguably easier for me to control but take less effort.”
The gaming industry is making moves to include disabled gamers, with Xbox recently consulting with AbleGamers to create an easily adaptable controller. Though some companies are reluctant to improve their equipment.
“Nintendo [is] lagging way behind on their accessibility,” articulates Spohn, “they continue to put out inaccessible titles and inaccessible platforms. We only just worked out how to make the Nintendo Switch accessible by connecting it to an Xbox or PlayStation controller. We continue to reach out to Nintendo to say that they’ve created amazing virtual worlds and people with disabilities just want to be part of that world.”
Spohn has enough control of his right hand to move a fraction of an inch in any direction. “I have a very sensitive, high DPI (dots per inch) mouse. I have my DPI set to 16,000 DPI. To put that into perspective, pro gamers set their DPI around 450. I also use an infrared tracker that attaches to my Pittsburgh Penguin Cap. As I move my head up, down, left and right, I’m able to push different buttons on the keyboard.” The core function of AbleGamers is to provide the equipment, solutions and expertise that those experiencing disability need in order to play and participate. The charity returns over 80 percent of the money it raises to client needs. Installing a system like the one that Spohn uses can cost multiple thousands of dollars. AbleGamers is currently investing money in 3D printing technology which is leading to the development of new and improved assistive gaming technologies.
Kicking ass from a wheelchair
Games inevitably involve a winner and a loser and the world of competitive gaming, or E-Athletics, is rapidly expanding. BrolyLegs, who plays using his mouth and fingers, is sponsored by AbleGamers to compete in Street Fighter tournaments. “We’re sending him to EVO to compete against the world’s best,” says Spohn. “Last year he got into the world’s top 500 and this year we’re hoping he’ll go even higher… It’s an honor to sponsor him and to watch him compete against people who are fully able bodied and are very confused as to why they’re getting beat by a guy in a wheelchair.”
“Just because we play a little differently doesn’t mean you’re not going to get your butt kicked.”