Our experts: Darryl Adams is the assistive technology program manager in Intel’s Accessibility Office, an organization focused on accessibility within Intel from an employee perspective and across the company for products and technologies. Jamie Sherman is a research scientist and anthropologist in Intel’s Client Computing Group. The two are learning more about competitive gamers with disabilities as part of a yearlong deep dive into the lives and habits of video gamers.
Making a disability an asset: “I am legally blind,” Adams says. “I have a degenerative eye disease. When I started working at Intel, it wasn’t a big problem. Now I’m becoming more aware of basic incompatibilities with my job as a program manager. Years ago, I started looking at assistive technologies to solve my own problem. But I’m now determined to make my disability an asset, and I’m using education to help expand my understanding about the broad spectrum of disabilities and how technology can help level the playing field for others.”
Going virtual: When the research teams from Intel’s Accessibility Office and Client Computing Group set out to learn more about amateur esports competitive gamers, including a subset of players with disabilities, they could not have anticipated the hurdles they would have to overcome. The original plan was to start at the 2020 Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice, Poland. When Intel canceled its presence at the massive esports tournament because of the coronavirus and then scratched all in-person meetings, the team quickly pivoted the research to a virtual format. The silver lining was that it helped them widen their recruiting to include more people with disabilities.
In the current pandemic environment, technology and gaming provide a sense of connection for people who cannot physically be together. This is also true for communities who have difficulty leaving their homes in normal times. “We talk a lot about the toxicity of online gaming. There is another side of that coin that is very valuable to the disability community,” Adams says. “There is a sense of achievement in gaming. You don’t even have to compete against other people; you can compete against the game itself.”
Things not seen: “While we would like to see a world where players don’t have to fear negative responses from other players, Intel has been working on ways to help address the very real problem of toxicity in gaming,” Sherman says. Gaming is also a space where attributes that normally affect how we are perceived, such as race, gender, or disability, are not immediately apparent. “One of the things that digital communities offer is an opportunity to interact, where that is not the first thing people know about you,” Sherman says. “It may or may not emerge, and people can choose when to reveal those aspects of their life.”
A gamer’s life: Players created video diaries, which took place over seven days, to give researchers a look into gamers’ daily lives. Playing video games is only a part of gamers’ lives — they also participate in forums and read gaming news. The videos included their gaming setup and descriptions of their pain points, including what they find most frustrating or annoying about their gaming experiences.
“One of the stories that stands out is a man who lost his arm. He had been a gamer before he lost his arm. Now, he can’t play on the PS4, but he can play on the Xbox because of the way the buttons are mapped,” Sherman says. “He realized he could compete on a level playing field with able-bodied gamers. The loss of the arm wasn’t going to keep him back.”
Another player, who was not recruited as one of the players with disabilities, Sherman says, spoke of her anxiety and mental health issues. The gamer plays when she is anxious. “The fast-paced action and concentration it takes to win gives her a kind of distance and helps her calm down,” Sherman says. “She sees gaming as therapeutic.”
Planning ahead: The overall research goal is to validate Intel’s strategic direction on its silicon roadmap and validate the usages the company is developing based on that roadmap. This will be defined over the next four years.
Next, the team will bring together engineers and architects to explore insights and discover what’s possible, what’s an easier adjustment and what Intel has the opportunity to really go after to make gaming more accessible and inclusive. “There are a lot of people in the world who can’t access technology. Someone who can’t access the web is at a significant disadvantage. How can we fix that?” asks Adams.
What the researchers have found: While work will continue for years, researchers have formed a few conclusions. The biggest is that gamers with disabilities are not much different than able-bodied players. That is exactly why gaming is so important to many gamers with disabilities: An opportunity to level the playing field is a winning proposition for many whose lives are filled with daily compromises and adaptations.
Researchers also learned that many features helpful to gamers with disabilities are not that difficult to design in gaming setups. Sherman tells the story of a gamer whose wheelchair makes it impossible for him to get to the back of his desktop without help. What he needs, Sherman says, are more ports on the front where he can reach them.
Customization is critical to gamers with disabilities, and it’s one place where PCs shine. Today’s games vary in how well they enable personalized features. Custom key mapping and speech-to-text are used by able-bodied gamers but are literal game-changers for players with disabilities.
@NoHandsNZ builds an Intel® gaming PC: In addition to the research about amateur esports competitive gamers, Intel collected feedback on how it can make the act of building a gaming PC more accessible. Humphrey Hanley, who goes by the name @NoHandsNZ, is a gamer with a disability whose motto is “No Hands, No Excuses.” Intel sent Humphrey the parts to build a PC without modifications so he could give feedback on what adjustments would make the experience more accessible. He livestreamed his build on Twitch for 11 hours.
Hanley’s advice to the gaming industry is to get people involved early in the process who can help identify barriers. “I think again, that comes down to having people on your team or working for your company that can see those barriers,” says Hanley. “Because if it’s not a problem for you, you are not necessarily going to see things like that as a barrier. And then I think the other thing is to foster inclusive spaces. It’s the culture. It’s the way we treat people. It’s the way we open our communities up.”