Games at home: inclusion & special needs

“I had a student on the autistic spectrum [who] really struggled … you put him in front of that video game and … he became the person everybody wanted to work with… he became the superhero in that classroom.”- Quote from interview participant. EE01

Description

Considering the immensity and cultural relevance of videogames, the area of inclusion drew relatively little attention from the stakeholders that Gaming Horizons engaged. The exception is in education, an area in which inclusion is quite keenly felt.

A number of teachers see digital gaming as a chance to reach and engage learners with Special Education Needs (SEN). They also consider it a way towards integrating those students better, and thus make classes more inclusive, especially where there are marked differences in students’ cognitive skills. At the same time, interviewees cautioned that care is required to harness gaming successfully for inclusive purposes.  

When it comes to players and gamers with sensory impairments, the question of game accessibility becomes critical. This is “a big tent issue” affecting millions now and millions more as playing populations age. While digital games certainly pose a number of barriers, significant gains can be made for all – as some Gaming Horizons participants pointed out- from greater attention to the needs of the full user spectrum. More awareness of design-for-all principles could lessen barriers and in doing so improve everyone’s experience, just like with our streets and buildings. Indeed, advocates point to how type, telephony and email – the backbone of modern communications – emerged from the efforts of inventors to tackle special needs. Certainly, with video games and the various technology platforms they employ, the risk of exacerbating the digital divide is ever present. In this sense, accessibility is not just a matter of interactivity levels but about making sure everyone gets a reasonable chance to play.

Of course special needs is just one facet of inclusion in games, an issue that touches on many questions, like gender bias, stereotyped representation of identities, the accommodation of minorities etc. These are tackled more specifically in other scenarios.

Meet Keisha (aged 16), Marco (aged 13), and the grown-ups: Kerry and Keisha’s Dad

Keisha’s a gamer. When she was younger, other kids would say she was ‘nerdy’ like some of the boys, but she doesn’t get that much anymore. Just about everyone she knows plays some sort of game, if only on the bus or the train. Keisha herself mostly goes for fantasy MMOs – her current favourite is Aion. When she started getting into games, she wanted to find other girls like herself online. The hardcore gamers she came across on the forum boards and chats then could be pretty mean, especially to girls. But she didn’t let it get to her and anyway it’s not so big a problem now – and you can report anyone who gets really out of line.

A while back, Keisha and her dad relocated, moving in with her dad’s partner Kerry, who has a son called Marco. Marco’s three years younger than Keisha and he’s the only blind person Keisha’s ever known. The two of them are very different in character and tastes, but as it happens they both share a long-held passion for video games.

Marco has always loved mysteries and adventures. That’s what started him off playing story-based computer games, like A Dark Room, using Text To Speech (TTS) applications. Then he started playing Terraformers, an old hybrid audio and video game, and he was totally hooked. It’s remained one of his all-time favourites. He played it on a PC at home that’s connected to an audio system which reproduces 3D positional sound; the position and direction of the sounds, together with sound qualities and audio cues, form a sort of 3D audio gamespace that Marco navigates and interacts in.

When Keisha moved in, Marco got her to try a few audio games. She found them kind of intriguing but none of them really grabbed her enough to play them right through. Then Kerry got her this artistic sort of game called Beyond Eyes, which gives you an idea about what it’s like to be blind. It wasn’t much like anything Keisha had played before but she was really glad she’d had the chance to try it. And playing together with Dad was special too.

For a while now Marco’s been having a go at FPS and combat games like Quake and Bayonetta 2  using the 3D positional audio. Keisha’s amazed at how well he plays using sound only; she’s tried and found it really hard. She says maybe one day Marco might get as good as the youtubers he’s started following, like True Blind, Sightless Kombat and the others. Marco’s hoping that one day he’ll get to play games that go ultra mega popular, like World of Warcraft. His dad thinks he should try joining the AbleGamers Player Panel to become a game accessibility tester and Marco’s giving it some thought.

Kerry’s just bought a cool party game suite called 1-2 Switch for the new Nintendo Switch console they got. It’s a bit like Wii Sports but with some funny touch and sound based mini games that you don’t actually need to be sighted to play. Keisha and Marco have a real laugh playing together (well, against each other) and they’ve started thinking of ways you could use the touch and sound combination in other sorts of games. Keisha might even make a study project out of it.

In a nutshell

Due recognition of design-for-all principles, and sincere efforts to fulfil them, can reap concrete gains for everyone: for players who, for some reason, are underserved or excluded; for player-consumers desiring more immersive and diverse game experiences; for the game industry growing markets. Here, video games – considered by many as a pariah – could be seen instead as a standard-bearer.

Converting a perceived win-win to an actual won-won demands concerted – and orchestrated – efforts across the board, especially from policy makers and the game industry. Game on.

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Accessibility 

Advocacy initiatives

About blind gamers

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Representations of race, and ethnicity: supporting inclusion in the social landscape

“[After making all the characters in a popular sports video game black] people value being represented.  I think that’s a very powerful thing to be the default and so I think the reaction was one of empowerment for people who were the default for the first time, and there was one of curiosity for people who weren’t the default for the first time.  Like, uh, why would you make this choice not to make me the default?” – quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28788

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Description

With video games becoming increasingly an everyday presence in the lives of all ages of Europeans, especially people below the age of 30, they can play an important role in signifying a group’s inclusion and integration within society. The few studies of race and ethnicity in games have shown an unrepresentative dominance of white people as lead characters, with other ethnicities (if present) typically included as minor enemy characters. The research of these statistics is scarce, which does not assist in getting a full and current picture of both the present state of this issue or trends in development (i.e. whether this has begun to change in recent years, if there are types of games or developers that are performing better than others, what influences developers to include a diverse cast, etc.); the impact on players of such varied social contexts is both challenging to study and important to approach. Developers that were interviewed for Gaming Horizons acknowledged the importance of this topic (alongside other issues of inclusion), but players made few comments on race or ethnicity specifically, suggesting that racial and ethnic inclusion is an industry concern that has currently not reached the player-base to the same extent. Further research is necessary in this area to understand it more fully.

Meet Luuk, a social arts funding officer, and Naija, an artist and second-generation immigrant who makes video games

Naija would love to make a game inspired by the traditions of her Nigerian grandparents. She knows that it is a financial risk to make something different from mainstream Western or Eastern mythologies, but thinks this source material could inspire something unique. Arts funding would really help her get the project off the ground and would give it credibility to help her explore other funding options too. She is an artist and her work is inspired by being a European whose life is framed by a place where she has never lived: she hopes that it will inspire players and developers to learn about Nigerian culture. Luuk has money to distribute, but he doesn’t see the evidence that games will inspire others. He comes from a traditional arts background and secretly feels very uncomfortable with looking at video games as a medium with cultural worth.

Without many precedents or research into the social impact of artistic games, Niaja has to try and convince Luuk by herself that games can be both expressive and inspire curiosity in players’s actual lives.

In a nutshell

There is great potential for video games to assist in the visibility of racial and ethnic minorities in European culture, encouraging variety and inclusion as well as potentially increasing the expressive range and themes of the medium.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of race and ethnicity in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.

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Games and inclusion: gender, minorities, and society

“[In] Dragon Age there’s a transexual character, which is something really important because if a transsex person […] sees themselves represented in a positive way, it can give them hope.”– quote from an interview with a player. PI06.

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Description

For all ages, video games are an expressive medium that is increasingly diversifying both the identities of the protagonists and the events and interactions presented in them. Issues addressed by video games include gender identity, treatment of cultural and ethnic minorities, refugees and war survivors, grief, love, sexual health, domestic violence, religion and faith, socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism, and, in a notable example from 2017, a playable interpretation of the work of the philosopher of Alan Watts (Everything). Such games can be used in a classroom context, but they are also commercial and non-commercial entertainment products that are already being played by millions of Europeans. The expansion is not restricted to content, but also includes a wide range of people that are becoming involved with, or more visible in, the development and communities of video games.

However, this increased visibility is not occurring without challenges and, like in society more broadly, there has been populist opposition to progressive inclusivity. Such opposition has included threats or murder, rape, assault, financial and legal implications, and even ‘swatting’ (the making of fake reports to the police of gunshots at their target’s house, with the hope to provoking an armed law-enforcement ‘SWAT’ response). As seen in many parts of society, moving beyond the past and present systemic prejudices against women and minorities is making bumpy progress, but the determination to do this successfully was supported by every game developer stakeholder interviewed during  the Gaming Horizons research and aligns with the goal of increasing RRI presence in EU funding policies beyond only ethics compliance.

Meet Pierre, a gamer who is heterosexual, and his friend David, a gamer who is gay.

Pierre feels like there’s too much fuss over minority groups saying that they are not visible in cultural artefacts, like video games and television. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with the way games reflect society, and he sees a lot of characters in games that he can relate to: white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual, and he’s never really thought about how it would feel for others to see themselves so rarely. Rather than engage with the lack of representation, Pierre makes jokes about others who are asking for equality. David is Pierre’s friend, but he would like to see different communities represented in games.

Although David laughs at Pierre’s joke, ‘dragons don’t exist?’, David secretly wishes that Pierre would take him seriously, but as a member of a minority group he knows that objecting puts him in danger: at the least he would change the nature of their friendship, but at worst he could be attacked verbally or physically. David has friends who have been attacked for being gay and he’s nervous about being too forthright about wanting equal treatment.

In a nutshell

Encouraging entertainment and artistic games developers to use women and minorities in their games will help build visibility for these communities as participants in everyday life and society. The wide reach of video games into European society allows them to function as a key asset in improving cultural understanding, relationships, and community. It is also likely to stimulate creativity in the industry, presenting new gameplay scenarios and inspiring new interactions.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of women and minority gender and sexualities in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.

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The discourse around games

“We have this silly word ‘game’ and it just sort of encompasses everything […] in a sense there isn’t necessarily a lot similar, you know, if you have to actually make parallels between ‘Uncharted 313’ and ‘Candy Crush 14’, it is a completely different kind of experience, […] the interactions are completely different and the experience is completely different, and where you might play that is completely different”. Quote from an interview with a researcher. R03.

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Description

During the project, participants talked of the need to understand games as complex and multiple, rather than acting as if there is anything like a ‘generic’ video game. One participant even suggested that it was the responsibility of researchers and other professionals to re-write the canon by turning the focus of their gaze towards games that were less commercial or less readily written about.

The view of gaming as a complex medium assumes that under the broad umbrella of gaming there is a multitude of different themes, mechanics and content, in the same way as ‘film’ is a medium that incorporates anything from video art, to documentary, to Hollywood blockbuster.  This view is  increasingly accepted but still faces some resistance which, perhaps unwittingly, seems to originate in the so-called ‘gamer’ cultures. Here, rather arbitrary distinctions seem to exist between real games, usually focusing on player mastery, competition and clearly defined win/lose states,  and ‘non-games’ or ‘artistic games’ which experiment with and sometimes subvert those categories.    

The identities and professional profiles of those who make games are also changing, reflecting a diverse range of personal, educational and technical backgrounds, and different design priorities are not necessarily aligned with those of large commercial publishers and the so-called ‘mainstream’ industry.  

Meet Steven, a journalist and Daisy, a game developer

Daisy is an independent game developer. Her trajectory started while she was still at university, studying in a game development course. She put her studies on hold when she got a job in a large development studio as a junior animator.  Nonetheless, Daisy thinks her university experience is a valuable source of inspiration and cultural diversity. She fondly remembers attending extracurricular seminars in the sociology department, meeting and conversing with students and lecturers about different topics and interests.  Over the past five years Daisy has worked on many games, but always felt that the focus on specific tasks within large projects was too narrow.  This year, Daisy decided to ‘go indie’, setting up a small studio with a couple of trusted friends. Her first project is based on a personal exploration of issues that matter to her personally – she wants to create an interactive experience that challenges expectations of what a game can do. They are conscious that such a game wouldn’t necessarily have mass appeal, and they are ok with it. With her friends and colleagues, she decides that crowdfunding offers the best chance to ensure creative independence and a direct connection with their intended audience. They hope to make a small profit to support their livelihoods and continue doing what really interests them. Days starts by tapping into her networks to do some marketing and raise the profile of the studio and the first game. After some time she lands an interview with Steven, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and games for a number of online and printed outlets. Steven is a keen technology enthusiast and a gamer. Immediately, the interview takes a slightly disappointing turn for Daisy…

 A more mature approach towards gaming, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexity and multifaceted nature of this medium, could boost efforts to develop, understand, research and use video games in new, innovative, exciting and relevant ways. Dominant ways of understanding video games, and what they are, need challenging at all levels in order to generate more generous and nuanced understandings of the medium and its possibilities, in relation to education, culture and society.

In a nutshell

Although we often talk about video games as a singular entity, they are, in reality, diverse and complex. As a medium they offer a range of different features, experiences and opportunities to players in a varied range of contexts.

By considering games as singular, however, we are potentially simplifying debates and maybe even lowering our expectations. Funders, researchers, educators and developers are all responsible for advocating a more diverse and multifaceted notion of what a game can be or do. Funding Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research projects that survey the representation of cultural themes would allow the development of video games studies in curriculums at all educational levels, and increase their future relevance.

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