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Assistive Technology and Game-Based Learning

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Assistive technology is a vital, yet under-discussed segment of the educational technology landscape. From simple, straightforward alignments with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to more complex and significant assistive hardware solutions, there are a host of ways that assistive technology can allow people with disabilities to participate in technology-driven pedagogies – and game-based learning is no exception! Today, we’re highlighting a few resources that aim to make educational gaming more accessible – read on for the highlights, and let us know what we missed!

Hardware

A number of recent hardware innovations have been specifically designed to meet the needs of gamers with limited mobility – a perfect example of this being Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Built in collaboration with experts from the AbleGamers Charity, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, SpecialEffect, and Warfighter Engaged, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is defined by its interoperability. The controller uses 3.5mm jacks and USB ports to connect with external devices such as switches, buttons, mounts, and joysticks to create a customized input experience that is uniquely aligned to the user’s needs. 

The significance of this peripheral’s stature in the Microsoft catalog should not be understated – as gamesindustry.biz’s Rebekah Valentine aptly pointed out, Microsoft’s team didn’t just create an excellent, accessible controller; they also set a new industry precedent.

Following in Microsoft’s footsteps, Japanese accessory manufacturer Hori has also introduced an accessible controller of their own. The HORI Flex – a device much like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, with the advantage of native support for the Nintendo Switch – further opens the console up to greater accessibility for those that require it. 

And that’s a really good thing – Steven Spohn, COO of accessibility charity AbleGamers, has previously remarked that the Switch is the least accessible of all modern consoles, which suggests the HORI Flex is a welcome product for many gamers with limited mobility. 

Software

Beyond hardware innovations, game creators in AAA, indie, and educational game development alike are beginning to place increased emphasis on in-game accessibility features.

Take the Smart Steering feature in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, for example. Highlighted by Kotaku, this feature made Mario Kart playable again for Molly, a four-year-old who suffered a stroke not long after she was born. Her father shared their experience on Reddit:

“Thanks to Mario Kart’s new Auto Drive feature, she can now steer with her left hand and let the game drive for her or vice versa. I’m sure this feature will be an annoyance to many, but for my daughter, who would otherwise not really be able to participate, it is the best feature ever added to a Mario Kart game. She is currently sitting in my living room with my other 2 kids and my wife and all of them are playing Mario Kart and laughing their heads off. This is truly a day I won’t forget thanks to Nintendo.”

Another shining example of harnessing technology to make learning more accessible is Code Jumper – a unique approach to block-based coding for the visually impaired. 

Developed by Microsoft and distributed by the American Printing House for the Blind, a non-profit dedicated to helping the visually impaired, Code Jumper is a hands-on tool that helps visually impared students form a basic understanding of computational literacy and logic through drag-and-drop block coding, equipping them for more complex coding and computer science content that they’ll encounter later in their academic and professional careers.

And though our industry still has a long way to go, we’re doing our part to ensure many of our upcoming games are designed with player accessibility in mind. Early examples of these efforts can be found in our recent iCivics titles, each offering full Spanish language modes, in-game glossaries of key terms, along with additional supports for English language learners. We’re looking forward to incorporating even more accessibility tools in future releases – keep your eyes peeled for more.

Communities

A number of organizations and communities around the globe exist with the mission of celebrating and supporting efforts to improve accessibility in gaming. One such organization, the AbleGamers Charity, helps connect gamers with assistive solutions that allow them to stay connected to their gaming passion. 

Founder Mark Bartlet created AbleGamers after his best friend Stephanie Walker nearly lost her ability to interact and connect through video games due to multiple sclerosis. His vision for AbleGamers is to “ensure that no one with a disability would ever be without answers on how to conquer disabilities and continue enjoying one of the world’s largest past times.” 

To that end, AbleGamers is staffed by accessibility experts that help disabled gamers create custom solutions for their needs. Their dedication is remarkable – donating directly to AbleGamers gives $0.94 of every dollar directly to gamers in need, which is one of the best ratios in the world, according to Charity Navigator.

Another platform, Disabled Accessibility for Gaming Entertainment Rating System (DAGERS) is a critical resource for gamers seeking information about content and systems to ensure operability.

Motivated by his own struggles with cerebral palsy, founder Josh Straub created the DAGERS platform to help gamers with disabilities stay engaged with their favorite hobby and identify developers and hardware manufacturers who design with their needs in mind. And their advocacy has had a real impact on our industry – DAGERS famously influenced developer Naughty Dog to add more accessibility features to their game Uncharted 4, an inspiring story which was covered in detail by Kotaku.


This is just a sampling of the assistive technology resources and stories that intersect with game-based learning – admittedly, there are new examples appearing every day! For more, check out this roundup of accessible learning games and technologies showcased at last year’s U.S. Department of Education’s ED Game Expo – and let us know on Facebook and Twitter if you’ve got any other suggestions for our list!

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