Games and disabilites: Thoughts about suitable games

If we are to practice what we preach about games as a central part of our culture, we need to think about accessibility as more then access to large customer groups with credit cards.

To my knowledge there are no games specifically designed for mentally disabled people (but would more than anything love to be proven wrong! If you know of such titles: please notify me). Considered what a small, yet diverse group we are talking about, it is perhaps not surprising that players with handicaps (particularly mental ones) are not considered a “hot” market. However, with the ongoing changes to the games industry, with the rise of both indie games developers and a serious games industry, we might be at a time where we can truly embrace the idea of games as something for everyone.

Just because I don’t know of any specific game titles for this group, doesn’t mean that there aren’t suitable titles out there. So I am considering some game features that could be suitable and in such; help my search in finding the right games.

Of course these features are based on my personal perceptions and understandings of mental disabilities. As I said, it is a very diverse group that covers anything from requiring assistance with pretty much everything, to those with their own jobs and houses (though usually within a supported framework). For this little mental exercise I should therefore point out that I have the latter in mind, with the idea that the game should initially be played with assistance –but with the goal of it becoming an independent activity with time/training/play. A mentally disabled person may have the cognitive capabilities of a child, with limited literacy (both digital and traditional), but will still have a lifetime of experiences that means that their actual cognitive abilities are higher than that of a child.

The things I have considered as important features for a game that could work well for mentally disabled players might first come across as a list of traits for casual games or childrens games. And honestly I think the solution is somewhere in between. However, casual games can be quite complex, just not require much time or intensity, and children’s games can have themes or other features that are simply not suited for adults. So, getting the “right mix” will be the key.

Here is my first attempt to make a list of game features that support mentally disabled players:

  • -          Recognizable themes (sports, music, hobbies, movies, celebrities)
  • -          Game pace is set by the player
  • -          Low demand for eye hand coordination
  • -          Minimal interface
  • -          Minimal text (preferably voice acting)
  • -          Easily translated/adapted into other languages
  • -          Intuitive/easily recognizable game rules (low level of abstraction and complexity in the game rules)
  • -          Little need for strategic choices (as in planning ahead, min/maxing)
  • -          Forgivable design (the possibility to redo important choices if wanted)
  • -          Co-op functionality
  • -          “Show and tell” features (f.ex automatic screenshot at the end of a level that is kept in a photo book)

I believe that the main obstacle in designing games for mentally disabled people, is making sure that the designers understand their target audience/users/players and their special needs. However, the call for specialized knowledge might also be the solution to the problem:

There are many interest groups, companies and researchers working on how to generally improve the quality of life for the handicapped. I also know that there are many budding indie game companies out there, just looking for an investor, partner or niche that can give their business an edge.

Perhaps we should get them on a date?

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