Earlier this year, a minor injury to my right eye left me temporarily blind. I could do little but sit in bed and listen to audio books, until someone told me about the video game BlindSide, which doesn’t, in fact, contain any video. It is a meticulously designed, audio-driven thriller that is entirely devoid of graphics.
Built to entertain blind players as well as those who can see, the audio-only game’s accommodation of disabled gamers is a pleasant anomaly in the gaming industry, even though the number of gamers with disabilities is significant. The latest Americans with Disabilities report, which draws on 2010 census data, estimates that nearly fifty-seven million Americans, or roughly nineteen per cent of the population, have a disability, with over thirty-eight million suffering from what the report considers to be a “severe disability” of a physical, mental, or communicative nature. While nearly twenty million Americans “had difficulty with physical tasks relating to upper body function,” more than eight million over the age of fifteen have difficulty seeing and seven and a half million reported difficulty hearing. There is certainly overlap with the fifty-eight per cent of Americans who, according to the Electronic Software Association, play video games; the Able Gamers Foundation, a charity organization for disabled gamers, estimates that there are thirty-three million gamers with some kind of disability.
In the nineteen-eighties, gamers like John Dutton, a quadriplegic who learned to use the Atari 2600 joystick with his mouth and chin, drew attention to the need for hardware that disabled gamers could use. In 1988, Nintendo released the NES Hands Free, a video-game controller designed explicitly for disabled gamers, which was worn like a vest. It had a chin stick for movement and a tube that players breathed in and out of to control the “A” and “B” buttons. In the nineties, attention shifted to making in-game control schemes more accessible, leading to releases like Shades of Doom, a first-person shooter for visually impaired gamers. More recently, the Call of Duty franchise, inspired by the quadriplegic professional gamer Randy Fitzgerald, introduced a special button layout for disabled gamers which makes it easier to aim, while the Able Gamers Foundation has published a guide that shows developers how to design more accessible products.
Two examples of the ethical imperative for good design:
The first has to do with the crash of Air France Flight 447, in which an apparent software feedback error led to the death of 228 passengers and crew. From the article:
A feature designed to make things better for pilots has unintentionally made it harder for them to monitor colleagues in stressful situations.
The second involves the design of control systems for the US Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft systems. There are a number of ethics concerns surrounding the use of drone targeting systems, but this article focuses on the need for user-appropriate design.