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Overcoming Game Accessibility Barriers with One Switch

One SwitchBarriers to accessibility are numerous for disabled individuals. This is true in many aspects of life, including video gaming, though this medium is sometimes the only escape from the hardship of reality.

OneSwitch.org.uk and its founder Barrie Ellis are focused on providing solutions for disabled gamers, as well as advocating the need for better understanding of the limits video game companies sometimes unknowingly place upon this segment of the market. Inaccessible controllers and game software are a large problem and unfortunately their makers are rarely part of the solution.

Though the idea for one-switch accessibility was not his, Barrie Ellis took it upon himself to actively promote it. He explains that he first came across this concept when working for a small number of severely disabled adults in an early 1990's day centre. Read More...

“Here I found an accessible computer suite which included touch screens, gated joysticks and large (wooden) switches with interfaces to connect to 1981 BBC Micro computers. The software was mostly educational with a number of switch games dating from 1990,” said Ellis, in an email interview with Game Forward.

“I saw the benefits of this stuff pretty swiftly. It gave power to people who had almost none at that time. It gave people a chance to take an active part instead of being passive and just watching or having people do things hand over hand. I started to write my own software and devices which took me down a route that eventually ended up with me wanting to share some of the knowledge: OneSwitch.org.uk.”

One-switch interfaces include any device that allows individuals to control a computer or game console using separate plug-in switches. “Disabled people can then play many games using a variety of body movements, or even eye-blinks, where a traditional controller might be too difficult. Switch Interfaces are also known to some as adaptive, accessible or enabling technology,” explains the site.

The One Switch website includes a number of resources for those seeking accessibility in video gaming, but also in other aspects of their lives. The site’s Accessible Gaming Shop provides information and links to accessible gaming products’ dealers and makers. These products include switches, one-handed controllers, large controllers, adapters, head-mouth-and-eye controllers, mounting solutions, tailor-made controllers, games and other software utilities.

Launched officially in June 2003, the site is a continual work-in-progress. An educational resource for those who want to adapt their controllers to their personal needs, it also presents a series of helpful do-it-yourself tips and guides. One Switch also details the difficulties many disabled gamers face. According to Ellis, the greatest obstacle to accessible gaming remains ignorance.

“Many disabled gamers aren't aware of some of the solutions that do exist. Many game designers aren't aware of some of the small changes that could make a huge difference. It's not all the designers fault though. There isn't a comprehensive gathering of accessible design solutions in one-place. It tends to be quite scattered. Some groups are working on this, especially the International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group (GASIG) but there's a long way to go,” comments Ellis.

One Switch’s close association with the GASIG and other groups interested in the promotion of video game accessibility has already yielded some positive results.

“[There is a] growing amount of interest, support and exciting projects in the indie scene. There's been a growth of great accessible gaming websites such as AbleGamers.com and Game Forward,” said Barrie Ellis. “There's been some fantastic research and initiatives, such as UA-Games Game Over, the world’s most inaccessible game (aimed at showing designers some of the problems inaccessible games pose). I've seen support grow in the mainstream press with a growing number of sympathetic articles. I've seen many more PC indie games with deliberate accessibility features being created.”

Today’s gaming options have their share of hits and miss when it comes to creating user-friendly controls and interfaces. Ellis believes the PlayStation 2 continues to be number one for gamer accessibility.

“Although it posed some of the biggest barriers with it's highly complicated JoyPad [sic], the fact that such a huge range of controllers came out for it, including one-handed, large button, dance-mats, arcade sticks and so on gave many more physically disabled gamers a chance of playing.”

“It's also had the best support of all consoles with accessible game controllers such as the Dream-Gamer, C-SID, Quadcontroller and PS2-SAP. Compatibility with the PSone brings even more excellent accessible games. All of this is enough to take the prize,” finds Ellis.

The Nintendo Wii remains the runner up. “You can't knock the fact that this fine little machine has brought a huge range of previously non-interested video gamers to the fold. Largely due to the simple (fairly) intuitive controls for many of its games. The big problem with this machine is that there's no support for navigating the menus with anything but the Wii-remote. If you're a switch gamer - you may find the machine poses some very annoying and unnecessary barriers.”

The least accessible console remains the Xbox 360 due to its limited selection of controllers and the fact that many third party controllers cannot be directly used without a converter which can cost over a hundred dollars.

Ellis is officially the only one working on One Switch, though his success comes with the help and support of his partner Caron and their daughter Katie. His work with other groups and organizations has also been invaluable in promoting gamer accessibility.

“My C-SID switch interface controller was born from collaborating with Ultimarc. [Almost] 95% of the one-switch games in my one-switch library have come through tying up with the ever marvellous Retro Remakes community. Through Retro Remakes I met the programmer William Pilgrim who is working with me on one-switch music, stories and games. I do love the way that one thing leads to another.”

The rewards of accessible gaming are often as simple as a thank you note. Ellis notably shares one of these recent rewarding messages on the One Switch Blog:

"I am Colin McDonnell... You made me a C-SID for Christmas. You have made my Christmas, thank you very much, it is brilliant. Now I can play on the PlayStation and GameCube / Wii with my brothers and sisters. My favourite games are racing games, fighting games and I even go on Zelda with a little help from my sister. To use the control I only really use my head. I have three switches on my head rest and sometimes I have a fourth one on my tray depending on what game I'm playing."

Colin is just one example of gamers helped by One Switch through its resources and advocacy.