This article was presented at the 1st AEGIS International Conference “Access for all in the desktop, web and mobile field: an end-user and developer perspective” on 7-8 October 2010, at the University of Seville (Title: Interactive videogames: Accessibility wish-list. Author: B.Pino, 2010).
Experience using videogames with children and adults with autism has shown that people with cognitive difficulties can enjoy an off-the-shelf game, even if not grasping the full meaning of the game, but they may need someone to help them set it up, or to support them throughout the game. Interactive games also encourage players to be more physically active, and being able to use such games on their own would add a sense of authonomy which may improve their self esteem. This article makes some suggestions to facilitate the use of common videogames.
Current videogames afford opportunities for cognitive learning and social interaction. There is a continuous developement of specific games and interfacing devices which are being used as-is in the fields of education and rehabilitation. However, most of these games require a high level of understanding just to set them up, with long sequences of steps until the player can actually play. Experience using videogames with children and adults with autism has shown that people with cognitive difficulties can enjoy an off-the-shelf game, even if not grasping the full meaning of the game, but they may need someone to help them set it up, or to support them throughout the game. There is great potential in the interactive games that encourage players to be more physically active, since adults with autism tend to lead very sedentary lives. In addition, being able to use such games on their own would add a sense of authonomy which may improve their self esteem.
On the other hand, designing specifically for people with disabilities is not the same profitable enterprise than general market videogames, and for what it has been observed, not so necessary anymore. We propose in this paper a wish-list of adaptations which may facilitate people with cognitive impairment access to standard videogames without the cost of specialist designed games. These may take the form of an adapted interfacing device that holds the user’s profile, an application designed for the teachers’ control of the session, or a set of design principles that could be used in future games, to reduce the need for external support.
Autism and videogames
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that isolates the individual from the world. It manifests itself in a number of ways, such as difficulties in understanding other people and coping with social situations, difficulties in developing verbal and non-verbal communication, and a deficit in imagination, which is replaced by repetitive behaviour and resistance to change. These difficulties in social interaction, social communication and imagination are known as the ‘triad of impairments’, as defined by Lorna Wing (1996). In addition, 75% of people with autism also have learning difficulties and it is frequent to find poor coordination and other conditions. Although this paper is inspired by this group of people, the implementation of its suggestions may benefit other users with other difficulties.
Many adults with autism lead very sedentary lives, reason why any leisure activity they may practice that increases their physical activity is beneficial. The attraction towards technology and the social opportunities afforded by videogames make these also a suitable choice. Specifically, some videogames offer ease of use, simple games, great interactivity and high levels of physical activity (Pino, 2010). In general terms, Interactive environments allow a more dynamic dialogue with technology, broaden the physical space of interchange and give more control to the user. Interactive videogames present an opportunity for social interaction and physical activity, in addition to the cognitive skills learned during play.
Furhermore, children with autism enjoy videogames like other children and, at least while playing at the computer, they are not that different from typically developing children. Computer games provide a stress-free environment which is motivational, allows the child to be in control and provides a common interest with the child’s peer group. As a consequence, a child with autism may have the opportunity to interact with other children in this type of social setting, whilst gaining in self-esteem and status within the peer group from mastering a game (Pino, 2006).
The latest videogame technology includes Nintendo Wii, Playstation Move and Microsoft Kinetic for Xbox. There are other devices and game systems but these will be the focus of this paper.
Nintendo Wii has been around for a few years now using a control, the wii-remote, which follows the players movements. Its competitors have presented new control systems for their videogame consoles.
Kinetic uses cameras to learn where the user is, representing his or her movements by means of an avatar. This is not too different from other camera based input devices such as Eye Toy, except for the higher precision. Steinberg (2010) observes that most of the games for Kinetic are similar to the Wii’s, but other applications seem promising: browsing menus with a flick of a wrist or play with virtual pets. Interestingly, both systems, Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wii bring back the skills children used to practice outdoors in traditional games: jumping, squating, moving arms, legs, etc.
Playstation Move looks very similar to the Wii-remote but more precise, and together with a camera that recognises faces and movements it would have the advantage of interfacing with better graphical games.
There are many other input devices such as switches, gloves, haptic systems or voice recognition. Bilmes et al. (2006) have developed Vocal joystick, a system that maps vowel sounds to spatial directions, which allows a user to control a computer or another system using his voice. Even more promising are the systems that use brain waves to control videogames: Neurosky checks relaxation to control a few toys, whereas users can play Gran Turismo with SmartBrain Technologies system which makes the game to slow down if attention wears down (Chapman, 2010).
Problems encountered while using some interactive videogames (Pino, 2010), designing interactive experiences (Pino, 2008) and analysing requirements and available technology, bring about suggestions or wishes that may improve the accessibility of videogames for people with autism.
First wish is for videogames that most people play to be enjoyed by people with autism. Those would be the ones that sell the most and keep being updated, according to Gee’s theory of videogame survival. There is a self-esteem argument to playing what ‘everybody else’ is playing, besides having a shared experience which affords social interaction opportunities.
Second wish is that all games follow these principles, which are not new:
- Multilevel: referred to include lower levels than the initially designed, allowing for a simpler path through the game, both cognitive and motor. This means that it can be played with a single action as well, the same way that One Switch games work, with a single input controller.
- Multimodality: different ways to convey relevant information. Not only verbal, textual or visual, but also ‘simple words or images’ together with complete sentences or videos.
- Experience customization: preset the level and means of communication used during the game. It comes together with user identification, so when the system recognises the player, it delivers information and set levels up according to the profile. It should provide direct access to play: one click away from starting a game. User automatic identification may take the form of information loaded on the control or a fingerprint recognition device, among others.
- Multisensitivity: different levels of sensitivity of controls to cater for different types of players, with different ability to make wide or sharp movements, being able to graduate the level of precision required.
Third wish is for games to include an educational view before, during and after design:
- Design driven by therapeuthical goals: this is not the same than plain transforming an educational or therapeuthical activity into a videogame. Considering that videogames have a lot to show about how to engage and teach new skills (Gee, 2003), the idea is to participate in the design process and inform during decision making at different stages of development. Goals may range from fostering collaboration, developing coordination, to increase relaxation and awareness of the individual emotional state.
- Pedagogical summary: including indications about level of motor, cognitive and social skills required, used and developed by the game; level of attention and time required for the main tasks, summary of basic tasks.
- Session interface: application designed for the teachers’ control of the session, preparing the point of the game to start at, the level and type of help the player will receive and the level of gameplay and required input.
Fourth wish is for a non-programmer development suite including the following elements:
- Input interface: to be used in conjunction with a game authoring tool or to connect to a videogame console. It should facilitate the connection of different types of sensors and control devices, and the deffinition of its sensitivity levels, so to be able to change what is ‘enough’ strength or duration to be considered a signal by the game.
- Game authoring tool: to develop very simple games that are easily customizabled with a theme (background image, objects, characters), types of goals and obstacles, number of levels, etc. This would allow to create personalized games very quickly to those non especialists who are closer to the players with autism.
And the fifth wish is built-in connectivity, so the interfaces described here can be plugged and played without any further development into all the main videogame systems.
While there are several adaptations in the market that facilite access to videogames to people with different impairments (the majority physical), suggestions have been made to facilitate also access to people with cognitive impairments. This wish-list requires for mainstream videogames to include elements to facilitate adaptations off the shelf, reducing the effort and resources needed by these players to be able to play like everybody else.
- Bilmes, J., Malkin, J., Li, X., Harada, S., Kilanski, K., Kirchhoff, K., Wright, R., Subramanya, A., Landay, J., Dowden, P., and Chizeck, H. (2006) “The Vocal Joystick,” IEEE Intl. Conf. on Audio, Speech and Signal Processing, Toulouse, France, May 2006
- Chapman, G. (2010). NeuroSky lets gamers use their brains. Reviewed 26/06/2010.
- Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
- Pino, B. (2006). El ordenador como herramienta para la educación de las habilidades de interacción social en niños con autismo: Aplicaciones prácticas. (Tecnoneet) 6º, Pp 555-561 Murcia, 2006.
- Pino, B. (2008). Entornos Interactivos: diseño y aplicaciones pedagógicas especiales. Tecnoneet, Cartagena, Septiembre 2008.
- Pino, B. (2010). Requerimientos de usabilidad de la Wii para personas con autismo. Tecnoneet, Murcia, Septiembre 2010
- Steinberg, S. (2010). My first impressions of Microsoft’s ‘Kinect’ Reviewed 06/07/2010
- Wing, Lorna (1996). The Autistic Spectrum. A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Constable and Robinson.