Hacking Mobility: Able-bodied Prescripts of Mobile Games and How Gamers with Disabilities Cope

by Deborah J. Brannon

Pokémon Go: short, punchy, prescriptive. It’s the perfect title for a game full of short, punchy battle creatures meant to be played on the go from your mobile device. This megahit mobile game lit up the Summer of 2016, getting kids and adults alike out of the house and on the way to better health and social interaction – well, so long as you are able-bodied. Otherwise, Pokémon Go becomes Pokémon No.

As of 2015, an estimated 12.6% of men and women in America are disabled, which translates to just under 40 million people (and just over 2 million are veterans)[1]. Per Cornell University’s Disability Statistics website, there is no universally accepted definition of disability – but their statistics rely on the Nagi framework, and a disability is ultimately a condition that impinges upon one’s ability to fulfill roles and expectations that are socially expected.[2] These statistics, therefore, cover a wide range of disabilities, including those from birth or calamity, physical and psychological: those who are blind or deaf, those with mobility impairments, those with social anxiety or crippling depression, those with chronic pain or degenerative conditions, and more.

Let’s backtrack a bit, and get down to basics. Mobile games – meaning games playable via a personal portable device  – are video games. Video games are games, and games are – what? As José P. Zagal summarizes in Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education, that is one tricky question with as many answers as there are scholars. In the end, Zagal chooses to go with Jesper Juul’s definition and we’ll do the same here:

“A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.”[3]

Games, of course, are much more than the form they take – from sports to video games to board games, games develop societal bonds, teach us to think critically, help us learn to strategize, and open the way to understanding each other better. One could argue that the key value of gaming is connection to each other, and participation in society. (Like any human pursuit, gaming has a divisive and dark underbelly, but that’s a journey into misanthropy, sexism, and bullying for another time.)

Gamers with disabilities’ human social needs don’t just vanish (or never exist) in the face of disability, even when the challenges to meet those needs are set to Expert or Nightmare mode. For those people who are unable to get out much (or at all), who live with conditions that keep them chair-bound or bed-bound, or who have to ration their energy as an incredibly limited resource – for those people, games can be a lifeline. Particularly video games with online features that foster social interaction: friendships and relationships can grow out of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV, existing friendships can be maintained through co-op mode in games like Overwatch, and you can remain a participant in the cultural zeitgeist through online social communication about the latest titles. Not to mention, when video games are accessible, they remove physical barriers by taking place in a virtual world. As musician Nissa Ludwig (diagnosed with a progressive metabolic disorder) put it when discussing Rock Band: “It’s a place where you don’t lose your social skills. … I have the opportunity to be a human being and not be judged by what I look like.”[4]

Of course, this egalitarian engagement with video games only happens when the gaming equipment and interfaces are accessible. There are some excellent leaders in technological customization benefiting computer-users and gamers with disabilities today – hardware such as the Jouse allow mouth-control of a PC[5], while software such as Tobii Dynavox allows you to control your system with your eyes.[6] Then there are modified joypads to accommodate fine motor difficulties, footpads for those missing an arm or arms, voice recognition software, screen readers, and more.

These innovations definitely help gamers with disabilities, but some hardware manufacturers and gaming developers don’t make it easy. It’s challenging to create highly customized peripherals for consoles in the face of so much proprietary technology, and screen readers can’t work with programs or websites not built to accommodate them. (Major games store and hub Steam is not accessible to screen readers, locking players with visual disabilities out of a major center for video games.) That’s before you even get to the video games themselves, and run down the following accessibility checklist posed by Robert Kingett:

“Have caption customizations where deaf players can have captions in a font that they want to have. Make your HUD’s customizable so visually impaired players like me can change the map size, the radar size, the crosshair size and shape, have assist, control mapping options, different control styles …”[7]

These considerations have often either not occurred to game developers, or been waved off over budget concerns – too much time, too much trouble, for too few people. That’s changing, thanks to gamers with disabilities advocating for themselves, and the incredible support and efforts of charities like SpecialEffect and AbleGamers, and resources like AbleGamers’ Includification as well as  Game Accessibility.[8]

One of the more socially-engaging and publicly visible new areas of gaming is mobile gaming – video games on a smartphone or handheld device that travel with you. You play them on public transportation, in the bathroom at work, while waiting in a doctor’s office or even while on a meandering walk. Mobile games have hacked time, byte-sized addictions wrapped up in a candy-colored, ad-supported glow.

Some mobile game developers have been responsive to gamers with disabilities, most notably PopCap’s quick actions to add colorblind options in Bejeweled and Peggle. There are also hardware developers like Oded Ben Dov, who created the Sesame Enable, a touch-free smartphone that can be controlled via head movements. With such responsive gaming support, gamers with disabilities have been able to play their favorite puzzle games or Angry Birds. However, other types of games have proven resistant to accessibility requests – such as augmented reality gaming.

AR mobile games map to the world around you, bringing game elements into the real world using your smartphone as its visual gateway. Games of this type usually require the player to be mobile, tracked by GPS, and to arrive at specific geographical locations or cover a designated distance.[9] Prior to 2016, the most popular titles of this type were Zombies, Run! (an adventure game to energize your jogging workout) and Ingress (a sci-fi strategy MMO played out as a real-world overlay). Both titles required mobility and travel in physical space, and neither title really broke into the mainstream. (Ingress came closest with several hundred thousand downloads from various app stores.) AR mobile gaming was a fringe player at the edges of mobile gaming – until an exciting Pokémon Go appeared!

Combining augmented reality with one of the world’s most popular gaming franchises catapulted AR gaming into cultural relevance: as reported in Polygon back in September, Pokémon Go has been downloaded over 500 million times. In the weeks after its release in July 2016, you couldn’t miss seeing Pokémon Go on the news, or seeing hordes of players in city centers. Everyone was talking about catching them all, or getting out of the house and engaging socially (some in the face of autism[10] or social anxiety and depression), or Americans finally committing to exercise[11], or the dangerous activities encouraged by the game – like trespassing, muggings, or potentially fatal falls.

What you didn’t hear about in widespread mainstream coverage[12] were the enormous accessibility issues within the game: advancing in Pokémon Go requires the player to capture creatures that virtually spawn in real-life geographical locations. You must be within a certain proximity to capture the Pokémon – which could mean climbing a steep hill or navigating other areas not accessible to those using wheelchairs or other mobility aids.[13] Another game mechanic requires you to hatch Pokémon eggs, and you must walk anywhere from 2 to 10 kilometers (measured by the in-game GPS) to do so. The proximity map mechanic worked against gamers with disabilities as well, proving too vague with its footprint visual estimates of distance for gamers to gauge how much travel finding a certain Pokémon required. Even the basic mechanic of holding up your phone to target a Pokémon, then swiping with your other hand to throw a Poké ball creates barriers for players who have tremors or other challenges with fine motor skills.

Luckily, gamers are a clever and creative lot. It didn’t take long for a series of hacks to pop up, targeting Pokémon Go’s mapping and capturing functions. Crowdsourced maps and independent apps that revealed Pokémon locations were available within the month[14], while gamers realized just as quickly that a car moving slowly enough registers with the game and counts toward egg-hatching. Other enterprising souls experimented with attaching their phones to their Roomba or turntables (or ceiling fans or dogs!) to see if that would count toward egg-hatching steps as well – results varied.[15] Another gamer affixed his smartphone to a drone, streamed his smartphone screen to his laptop, and captured Pokémon from the skies while sitting still. Still other players figured out how to spoof your GPS location and trick the game into letting them capture farflung Pokémon. They’ve even developed methods to do that without jailbreaking your phone, integrating joystick and teleporter features with the game to let you move around while not actually moving around. “Another brilliant hack is this 3D-printed case that helps you aim your Poké balls.” Admittedly, many of these hacks were created by able-bodied gamers who don’t need the help to get ahead – but you can’t deny that some of these tricks leveled the playing field for gamers with disabilities who were otherwise barred from a game so many of their peers were playing.

There’s no reason an augmented reality game should exclude gamers with disabilities; Niantic and other games developers simply need to offer gameplay customization and alternatives that allow gamers with disabilities to play fairly. For example, Diane Murray of Spoonie Living points out one alternative for the mobility issue:

“For Pokémon Go specifically, it would be great if there were alternate play modes that didn’t require so much movement, but also didn’t break the game’s balance …. One I can think of off the top of my head would be an integration with Google Street View that would allow players to take a virtual walk to look for Pokémon and hit up Pokestops and gyms. This could tie into the egg-hatching problem, as well, with miles ‘walked’ in Street View being treated as miles walked in real life.”[16]

Gamers with disabilities don’t want to cheat; we want the tools to play fairly – if differently – alongside everyone else. If necessary, we’ll use hacks and tricks to keep up with the crowd.

Or we won’t. Niantic, the developer behind Pokémon Go, has taken a hardline stance against “cheating,” which encompasses many of the workarounds gamers with disabilities have used to enjoy the game. Within several weeks of release, trackers were shut down [17] and Niantic began banning players for using mapping apps and GPS spoofers, among other TOS violations. Ana Mardoll, a gamer with scoliosis, spoke to Motherboard in September about being permanently banned – she understands Niantic’s action, acknowledges she broke Pokémon Go’s terms of service, but also points out: “… it would be nice if they could not ban disabled people for finding work-arounds… Shutting out disabled people from major cultural phenomena like this helps no one and hurts a lot of people.”

The only recourse once you’re permanently banned is to appeal to Niantic directly for reinstatement, with no guarantee of response or stated response time. Interestingly enough, their automated ban appeal acknowledgement email include the following text:

“Our goal is to provide a fair, fun and legitimate game experience for everyone.”

That would almost be reassuring to gamers with disabilities, if it weren’t for Niantic’s deafening silence to appeals for accessibility. Not only have multiple requests for comment gone unanswered, but Niantic’s already criticized spotty communication with the playerbase has completely ignored our questions and concerns about accessibility. In fact, since Pokémon Go’s release on July 6, 2016, disability has been mentioned exactly once on Niantic’s blog:

“This morning I went to the park and WALKED for 30 minutes. Now, keep in mind I use either a cane or walker to get around and walking is very difficult for me. I am usually embarrassed about this. But I found today people don’t really see that. … They don’t point and laugh at the disabled old woman hobbling along slowing them down. They SMILED at me and made the sun shine just a little bit more. Thank you for this wonderful new game and a new lease on life.”

This anecdote was provided by Kelly in Findlay, OH, per Niantic’s blog, and was posted without comment by Niantic on September 13, 2016 – just nine days after Motherboard ran the piece on Ana Mardoll being a gamer with disabilities permanently banned from Pokémon Go. With that timing – and in the absence of any further word from John Hanke and his team – it’s hard to read the above anecdote as anything other than a weak defense. “See!” it seems to say. “Some gamers with disabilities are playing just fine, and they’re happy about it!”

Niantic, I’d like to redirect you to your own words: “Our goal is to provide a fair, fun and legitimate game experience for everyone.” Are you reaching that goal by banning players like Ana Mardoll? Is that the message you’re truly spreading when you don’t even acknowledge accessibility requests?

I’ll go ahead and answer that for you: No. No, you’ve really dropped the Poké ball on this one. You better pick it up before all us gamers with disabilities get away. 

Footnotes

[1] Consult the Disability Statistics.

[2] See “Definition of Disability” in Cornell University’s Disability Statistics website FAQ.

[3] See “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.”

[4] From “For disabled, video games can be a lifesaver” at NBC News.

[5] Read more about the Jouse as “A fascinating technology allows this disabled man to play video games by using his mouth.”

[6] “Eye Control Empowers People with Disabilities” at Abilities.com.

[7] “I’m A Disabled Gamer and This is My Story,” published at IGN.

[8] Polygon has excellent coverage on this movement from 2014 in “Why Game Accessibility Matters.”

[9] There are a number of titles for handheld game consoles such as the PS Vita and Nintendo DS that don’t require extensive mobility and largely avoid this issue: see games like PulzAR, Table Ice Hockey, Pokedex 3D Pro, etc.

[10] See The Mighty’s coverage with “Pokémon Go Gets My Son With Autism to Play Outside” and “The Upside of Playing Pokémon Go as a Person on the Autism Spectrum.”

[11] “Did Pokémon Go get Americans to exercise? The research says yes — but not for long,” via Vox.

[12] Happily, some outlets did cover the accessibility issue – such as The Daily Dot and Polygon.

[13] Kotaku covers the depressing experiences of some wheelchair users attempting to play the game in “Pokémon Go Can Be Depressing For Fans With Physical Disabilities”

[14] Polygon has the rundown on these map hacks in “These Pokémon Go maps will show you exactly where to find Pokémon.”

[15] Most of the aforementioned egg-hatching hacks are outlined in the following Trusted Reviews piece: “Pokémon Go Hacks: 8 clever ways to hatch eggs fast and catch ’em all.”

[16] From “How Pokémon Go is creating a barrier for gamers with disabilities,” published at The Daily Dot.

[17] Per Kotaku’s reporting in “Pokevision And Other Pokémon Go Trackers Shut Down For Unclear Reasons.”

Resources

Eime, Rochelle M., et al. “A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 10.1 (2013): 98.

Granic, Isabela, Adam Lobel, and Rutger CME Engels. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist 69.1 (2014): 66.

Hanke, John, et al. Niantic’s Blog. Niantic, Inc.

Juul, Jesper. “The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness.” Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, Utrecht University, 2003, pp. 30-45.

K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability. Disability Statistics. Cornell University.

Zagal, José P. Ludoliteracy: Defining, Understanding, and Supporting Games Education. ETC Press, 2010.

 

 

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