GDC 2007 Coverage (Part Four of Four)

This is the last installment of Eitan Glinert’s account of the Games Development Conference. Glinert is a graduate student working for GAMBIT.

Friday

For the past four days I’ve brought you coverage of GDC and tried to focus on different aspects of the conference, starting with serious games, then independent game development, followed by coverage of the “big” companies out there including Sony and Nintendo, and then women in gaming. Today, on my last day, I’m going to get into news related to my own research in game accessibility. But what is “Game Accessibility”? It seems to be one of those terms getting thrown around a lot in the industry, especially over the past week. Simply put, there are a huge number of disabled people out there; according to the 2000 American census, 19% of individuals aged 16 – 64 had some form of disability, be it physical or mental. Accessibility refers to games that are designed with this large group in mind, so that they can play along with everyone.

Actually creating accessible games is a task easier said than done, though. There are many forms of disabilities, ranging from sensory impairments (i.e. blind), to physical disabilities, to mental disabilities such as dyslexia, to medical conditions like arthritis. So how can you make a game that is accessible to all of these people? That’s a great question that Dr. Dimitris Grammenos would like to try to answer. Grammenos has created Game Over!, the most frustrating, hilarious, and thought-provoking game I have seen in quite some time. Game Over! has 20+ levels, each of which displays a different accessibility deficiency that makes the game impossible to play. That’s right – you can’t win this game. Play advances when you either die, or self destruct, three times in any given level. Lighthearted enough to keep you from breaking your computer in frustration, playing through really gets you thinking about how the “bugs” that prevent you from winning could have been avoided. If you are developing software, I *strongly* suggest checking it out.

There are some games, though, that do a great job of being accessible. One notable example is Terraformers, winner of the innovation in audio award at the 2003 independent games festival. Terraformers features a rich world in which you need to make an alien planet habitable for humans (hence the name.) What’s really impressive about the game, though, is that you don’t need to be able to see to play the game. Through the novel use of 3D sound and a handy futuristic sonar system, players can navigate and interact with the world without ever seeing a thing. If the concept sounds interesting but you think you want something more action packed, you might want to check out AudioGames.net, a website devoted entirely to games for the visually impaired. Two of the more interesting offerings on the site (in my opinion) are Drive and Shades of Doom, though the list of some 200 games available should give you plenty to choose from.

Also present at GDC were games that took pains to provide useful closed captioning, to allow the user to adjust the speed and difficulty level of the system and a meaningful way, and a wide array of controllers that would allow users with one hand, or even paraplegics, to play games. The latter controller, which was controlled through a set of three puff straws, was truly an impressive feat, though I don’t know of any plans to mass produce such items. If anyone does know of where to get such a device, it would have to be Game Accessibility, the best site around for what’s new in the accessibility field. Along with links to dozens of games (some of which can be downloaded on the site) there are many useful tools for developers such as papers and testimonials on how to make these types of games.

That about wraps up my coverage of the Game Developer’s Conference. Before I go though, a plug: check out The Education Arcade, a lab here at MIT that focuses on the creation of new engaging educational games, like Labyrinth. There’s lots of great stuff on the site, including some particularly enlightening blogs. Ok, so mine aren’t all that enlightening, but the other ones are. Check it out!

Have comments on Eitan’s coverage of GDC? Feel free to contact him at glinert-at-mit-dot-edu and tell him what you really thought of his posts