Why games are important: part 2.
Controllers are taken for granted by gamers. The fundamental requirement we need to play games, the interface between our real world and the digital space we are trying to manipulate, is nowadays a complex piece of kit. Buttons, pressure sensitive triggers and analogue sticks are the norm in what makes up your everyday modern controller. But due to Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft making them so ergonomic, and perhaps because we are more than ever distracted by the near photo realistic action on screen, we don’t stop to think about how important our dual shock actually is.
So imagine for a minute that for some reason you wanted to play a videogame but you were unable to use the controller. Or maybe the controller was just way too complex (Steel Battalion anyone?), rendering any hope of getting a decent game completely impossible.
Now that’s just stupid…
Well, homebrew isn’t just about software. Hardware can be interpreted differently and adapted too, to suit the requirements of the user. I spoke with Barrie Ellis from Oneswitch.org.uk about the work he does in this field.
So what does OneSwitch do Barrie?
OneSwitch tries to promote accessible gaming and other leisure activities for moderate to severely disabled people, who use plug in “accessibility switches”. These switches enable people to control a wide range of technology using what ever movement is easiest for them. For instance, a person that has control from the neck up can use switches positioned by their head to control a computer, and thus, play games.
I adapt, home brew style, game console controllers and other devices, so that accessibility standard switches can be connected to most machines from an Atari VCS to a Playstation 2. I do this because of the lack of any alternative for many games machines.
So who would your "target audience" be?
My target audience was originally severely learning and physically disabled people. But I quickly broadened this to anyone using switches with technology, their friends, relatives and people working in this field.
Take your pick.
How and why did you get started?
I fell into working with disabled people by chance. I stumbled into employment in a "Special Care" Day Centre in 1994. It was a bit of a culture shock as I'd never had anything to do with people with such severe disabilities. However, I started to find my feet, got to know people better, and began to look for new things for people to try. The Day Centre had a BBC Micro with a switch interface and accessibility switch with some very basic “press the button and something happens” type software. I decided I'd bring in my old Commodore 64 and see how that went. We started with Commodore Music Maker play-along software, where you could waggle a joystick to make well known tunes play bar by bar. Controlling the good old SID chip went down well, but this was still too difficult for some to get involved with. I decided I'd try to make a switch interface for the C64. The final result was a spaghetti junction shambles, but it worked and grew from there. I can now adapt pretty much most controllers and consoles out there, subject to the underlying software of course.
Can you give us some examples of games that work well with adapted controllers?
It depends on how many controls an individual can cope with at once and how quickly they can meaningfully react to what's going on in the game. It also depends if they are playing alone or in a team sharing controls.
For people who would find it difficult or impossible to use more than one button, I'd have to start with the superb Retro Remakes single switch games available here, free: http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/2/switch-downloads.htm . There are at least two coin-op games that were designed to be played with a single button, Canyon Bomber (Atari) and Uo Poko (Cave). With MAME these can be made highly accessible, thanks to being able to user-define controls, slow games down, and add cheats. Shenmue Darts mini game on the Dreamcast/Xbox works well with an automatic wobbly hand scanning across the dartboard, leaving you with a single button to time throwing your dart. Everybody's Golf on the PS One is pretty good, as it automatically faces you in the right direction and Um Jammer Lammy is worth a mention too for bringing single button air-guitar fun to the world. All of these could be described as “One Switch Games”.
And presumably some genres can't be adapted for people using one switch – First Person Shooters for example?
In software, all games could be adapted to be much more accessible. A First Person Shooter might have to use some kind of A.I. to help with shooting (like autoaim on N64 Goldeneye). Such a game would be more 'on rails', and would perhaps need branching menu options or QTE options as Shenmue uses or have speed controls and so on. Ideally these would come as a trainer or accessibility feature to complement the existing game. But yes, definitely some games are much easier to adapt than others.
Wouldn’t proper "VR" help physically disabled gamers play more complex games like FPS’s?
I've seen VR used as a training device for electric wheelchair use, and also for simply crossing a road for a blind person, where turning your head made the sounds pan around your head as in real life. I've also heard of a really trippy VR application that runs off your heart rate and breathing. You start at the surface of the sea and control your ascent and descent dependant on how relaxed you become sinking into the sea-bed and into a binary world at your most relaxed. In answer to your question, definitely, and in the future it should just help about everyone, especially when computers are better at interpreting what the intent is behind your particular movements.
Given that OneSwitch is all about accessibility, can you draw any comparisons with Nintendo's announced controller for the "Revolution" console? They appear to be trying to play the “accessibility” card much like your good self…
It's great, and will certainly benefit a portion of disabled gamers, whether or not this was Nintendo's intention. Nintendo have been involved with some really good small scale accessibility projects in the past, such as their NES hands free controller in the US.
I remember Nolan Bushnell talking about Pac-Man's success being in part due to it only needing a single hand to play, which could explain the failure of his Computer Space game which was comparatively complicated. It concerns me that Sony and Microsoft seem to be sticking with very complicated controllers for their next generation of consoles.
I saw your work “in action” at CGE UK this year and was very moved by what I saw. Can you put into words what all this means to the users of your products? What sort of feedback do you get?
For a number of people, it's been their first chance to play games of any kind. When I get to hear what fun people have had using some of my adapted controllers, it makes me proud. It also makes me feel that there is such a long way to go, and that I'm only scratching the surface.
Do you think we'll get to a stage where more developers are sympathetic to the needs of disabled gamers?
Definitely. There have already been small scale efforts from Atari, Namco, Nintendo, Warp, Valve and others (see http://www.oneswitch.org.uk/2/pioneers.htm ). However, it's a lack of understanding that is preventing accessibility features being as common as age ratings on games. Many accessibility features are just good design, such as being able to define your own controls, having broad difficulty level settings, easy to navigate menus, subtitles and so on. These sorts of things could become standard modules, which wouldn't add too much development time and cost. I hope we see a change in the future.
An early adapted controller by
Do you adapt other stuff Barrie?
I have a go at adapting battery operated devices that can be controlled with one to three push buttons. These include Electronic Dice, Remote Control Robots, Cars and even Zombie crawling hands. One day, perhaps all toys and games machines will be accessible to all, operable with some kind of wireless standard, that a standard switch system can tap into. When this day comes, I'll be out of work, and to be honest, I'd be happy.
Talking to Barrie, you get the impression that many developers could learn a thing or two from him. Not just in terms of the disabled gamers aspect, but just in terms of making their games more accessible to all.
But above all else, when you see a disabled gamer getting so much enjoyment from using a controller adapted by OneSwitch, it makes you proud to be a gamer.
For more info on Barrie’s work, go to www.oneswitch.org.uk