We in Enable Ireland Assistive Technology Training Service have long recognised the importance of gaming to many young and not so young assistive technology users. It’s a difficult area for a number of reasons. Firstly games (and we are talking about video games here) are designed to be challenging, if they are too easy they’re not fun, however if too difficult the player will also lose interest. Successful games manage to get the balance just right. Of course when it comes to physical dexterity as well as other skills required for gaming (strategic, special awareness, timing) this often involves game designers taking a one size fits all approach which frequently doesn’t include people with physical, sensory or cognitive difficulties. There are two methods of getting around this which when taken together ensure a game can be accessed and enjoyed by a much broader range of people; difficulty levels (not a new concept) and accessibility features (sometimes called assists). Difficulty levels are self-explanatory and have been a feature of good games for decades. Accessibility features might include the ability to remap buttons (useful for one handed gamers), automate certain controls, subtitles, high contrast and magnification.
Another challenge faced when creating an alternative access solution to allow someone successfully play a video game is that you need to have a pretty good understanding of the activity, how to play the game. This is where we often have difficulty and I’d imaging other non-specialist services (general AT services rather than game accessibility specialist services like SpecialEffect or OneSwitch.org.uk ) also run into problems. We simply do not have the time required to familiarise ourselves with the games or keep up to date with new releases (which would allow us better match a person with an appropriate game for their range of ability). We try and compensate for this by enlisting the help of volunteers (often from Enable Irelands IT department with whom we share office space), interns and transition year students. It’s often the younger transition year students who bring us some of the best suggestions and last week was no exception. After we demonstrated some eyegaze technology to Patrick, a transition year student visiting from Ardscoil Ris, Dublin 9, he suggested we take a look at a browser based game called agar.io. I implore you, do not to click that link if you have work to get done today. This game is equal parts addictive and infuriating but in terms of playability and simplicity it’s also very accessible with simple controls and a clear objective. The idea is that using your mouse you control a little (at first) coloured circular blob, think of it as a cell and the aim of the game it to eat other little coloured cells and grow. The fun part is that other players from every corner of the globe are also controlling cells and growing, if they are bigger than you they move a little slower but can eat you! Apart from the mouse there are two other buttons, the spacebar allows you to split your cell (can be used as an aggressive or defensive strategy) and the “W” key allows you to shed some weight. We set up the game to be played with a Tobii EyeX (€119) and IRIS software (€99). IRIS allows you to emulate the mouse action with your eyes and set up two onscreen buttons (called interactors) that can also be activated using your gaze, the video below should make this clearer.
Big thanks to Patrick for suggesting we take a look at Agrio and helping us set it up for eyegaze control. I’ll leave the final words to him. “I found playing Agrio with gaze software really fun. I think you have just as much control with your eyes as with your mouse. If an interactor was placed in the corner of the screen to perform the function of the spacebar (splits the cell in half) it would be beneficial. I believe it would be a very entertaining game for people who can only control their eyes, not their arms.”