Game Therapy: Helping the disabled to play

Be thankful next time you pick up a joypad, for thousands of disabled and colour blind gamers it’s “Game Over” before they can even hit the start button. But now games developers and charities are pulling together to develop new technologies and ways of playing to make sure nobody is left out.

At any given moment there could millions of gamers playing simultaneously. The online gaming community is a thriving, 24-hour hotbed of activity, populated by gamers from many walks of life. One demographic is lacking though; disabled gamers are often excluded completely.

Colour blindness

Disabilities come in many forms. For some gamers, simple everyday colour blindness is enough to prevent them being involved. For others, physical impairments or mental health issues keep them at bay.

Sledgehammer Games, one of the world’s most high-profile game-makers estimates that nearly a million gamers are colour blind, and experiencing nasty effects as a result.

“I picked up Child of Eden the other day and lasted about 15 minutes,” Lee Nichols, a colour blind gamer tells us. “I was completely disoriented and get confused by mass amounts of colour moving at once.”

Imagine your favourite pastime causing nausea and dizziness. That’s the effect experienced by a colour blind player. For a more detailed explanation see this eye-opening article from Destructoid writer, Anthony Burch. But games developers are starting to take action.

More titles than ever support “friendly” colours that do not leave the player feeling disoriented. Last year’s best-selling Call of Duty: Black Ops features a “colour blind friendly” option. It uses hues that vary greatly, so there’s less change of a gamer seeing a clashing colours on-screen.

Steven Batchelor-Manning, MD of game developer NerfGames says there are difficulties in adding such modes, but they can be overcome.

“I don’t believe that there is a single case where an option to support a player with colour blindness couldn’t be provided,” he told us.

Some game developers have gone a step further in creating colour blind compatible titles. World of Warcraft features a colour blind mode which augments icons with visual labels to help players carry out the most basic functions of the game with minimum difficulty.

According to Kathryn Albany-Ward, founder of action group Colour Blind Awareness, 8% of men and 0.5% of women are colour blind. She says the games industry needs to promote games more clearly, and highlight their features for colour blind gamers.

Some form of “colour blind compliant” symbol should be introduced by those producers already taking account of [colour blind gamer’s] needs, so that purchasers can be aware before they buy.”

Gaming as therapy

But, annoying as colour blind gamers find incompatible titles, there’s another demographic missing out on the fun altogether.

SpecialEffect is a UK-based charity that helps children with severe disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, to play video games. They treat video games as therapy, and a valuable outlet for disabled youngsters.


SpecialEffect R&D Coordinator Bill Donegan says the approach enriches the lives of those unable to socialise, and lets them feel part of a community. “People play video games for many different reasons: escapism, socialising or simply for fun… but it someone finds real-life recreation difficult or impossible, then access to video games can sometimes be the only way that they can play on a level playing field with their siblings, parents or friends.”

“We get great feedback from people who really appreciate the support we offer,” he tells us. SpecialEffect runs roadshows across the country, lending specialist hardware to those that need it. Trips to Great Ormond Street Hospital School and the Children’s Trust are also in the pipeline.

“This equipment ranges from things like one-handed controllers to personalised setups, so people can play their PlayStation, just by using their head,” Donegan explains.

Some of SpecialEffect’s most innovative work focusses on cutting-edge technology, such as eye control to reach gamers with more serious injury or illnesses.

The technology lets patients play specialised games, designed for eye-control, as well as traditional console games such as House of the Dead III. Online gaming is also on the agenda, Donegan revealed.

“Online gaming is a huge part of gaming now. We aim to help people to be able to play mainstream online games like everyone else, wherever possible, but for those who can’t currently access online games we are planning to add a ‘Gamesroom. to [our website, GameBase], where people can meet to play especially created games together.

To ensure all gamers can take part SpecialEffect supply gamers with specialised “Evil Controllers” so even physially challenged gamers can get involved.

A rising public awareness

Efforts to raise the profile of disabled gamers appears to be working. Recent success stories include a petition widely reported by the gaming press, attracting more than 75,000 signatures to urge Dead Space 2 developer, Visceral Games to add controls for disabled gamers. If in future more developers can take heed, the gaming landscape will become a more welcoming place for all.

The combined efforts of groups such as Colour Blind Awareness and SpecialEffect, and a rise in public awareness towards the difficulties facing previously ignored groups of gamers has helped level the playing field for disabled and colour blind gamers.

In the heat of a frenzied gaming session session, it’s easy to forget that not all gamers are alike. Think about that the next time you pick up that joypad.

This feature has been reproduced from an article originally written by myself for