Hello! Today marks the start of Disability History Month. We're going to be running a series of articles over the next few weeks - and beyond - focusing on accessibility in video games. We're also going to be looking afresh at the way we cover a game's accessibility features during our coverage.
Starting things off, Emad Ahmed caught up with Steven Spohn, a video game streamer, podcast host, and, amongst many other things, the senior director of the charity AbleGamers.
"I think everyone understands better now what social isolation is, right?" Steven Spohn asks rhetorically, looking back over the last few years. Spohn is the senior director - and frequent public face of AbleGamers, a charity that finds ways for people with disabilities to access games in ways that work for them, and come together through play. He's passionate about his work because of his belief in the unifying power of social gaming and its subsequent communities.
This August, Spohn hit his goal of raising over a million dollars for the charity through the Spawn Together campaign, which was launched in 2020 and coincided with his 40th birthday. (For his 39th birthday he made friends with The Rock.) Beyond that, the greater attention brought on during the pandemic has allowed AbleGamers to do more for people with disabilities who want to play games. "A lot of it is very unsexy," Spohn says of their recent work. But he's quick to rattle off some significant milestones. "We've been able to balloon the staff up to 14 people. We now have a director of peer counselling who was a doctor at a university." However, challenges remain, particularly as demand continues to grow. "You know, a year ago, it would have taken a year to go through AbleGamers' support process. We want to drive that down to two weeks. We don't want you to have to wait a year for your controller. We want you to be able to get what you need right now."
Many people admire and actively support such a cause. Nonetheless, the current social and economic troughs people have been thrown into during the past 18 months might make some ask how much of a priority gaming is in our daily lives. "It's valid to ask because oftentimes AbleGamers is raising money alongside money being raised for people who have cancer," Spohn says. "The truth of the matter is they can both be great and important causes. It's not a matter of our cause being more important than others. It's not, but it is equally as important to someone who doesn't have cancer, who is unable to move any of their muscles, and the only thing they can do is use their mind."
Spohn's passion for games is obvious. "My favourite game right now would probably be Rocket League, an oldie but a goodie," he says when I ask what he's playing at the moment. "I've been having fun with games like Inscryption. And we've actually been doing a lot of indie games recently [on Twitch] just trying out newer stuff. For me, I'm all about the community."
And luckily it's increasingly easy to try out new stuff. "Subscription services [like Game Pass] are a godsend, particularly for people with disabilities," he says. "This is not going to turn into a Microsoft promotional advertisement here, but it's great for people who just don't know if they're gonna be able to play something." Spohn has spinal muscular atrophy, a physical disability that causes problems with movement; he tells me he cannot count the amount of times in the past that he has investigated a game only to find out that he couldn't play it without hacking files.
Spohn goes on to praise improvements made by big names such as Microsoft, Sony, Epic (with Fortnite) and PC manufacturers over recent years, though he's weary of a box-ticking mentality when developing hardware and software. "You've got games like Far Cry 6. It's a good game, and Ubisoft has put a ton of effort into accessibility. They hired people internally to do it. But I still have emails from people who are not able to play it. I personally can play it, but it's very difficult to play. And that's because they follow a very checklist way of thinking about accessibility. And accessibility is not a checklist. Accessibility is a mindset."
His biggest beef at the moment lies with Nintendo, especially as he remembers the outfit's first accessible controller which was released way back in the 80s for the NES. "One of the recent Pokémon games has an item called earbuds that adds subtitles in closed captioning. It's in a side quest on the other side of the game. Accessibility features being buried in a quest should not be a thing, and whoever thought that was okay should have had a stern talking to." (I had to double-check this: I think Spohn is referring to the 'hi-tech earbuds' item that are available later in the Pokémon Sword and Shield games as an unlockable item. And although it's not subtitles that these unlock, but volume controls separating Pokémon cries, background music and sound effects. It's still unhelpful for users who expect such a basic feature in the standard options menu.)
Although his love for video games, his experience with disability, and his work for a charity focussed on games for players with disabilities naturally leads to much overlap, Spohn is in the process of remaking himself for a second act. "I don't want to be recognised as an advocate...I wish people could kind of recognise that [disabled] people are three dimensional," he tells me.
His new ventures are all about sharing wisdom from friends, living life positively and being able to be more than what people see of him. "I started a new podcast recently that's all about philosophy through interviews. I really want to get into public speaking and I'm looking for partners out there who are interested in hiring a disabled person, because I'd like to be someone who is looked at as an example."
Spohn is nonetheless aware of how people with disabilities are often viewed by able-bodied individuals, saying, "Don't celebrate us because we put on pants in the morning." He pauses. "My day job is advocacy. At night time, you know, I'm just like any other streamer."
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