Podcast: Video games and disabled people

The Disability Download

Video games are a relatively new but ever more popular medium. Somewhat misunderstood, video games have something very special about them in terms of being able to reach people and include people. For disabled people they can actually be more than just entertainment.

On this episode of The Disability Download, Sam Buckley catches up with three disabled gamers.


Dave Crouse: …and so the number of real conversations that I’ve had with folks over a game, myself included, things I’ve just kind of spilled out because I wasn’t consciously keeping it from people anymore…you get into some really good conversations, really good therapeutic conversations.

Joshua Reeves: I reckon Sony and Microsoft should perhaps get a disabled person in there and say, ‘right, how can we make this accessible for everyone?’

Alex Walls: Community-wise, they all are very accepting of people with disabilities gaming.

Cathy Lynch: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download. The Disability Download is brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I’m Cathy Lynch.

Erin O’Reilly: And I’m Erin O’Reilly and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability. 

Cathy: This month, we’re talking about accessible video games. 

Erin: I think that’s pretty apt, considering, obviously, most people are still in lockdown in their houses, and obviously looking for new tasks and things to keep them busy, keep them entertained during this time, and I think a key thing for a lot of people will be video games.

Cathy: Absolutely yeah, and I’m not really a gamer, but I found all of this really interesting actually, I’d never actually thought about how it could really help in terms of mental health. That hadn’t really occurred to me before because I think, when I think video games, I automatically think that they could be bad for you, because you’re looking at a screen, but that’s not really the case. And I think, yeah, these conversations are really interesting if you’re not a gamer, as well. 

Erin: Yeah, I think definitely, and like you say it’s not my area of expertise either, although I did play a lot of Crash Bandicoot when I was younger…

Cathy: Me too! Spyro the Dragon!

Erin: Absolute classics. So we thought for this episode we’d let one of our colleagues take the reins. Sam’s a bit of a gamer himself, and he chats to three different people about their different experiences with accessible gaming. 

First up he speaks with Dave Crouse, who’s head of veteran services at an organisation called Stack Up. Then he catches up with Joshua Reeves, a disability rights campaigner who you may recognise from some of our other podcasts like our disability hate crime podcast, and finally he speaks to Alex Walls, a disabled gaming blogger. So take it away Sam! 

Sam Buckley: Hello listeners, and welcome to The Disability Download! And today I want to talk about video games. The reason being, they are a very new kind of medium – they’ve only been around since the 1970s – and they’re very misunderstood. But from what I’ve found, talking to quite a few disabled gamers in making this episode, is that that they have something very special about them in terms of being able to reach people and include people, and they can actually be something more than just entertainment. Let’s find out why.

First, I talked to Dave Crouse, who works for the charity Stack Up, based in America. And they use video games to help disabled veterans readjust to life after the military. So I spoke to Dave about how video games came into his life, and how he now uses them to help other people in his position. Here’s what he had to say to me. 

Dave Crouse: So I was a US marine for 11 years, and the last big career move I made, in the marines, was to go into explosive ordnance disposal, which is a bomb squad. And it was amazing, I loved doing that work, absolutely incredible, I miss it every day. 

And I took a…I was on a humanitarian demining mission in Cambodia, and kinda had a bad day in the office – I had a round that I was disassembling detonate while I was working on it. It took my left arm and my left eye, left me with a whole bunch of other serious injuries. I ended up spending two years in a military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland – Walter Reed is the name of the hospital. 

During that time, I really had to figure out what my next chapter was going to look like. So, there were lot of challenges I was facing at the time, both regarding physical and occupational therapy, but also emotionally and mentally – really having to unpack and process a great many major life changes. And I struggled with that. And a big way that I found escape during that time was through video games. I’ve been a big gamer my whole life. It’s always been very near and dear to my heart, and in a lot of ways I consider video games and music to be my two big passions. And it gave me a lot of opportunities to decompress while I was undergoing treatment at the hospital. 

Sam: So, how was it video games helped to you adjust to your new life, in the way that other things maybe couldn’t have done?

Dave: So for me, waking up – I might wake up at like 3.30 in the morning on a typical night back then, and just wake up really depressed, really frustrated, sometimes not even recognising that I was depressed or frustrated – just feeling off. And not knowing to do with myself. Being able to go into the living room, throw on a video game, and just hang out with that for a little bit, was incredibly therapeutic for me. Gave me whole lot of altitude, and allowed me to decompress, get some sleep, and reengage the core issue with fresh eyes in the morning. 

Sam: So thinking about that in terms of your work with stack up, what’s the special power that video games have in terms of reaching people, do you find?

Dave: Firstly, and this is in my opinion one of the biggest things, is that it is a resource that you can access completely independently of others. Now, multiplayer gaming is a huge component playing games at all, right? And the camaraderie you can experience playing games with other people is massive, and not to be understated even a little bit. But that fact I can go in, whether I jump into a multiplayer game, or even if I’m offline jumping into a singleplayer, those video games available as long as you have the hardware and the software, they are available to you whenever you need them. It doesn’t rely on someone picking up the other end of the line, it doesn’t rely on business hours, it doesn’t rely on anything other than you wanting to this thing, and then going to do the thing. So I think that’s huge. The fact that that it’s just 24/7, 365, and it doesn’t depend on anybody else. There’s an independence factor there. 

I also think it’s healthy because, you know, like so many other great mediums, you know, movies, books, anything with storytelling, anything that can get a person’s imagination going, get them into a creative space, get them into a role-playing space, there’s so many applications for those types of things in mental health.

Sam: It feels like there’s something about video games that can break down barriers, where other mediums really can’t. What is it about them that makes them so effective so often in terms of reaching people?

Dave: So I think independence of access is a major factor, and I think that video gaming is so ubiquitous now that if I hop into a video game, if I just decide I want to go on multiplayer, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ve got at least one friend online. Even if it’s the middle of the night. Because everybody’s playing, if you’re connected with your buddies on the system, there’s a pretty decent chance that you’re going to see at least one person that you know, and that you can reach out to and ask to play together. 

And now, what we find is a big part of gaming as mental health resource is that in our community we found that if I’ve got, let’s say I’ve got a friend of mine, and I know, or at least feel in my heart, man, you know I think my friend is really struggling right now. They haven’t come to me to talk about it but I can tell, I can feel it in my bones. Sometimes it’s really effective to just go up to that person say ‘Hey, is everything alright? Do you want to talk?’ Sometimes, that’s not effective. Sometimes, that person’s not going to necessarily respond to that. I tend to fall into the latter, where a lot of times I’m just like ‘I’m good, don’t worry about it.’ But, if I say ‘Hey, do you want to go play Call of Duty for a little bit?’ They say, ‘yeah, sure, why not?’ We do that. 

You know, once folks are distracted by the gaming, there’s a level of defences that come down, where all of the sudden you’re speaking a little bit more candidly because you’re less focused on kind of guarding yourself and you’re more focused on playing this game. You’ve got something that’s distracting you. And so the number of real conversations that I’ve had with folks over a game, myself included, things I’ve just kind of spilled out because I wasn’t consciously keeping it from people anymore…you get into some really good conversations, really good therapeutic conversations.

You know, I remember, even as recently as a few years ago, leaning into our community – I had a game night planned, we were going to play Battlefield 1, and I’d just found out that morning that a close friend of mine had died due to a heroin overdose. And so I was understandably bummed out by that, I was frustrated, I was trying to process that, and very much felt like ‘I don’t want to play video games tonight. I just don’t. I don’t want to do it.’ And a buddy of mine, one of my buddies who was in the group said ‘Man, just come out, come out.’ And I was like ‘Alright…’ because I think to tried to make up some excuse, like ‘Hey, you know, I had something come up…’ some vague response. Anyways, I ended up hopping into this game. Within thirty minutes of playing the game I found that it just kind of fell out. It fell off my lips that this thing was happening. So we didn’t dwell on it on a whole lot, but we talked about it a bit then we kept playing the game. You know what, by the end of that game I was super into the same and I walked away from it thinking ‘You know, this was the best possible thing I could have done today.’ And that was really, really cool. 

So I think there’s…that’s just one anecdotal story of mine, but it’s definitely bigger than entertainment. It’s a very real resource. And I think that any time a conversation comes up, where the effectiveness is called into question.

Because there are cases where, you know, it can used negatively, you can lean into it too much, you can overindulge. But I really have to ask people, would you be saying this if I was talking about a book club, or a movie night? Because it’s not really any different from that, except this is more interactive. So it’s a little wild to me that anybody could look at gaming and not at least see where the overlap is there. 

Sam: So with all of this in mind, how are you trying to make gaming more accessible to disabled people, and what more needs to change, would you say?

Dave: Alright. This is my bread and butter, sir! 

So, without going into a whole rabbit hole story here, I actually originally cut my teeth in the charity space giving custom-adapted controllers, I was doing that, I’d been doing that for a few months when I met Steve Machuga (Stack Up founder) and that ultimately led down to the road of leading these programmes from Stack Up. But back then, I was doing custom controllers, working with a friend of mine, mostly as a liaison to other disabled veterans at Walter Reed. And so we would break apart these Xbox 360 controllers, PS3 controllers, Wii…yeah, I did a customer controller for the Wii for guy that had lost his left arm like I did. Which was an interesting challenge, adapting the Wii remote nunchuck for somebody who was missing a hand! But we made it work, and I love doing that stuff, and we had a lot of success with it. 

Now, I had the really, really cool, awesome opportunity to work with Microsoft on the development of the Xbox adaptive controller. Which I think, right now, is probably the, what I would consider the ‘nuclear option’, for accessibility in hardware. And it’s a really good one. You can do just about anything with the Xbox adaptive controller. Adaptive is now one small piece of what I do, but it’s still home to me. As far as where the industry’s at, I think the industry is in a very, very good place right now, interestingly enough. I had this weird pipe dream way back, years ago, when I first started. They say ‘shoot for the moon’, right? So for me, ‘shooting for the moon’, the target that I did not expect to be actually be able to reach but which I thought would be a good goal, was ‘maybe someday I can influence accessibility at the platform-holder level’. You know, talk to a Microsoft, or a Sony, or a Nintendo. And I’m living in this weird twilight zone universe where I have spoken with a lot of these folks and I have been able to advocate for disabled gamers and work with these folks on solutions. 

The Xbox adaptive controller is one of those. Microsoft in my opinion is definitely leading the charge, between the elite controller, the XAC [Xbox Adaptive Controller], the myriad of options they have through their software – I definitely think they’ve got their finger on the pulse better than anybody at the moment. I mean, they have a whole inclusive tech lab that revolves around accessibility for all aspects of the Microsoft user experience. It’s incredible. 

Sony recently released the back button attachment for the DualShock 4 [PlayStation controller] which is definitely a big step in the right direction. They have for a couple of years now had the option to remap your DualShock buttons which is huge. And even Nintendo, getting on board here about a month or two months ago, finally giving folks the option to remap their controllers on the Switch. That one caught me by surprise – I did not expect to see Nintendo make that move, because as a company they’ve been kind of ‘Nintendo does what Nintendo does’ and there’s almost like, I guess, being in America there’s this real separation where Nintendo Japan is calling all the big shots and they’re of course over in Japan, and there not as accessible as Sony and Microsoft when it comes to being at conventions and stuff. 

But even the bigs, so you’ve got the big three right now that are all looking at different accessibility solutions, which means we’re already well on our way off in the right direction because you know seven or eight years nobody was even talking about this stuff. If you had a disability, it was just ‘figure it out’. When I woke up in the hospital with a missing hand, there were not a whole lot of options. I researched. I found a couple that were really expensive and were custom-made controllers, so I was like ‘well, I’d better figure this out for myself, because no one else out there is really doing it.’ Thankfully that’s not the case anymore. There’s so many out-of-the-box resources I provide to folks where it’s like ‘hey, this’ll get you 90% of the way there. If you run into something this doesn’t fix, we’ll work it out together.’ Developers are paying a lot more attention to it now as well, again, Microsoft’s game studios is looking at this stuff. I had the opportunity to work with some bigger devs, I remember when Gears of War 4 was coming out I had the opportunity to speak with them, but even smaller developers like Screenwave Media, they publish a lot of indie titles, and they have a very very keen eye on accessibility. Which has been really cool to watch. So it’s kind of permeated all levels of the industry at this point, where it’s at least a part of the conversation. 

Now is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. I think we’re living in an age right now where everything is kind of based on PC architecture – there’s absolutely no reason that most games – not all of them lend themselves to it, but most games – should have controller support, all games should allow you to remap controls however you see fit. I don’t think those would be controversial statements. For the platform holders and developers it’s just making sure that you’re designing your product with accessibility in mind from the start. I think that’s where the room for improvement is. But even with those suggestions and those ways for improvement, I think what the industry is doing now is incredible. And I think it’s night and day from where we were at 10 years ago. And it’s been very very encouraging and inspiring to see it happening because I’ve been able have some tiny tiny piece of it but also just because I can feel a lot of comfort that folks dealing with this stuff a week from now aren’t going to go through the same learning curves that I did. And I can only imagine what folks years prior, you know…what it was like for me, what it was like for folks before. So, we’re definitely making huge strides. 

Sam: So my next stop was talking to Joshua Reeves who’s a disability campaigner who’s done an awful lot campaigning for social justice both in the community and in the online world. He’s done an awful lot around combatting hate crime towards disabled people and that extends to his experiences on gaming forums. But first of all I wanted to talk to Josh about what made video games so special to him. So here’s what he had to say. 

Joshua: So I had a lot of surgery growing up, and I remember that in hospitals they only had this one gaming machine. I’ve never heard of it before I went there, and I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ It was the GameCube. I’d never heard of it before I was in hospital so it was always a treat. 

Sam: Joshua, you’ve spoken before about experiencing hate crime in online gaming forums. How has that coloured your experiences of gaming and what do you think could be done to combat those comments in that kind of arena?

Joshua: It’s very hard, because people are shouting down like, I know they’re not disabled, but they shout down like ‘spaz’ and stuff, and I’m like, are they targeting me? Or are they just shouting because people just shout hurtful words at their opponents all the time? Or at their teammates because they’ve done something wrong? And that I always feel like because that word is a word to mean disabled person but in a nasty way, I feel like is it targeted at me. But I know that it’s not targeted at me, I know it’s that people have been using words like that because it’s a way of hurting your opponent. Do you get what I mean? They don’t know if I have a disability or not. 

Sam: How accessible would you say gaming actually was at the present time, knowing we are seeing some great advances, but if it feels like there’s still a bit of a way to go? Are they accessible, I guess, is my question…

Joshua: Not really accessible. When I have controllers in my hand, I can operate them functionally quite alright, but it’s the timing and the speed. When it comes to reasonable adjustments, and even when it comes to gaming, not every disabled person can operate that machine. I reckon Sony and Microsoft should perhaps get a disabled person in there and say, ‘right, how can we make this accessible for everyone?’ How can disabled people have fun with this game without dying all the time? Or if they ask for other controllers, how can we make it adjustable for everyone, so that everyone can play, and there can be no people getting angry over disabled people maybe being slower at the gaming. Because I certainly am. But I don’t know whether that’s because of my disability, maybe it’s just me! I’m not too sure. 

Sam: So finally I spoke to Alex, who’s a gaming blogger who started blogging at university under the name Disabled Guy Plays. He now goes under the name WallsiesDGP. A lot of what Alex blogs about is gaming with a disability, some of the challenges and obviously, of course, the games he loves. But I really wanted to first talk to Alex and what was different about video games to him. And in the same way, I heard that they were more than just entertainment. Here’s what he had to say to me. 

Alex Walls: I suppose because both my brothers don’t have disabilities, they’re both physically fine, it’s one of the ways we can all equally compete against each other. Even though I’ve not got the best hand dexterity, as I got used to it I wanted to try and beat them, and I found ways of gaming with what I’ve got. So it’s kind of grew from there. 

Sam: So what you’re saying is that video games are more than just entertainment for you?

Alex: I completely agree. Especially at the moment, it’s all coronavirus going down. From about seven o’clock in the evening…I do my work, spend some time with the family from about five onwards, then from about seven, me and all my mates, we’re all on together. 

Sam: Alex, people have definitely shared some mixed experiences of gaming online with a disability, so I wanted to hear yours. What is it like for you gaming as a disabled gamer? What kind of reaction do you get from the community when you go online?

Alex: Community-wise, they all are very accepting of people with disabilities gaming. I think it’s such a…I’ve found quite a few people just through network gaming or Twitter in the past few months, but there’s loads of us out there who are doing it. So it’s quite an open platform really. I haven’t had any really negative response or anything that bad from the community, they’ve all been positive, they’re all curious about how I game and stuff like that. I’ve had one or two people, ‘oh you don’t really look disabled’ and I’m like, well, there’s not really a look to it! Yeah, you get a couple of people like that. But I’m quite a…I like to think I’m confident, so I just brush it off, tell them where to go in a way – but nicely!

Sam: So in terms of people who do experience hate crime online, especially playing video games, what would you see needs to be done to turn the situation around? What needs to change?

Alex: I think it’s a bit of a reflection on society at times, where the language still is being used in a bad way. While we don’t see it as much now, it is heightened on your FPS [first person shooter] games, because I think people get so into it and the atmosphere around the place is a bit more like that. Personally, I’ve never really had anything sort of like derogatory towards me. I’ve never had anything like that. When I have heard that, it’s sort of like when I’m playing, I often do sort of like go ‘come on guys’ sort of like when it’s derogatory, racist, stuff like that. It is there, and I think stuff needs to change along those lines, but I think it’s just a societal thing in a way. I think it just gets highlighted in FPS games. But at the same time, I’ve also met some great people while playing games like that, who wouldn’t harm anything. So I think it’s just some games getting highlighted in a bad way when it isn’t always. I like to think it’s changing.

Sam: Do you feel like that’s reflected in video games themselves?

Alex: I think they’ve got a lot further to go, to be honest. I’m trying to think of a single character with a disability and I’m really struggling. And it’s atrocious really, when you think about it. We’ve not got that representation. I know it’s not always in your FIFAs [football game] and in your FPS’s and stuff. 

But I think especially in character, role-playing games, like The Sims, which is based on society, when you have people who are green and aliens and stuff in The Sims, why can’t you have somebody with a visual impairment, with physical disability, and stuff like that? It just doesn’t make sense. 

But I think it’s the same with lot of the arts, to be fair. (Sam: Yeah). I know it’s getting more and more, but just representation of disability is pretty rare. 

As a last thought, one of the reasons I wanted to get into gaming, and streaming a bit more, was to try and sort of say ‘we are out here’. And actually, getting into it, I’ve seen more and more disabled streamers. Actually, I didn’t realise there were so many when I started looking into it. But there are a lot of us out there, and hopefully, again with podcasts like this, and people streaming, YouTube videos, people with disabilities, hopefully we will get more representation out there, and shout: ‘We are here! Include us!”

Sam: Thanks Alex, and it really does feel like those are words for the industry to live by: ‘we are here – include us.’ And certainly video games really do have the power to involve and connect so many different people. We’re seeing real moves by the industry to take that inclusion even further and make video games a truly accessible medium. And that means more people being able to play them, and more people benefitting from them. 

And, well, that brings to the end of the show. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening. I’d first like to say thank you so much to my three guests: Dave, from the charity Stack Up, and you can find out more about the amazing work that charity does, both in the UK and the US, at www.stackup.org.  Alex you can find very much online, he’s at WallsiesDGP on Twitter where you’ll find links to his Twitch stream and to his other blogs. And Josh you can also find on twitter at JoshuaReevesDCMS where you’ll find lots of amazing content such as interviews and blogs on life as a disabled person. 

And I think Alex’s remark is something I’d really like to leave you with. ‘we are here – include us.’ The video gaming industry has already proven itself to be very very inclusive in the entertainment it provides, and it has the potential to do so much more, as we’ve seen from the great work that Dave’s been doing. 

So here’s to the next fifty years of video games. I really am excited to see where they go next. 

Cathy: Well thanks for that Sam, that was really interesting and kind of like a whistle-stop tour through accessible video gaming! So yeah, check out the links – we’ll put it into our shownotes and you can check it out. And let us know what you think! 

Erin: Yeah and as always we really wanna know what you wanna hear us talking about through lockdown and beyond, so please do get in touch, let us know what you think about the episodes and any topics you really want us to cover so email us at disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org and follow us on Twitter @leonardcheshire and on Instagram @leonardcheshire. And as always, please do remember to like and subscribe to the podcast!

Cathy: And stay safe everyone, until next time! I’m Cathy…

Erin: And I’m Erin

Both: And this has been The Disability Download!