Is Blizzard Committed to Disabled Gamers?

“Game accessibility” is one of those buzz word phrases that has been thrown around a lot in gaming communities, but the term “accessibility” as it applies to gaming has multiple meanings.  We often hear about how large scale MMOs (like World of Warcraft) are increasing the accessibility of their games by catering to a larger and larger casual player base.  That is not the kind of game accessibility that I want to talk about here today.  I want to talk about “accessibility” in the more common, real world sense of the word: removing the barriers preventing disabled gamers from taking part in games.

How Many Players Are Disabled?

How many disabled video game players are out there?  This is a field of research has been largely passed by.  Even finding basic statistics about disabled gamers proves disheartening.  How many World of Warcraft players are disabled?  How many MMO players?  How many serious gamers?  How many PC gamers?  No one really knows.

Estimates I’ve seen about disabled gamers range from 5% to 20%; they vary greatly due to differences in definitions of what makes a gamer disabled, and what makes a person a gamer.  Does playing simple flash games make you a gamer?  Internet Scrabble? Are you a disabled player if you have a learning disorder?  Corrective lenses?  Carpal tunnel?

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) estimates 9% of the gaming population is disabled (1 in every 11 people).

A separate market research study commissioned by Pop Cap Games put the estimates of disabled game players at 20% of the casual gaming market, and of that 20%…

“Only 26% of disabled casual gamers said they also play traditional, “hardcore” video games; among those respondents with physical disabilities specifically, that figure dropped to 18%.”

So, provided their research surveyed the gaming community fairly and with significant enough sample, 5.2% of the player base of “traditional” games has a disability of some sort (about 1 in 20 people) by their numbers. This is a little over half of what the IGDA estimated.

Michelle Hinn on Terra Nova (May 2, 2007) cited a major hurdle in accurately measuring the population of disabled gamers:

“The trouble that is added into the equation is that how many disabled people WOULD be gamers if they COULD be — we might find that there is a higher percentage compared to the non-disabled population because it affords opportunity for leisure, which in other areas is denied.”

It’s really difficult to measure the actual size of a community when a segment of it is denied entrance. However, the figures above give us a general idea of the number of people we are talking about here. Thinking in terms of World of Warcraft, if we go by the IDGA figure of 9%, that is a population of people equal in number to those who play a shaman as their main character.  If we go with the 5% figure, then we could be talking about a population the size of those who play holy priests as their mains.  The point is that this is a sizable amount of people.  Five percent of 10.5 million World of Warcraft subscribers would be 525,000 people, and that was just the low end of our estimates.

What Types of Disabilities?

There are many types of disabilities that could affect gaming.  Here are a few examples:

  • Physical motor disabilities – Carpel tunnel, multiple sclerosis.
  • Visual impairment – Color blindness, low vision.
  • Hearing impairment – Partial or total deafness.
  • Learning disorders – Dyslexia, AD/HD.
  • Other medical disorders – Chronic fatigue, autism, etc.

Given the breadth of types of disabilities and how they could affect one’s ability to game, inclusive game design is no simple task. Obviously, you cannot cater to everyone.  However, small things go a long way toward making a given game inclusive.  For example: closed-captioning and avoiding purely auditory cues are of great benefit to the hearing impaired.  Allowing for the change of font color and size helps those with low vision or color blindness.

An exercise I have frequently heard citied it to try to enjoy your favorite games while simulating having limited visual, auditory, or motor ability. For example, you could:

  • Close one eye and with the other look at your game through a drinking straw.
  • Turn off all game sound.
  • Try playing one handed.
  • Think about how many game details are lost if the colors red and green appeared the same.

Go. Try it.  What types of barriers do you encounter and what is their effect on your success within the game?  How much of the game remains playable to you?  What if you tried a different type of game?  How does your success vary?

Removing game barriers would allow disabled players to experience many of the same benefits of gaming that other players do, including: stress relief, improved concentration, sharpened mental dexterity, better fine motor skills, expanded visual-spatial capabilities, and more.

Blizzard’s Words to the Disabled Community

Three years. It took AbleGamers, one of the largest communities of gamers with disabilities, three years to get Blizzard to talk to them.   How did they do it?

“We thought about how we could get Blizzard to notice us, so we devised a plan. The details were simple; we made t-shirts that were critical of Blizzard’s inability to return emails to AbleGamers. The second part of the plan was to get word to Blizzard that these shirts would be worn… [at the 2008 Game Developers Conference].”

– Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamers.com

This smart scheme got them in contact with J. Allen Brack, Lead Producer of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions to World of Warcraft.  Mr. Brack has been on quite the media blitz as of late, granting interviews to many gaming news sites around the web and drumming up anticipation of the upcoming expansion. A huge thanks and kudos to AbleGamers for scoring the interview!  Nice work!

From the interview, according to Mr. Brack:

Accessibility is definitely important to us and is one of the hallmarks of our approach to game design. We put a lot of hard work into making great games, and we want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy them.”

The interview continues on to highlight the struggle of balancing game accessibility with over-automation of the game (or in Blizzard’s words: “cheating”)…:

“Regarding Decursive and Healbot, we felt that their earlier incarnations automated gameplay too much. There are lots of great mods available now that allow players to click one button for targeting and then another button to heal. There are several other reasons why certain functions are not permitted in mods. First and foremost, we forbid any functionality that could lead to cheating or that violate our Terms of Use. “

…and the struggle against third-party botting software that automates any aspect of game play:

“We can never permit third-party programs that completely automate the gameplay mechanics within World of Warcraft. We fully support the use of authorized third-party add-ons, macros, programmable keyboards, gamepads, and so on, but we definitely do not allow software that could exploit the player base or fully automate gameplay without user intervention.”

I’ll admit it: when I first read the interview, I became angry. I don’t know what outraged me more: is it how not a single news source, media outlet, or blog cared about what Blizzard said to the disabled gaming community, or the facts stated in the interview?  How can Blizzard claim that accessibility is a high priority when the people who actually make the game accessible are not paid Blizzard employees, but third-party programmers who volunteer hours upon hours of their time to develop assistive add-ons to the game?

I spent a few days mulling over the things said in the interview.  I talked about it with people.  I read up on assistive gaming needs.  I played Warcraft while thinking about interface enhancements and the challenges disabled players face.  And you know what?  The more I thought about things, the more I felt okay.

I realized just how much of the game I was taking for granted. Yes, Warcraft’s customizable user interface is what is being touted as their commitment to accessibility, but there are so many simple, little things Blizzard itself has programmed into the game that could make a huge difference to a player with a disability.  You can move your character across the screen with a single mouse click (click-to-move).  Many character emotes have auditory, visual, and textual cues.  Mobs become a lot easier to identify visually when you have nameplates enabled. Chat font size, color, and background are completely customizable.  And the list goes on…

Blizzard has created one of the most accessible “traditional” video games out there. Many games will not even relinquish basic creative rights of their user interface to their player base.  World of Warcraft developers provide continued support of the UI customization and add-on development community.  Programming a game so open in that regard was surely no simple task, and its continued support is no trivial endeavor.

The Ethics of Accessibility

There is no law or even legal recommendation that video games should have any accessible features.  There does not exist any legally-based guidelines or criteria outlining a base level of accessibility a game must adhere to in order to be properly labeled as “accessible.”

Should the ownership be on the player base or on Blizzard to create user interface modifications aiding disabled players of WoW? Is it reasonable to tell disabled gamers to learn the LUA programming language to create macros and add-ons, or to depend on the goodwill of other gamers to do so for them?

Over time, Blizzard has taken steps in increase the accessibility of World of Warcraft.  Examples of things implemented after the launch of the game:

  • Large text displays over a character’s head alerting of combat events (inspired by an add-on)
  • Large, colorful icons that can be placed over the heads of enemy NPCs
  • A highlighted display on things that can be toggled or picked up from the ground (which was actually implemented after being suggested by a visually-impaired player)

However, it would be nice to see a commitment from Blizzard about its further pursuit of inclusiveness in games.  The prime question on my mind: Why hasn’t Blizzard ever solicited feedback from the disabled community?  They would definitely get it.  Some of it could even come from in-house; in the aforementioned interview, Mr. Brack stated that some of the Blizzard developers themselves are colorblind.

The International Game Developers Association has a special interest group on game accessibility.  This group’s mission is to: “help the game community strive towards creating mainstream games that are universally accessible to all, regardless of age, experience and disability. ” It has membership from leading game developers (LucasArts, Ubisoft, Microsoft), a number of smaller game development shops, and a handful of research universities.  However, neither Blizzard nor Activision has ever had a member in this group.

Should Blizzard be held to higher standards for being the frontrunner of the MMO gaming community? Given the size of their player base, and the fact that this is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of their players, perhaps.

In a recent GameTrailers interview, Tom Chilton, Lead Game Designer of World of Warcraft, cited that Blizzard aims to “outdo ourselves in every respect” in its upcoming expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.

If that is truly the case, the where is Blizzard’s continued commitment to accessibility?

Warcraft vs. Warhammer

Warhammer Online may prove to be World of Warcraft’s largest MMO contender.  I’m sure it is no coincidence that Blizzard’s Mr. Brack is giving interviews left and right, drumming up the popularity and publicity of Warcraft hot on the release of Warhammer Online. Whether or not Warhammer Online proves to be the “Warcraft killer” in the MMO market will remain to be seen.

Straight out of the box, Warhammer appears to have more attention to accessibility than Warcraft did.  Every UI element that displays information can be resized or moved through a simple “edit interface” feature.  Important information will pop right up in the middle of your screen right above your character’s head.  Auditory cues are available for many in game events.

AbleGamers has two nice reviews up of Warhammer Online.  One is of the customization of the UI and the other is on its accessibility, in general.

Steve Spohn, a senior contributor to AbleGamers, said about Warhammer Online:

“AbleGamers can officially tell you that no matter what your general disability is, this game may have the ability to accommodate you. We have found that game pads work extremely well, the game can be fully moused, and alternatively (sic) third party programs such as voice commands, sip and puff, and other input devices work with 100% proficiency.”

That is a pretty powerful statement.  I have never tried Warhammer Online for myself, so I cannot personally speak for any of it.  However, I have never heard anyone say anything like that about World of Warcraft.

As I mentioned before, Warcraft does have a lot of accessibility features. However, if Blizzard wants to really be a pioneer of accessibiliy, then the improvements need to keep on coming.

An Indecent Bedfellow

One of the largest challenges the game accessibility movement encounters is how unpublicized it is.  It is not something many people ever consider.

When trying to read up on the issue, I kept stumbling upon random forum posts and YouTube videos about how Blizzard is discriminating against disabled players by not letting them make use of third-party software allowing for automation of certain aspects of game play.

Third-party software?

Botting software.

Yes, the same botting software creators being sued by Blizzard for its use within World of Warcraft are making a stand by claiming it increases the playability of the game for disabled gamers.  I suppose they will eventually be making an argument under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that equal access is not being provided to disabled gamers if Blizzard’s lawsuit and injunction stand against their software. Of course this brings about complex legal issues and concerns, none of which I could even begin to speak to.

I personally find it a little sad that the creators of illegal third-party software happen to the be some of the largest and most vocal supporters of accessibility in Warcraft.  They are certainly an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, ally to the cause.

Why Do You Rarely Hear About Accessibility?

Aside from the recent interview, there hasn’t been a peep from Blizzard about game accessibility.  And why would there be?  It’s not on the tips of everyone’s tongues.  Let’s face it: game accessibility is not a sexy topic. Many people choose not to think about the players behind the avatars, and would rather not know how many people playing the game are disabled.

Why don’t more disabled gamers speak up?  Gaming in an MMO like Warcraft has a hidden subtext of gaining superiority over others.  You quest for higher levels, better gear, more kills.  You are always competing.  You are always striving to be better than someone else.  Players will look for and latch onto any sign of “weakness” exhibited by their opponents or even peers, using it as a means of justifying their own sense of superiority.  To some people, admitting a disability would be like owning up to a weakness or to having an inherent sub-par gaming ability.  You would be admitting that you cannot play the same way others do.  You would be opening yourself up to ridicule and criticism.

A shining example of how derisive the Warcraft community can be towards players who demonstrate sub-optimal gameplay is the level of ridicule players experience for piloting their avatar with the keyboard instead of the mouse.  Such “keyboard turners” are considered weak because turning with the keyboard results in slower movement speeds, and hence delayed reactions.

Why would a player choose to broadcast their disability when doing so is counter to the culture of the game?

Final Thoughts

Game accessibility, with particular respect to World of Warcraft, was a topic I always had a curiosity about.  After discussing it with a friend of mine one day, she pointed me to an article on GamaSutra on increasing game accessibility that really opened my eyes to how far-reaching the subject really is.  Since then, I have become quite passionate about the issue.  The more information I discovered, the more I wanted to know.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there.  I was always left thirsting for more.

Being enthused about this topic, I wanted to share the information which I found so interesting and inspirational with others.  If I have caused even one person to think about the game differently now, then I am satisfied.  Awareness is the largest hurdle for the issue of game accessibility.  Getting the information out there and spreading the word could do a lot for the cause.  Disabled or not, this is an interesting topic for discussion.  By sharing this information, my aim is simply to raise awareness of game accessibility.

Let me leave you with an inspirational footnote to this very lengthy post.

The very short movie below is called “One Thumb to Rule Them All.”  It is about Michael Phillips, a journalist and avid gamer, who has spinal muscular atrophy.  In this video, you can watch him play World of Warcraft and Unreal Tournament 2004 with a single finger.

Bonus!  There is also a video of Michael playing a hunter.  And here is the review he wrote about World of Warcraft for Inside Mac Games.

Further Reading

  • International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Gaming Accessibility Special Interest Group:
  • WoW for Disabled Players – “Legendary thread”” on the WoW forums about gaming with a disability, with 24 pages of responses.
  • WoW Blind – Testimonial of a visually impaired Warcraft player
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21 Responses

  1. Wow, that is possibly the most indepth, well written post I have seen in a long time. It certainly gives me something to think about, as accessibility is an aspect of the game which doesn’t often cross my mind. Definitely some food for thought there!

  2. Being Red/Green colorblind myself, I’ve had problems in the past with a few games. Puzzle games in particular (especially Puzzle Fighter). You would see me dropping Green blocks onto Red blocks thinking that they were the same color.

    Now these same games have been remade to make it more accessible for me, and have a distinctive shape or figure inside each block. Most of my friends don’t notice the shapes, but it was the first thing to jump out at me.

    In WoW, before TBC, I recall having problems Sheeping stray mobs in raid if I didn’t have time to properly target before hand. With the addition of the Raid Target shapes, it was a huge help for me.

    In the video when Michael Philips was getting attacked by another player, I thought it was funny that it just HAD to be a Warlock. Evil evil locks!

  3. Great article! :) Thanks for all the links to the IGDA Game Accessibility SIG. I’m forwarding the link to your article to the SIG now! I’d also link to extend an invite to join if you or anyone else has an interest — we can use all the help we can get in getting the industry accessible to more!!

    Michelle Hinn
    Chair, IGDA Game Accessibility SIG

  4. […] DwarfPriest had a very interesting article about disabled gamers and how various games address the needs of what could be as much as 9% (one in 11) of the gaming […]

  5. You have outdone yourself with this article, DP. It is absolutely first-rate. Excellent research and meticulous documentation. Huge, huge kudos!!

    I would like to make a couple points in reply.

    First, you pose the question of whether Blizzard, because it makes the most popular game (WoW), should be held to a higher standard with respect to making its offerings accessible.

    My response to that is, all manufacturers should be held to a high standard, but an equal standard. Perhaps there should be minimal standards, in fact. (Just putting that out there; it’s well beyond the scope of my expertise.) But I do not believe in penalizing an entity for being successful, which, I believe, would happen if Blizzard is expected to “do more” than Sony or ActiVision or any other game-makers.

    Second and last, to address your point about why we rarely, if ever, hear about the accessibility issue: Using your figures, well over 90 percent of the gaming population isn’t affected by usability and accessibility issues. It’s difficult to get energized by something you don’t see. I’m not excusing it, simply pointing out the disconnect.

    HOWEVER, articles such as yours (and, I hope, the exposure to it from Saresa on Twitter and my retweet, as well as the post I’m about to write linking here) will start to shine a light on an issue that simply cannot be ignored.

    Thank you for lighting the first candle!

  6. […] In that light, Dwarf Priest1 has written a wonderful, insightful, informative, meticulously researched and documented article on the topic of whether Blizzard is committed to disabled gamers. […]

  7. I must say you have blown me away with such a well researched, well written piece. I want to thank you personally for reading AbleGamers.com, we are glad to see our hard work is helping people make the world a better place for all gamers.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  8. @Tuna – I thought the same exact thing about the warlock!

    @Michelle – I’m just floored that I ever made it onto your radar. Thank you for passing my thoughts along to the GA-SIG and for being a true pioneer in the field of game accessibility research.

    @Kestrel – I’m not sure I want to penalize a company for being popular or successful, either. It’s just food for thought.

    @Mark – I’m a big fan of AbleGamers. Thank you for creating the community and all the work you do!

    @Everyone – Thank you for all your kinds words. I was worried I’d wake up to an inbox filled with hate mail. The response I have received has been 100% positive.

  9. What I don’t get is why Blizzard has actually gone backwards in this area: In alpha, voice emotes were also written on-screen, so deaf gamers could enjoy them. Now, that’s not even a choice (and it could certainly be set so that only the people who chose would have to see the text). Questions about this in subsequent alphas have received no response or result.

  10. Hi Dwarf and all,

    First of all, Dwarf, let me say thank you for finding our site and doing such an in-depth research article on the subjects that matter most to us. I don’t know who in their right mind would send any hate mail for such a well thought out article.

    The problem that the disabled community faces is the same struggle that every minority group has in the beginning; we need a central source that we can all go to in which to come together under common bonds.

    Mark Barlet has helped with this problem by far and large in creating AbleGamers. We strive to be the site that no matter what your conditions may be, we have something that may help at least a little bit.

    You say you are honored to get on Michelle’s radar, but it is us that are honored to be making enough noise to get onto your radar. The most important part of a grassroots campaign is to motivate those that will hear your cause and come to your aid. By posting articles such as this, you have come to our aid.

    Together, all of us can make a difference in the gaming world. Together, we can get the attention of the big wigs in the gaming industry to let them know that we are here and we want to play, just like anyone else.

    Steve Spohn

  11. Honestly, as a person with severe physical disabilities, I’m in that YouTube video, I find Blizzard games to be highly accessible right out of the box. I play them all. I consistently beat people at Warcraft III, and play WoW on a PvP realm. I think they are aware of issues and are tackling them.

    MODs are a tricky issue, and this is going to sound controversial, but I think over-automation is just a crutch for lack of skill/practice. I can’t play a Rogue, their style of melee is just too fast for me, but I know able-bodied players who can’t handle Rogues for the exact same reason. I think skill level is kind of an under-discussed factor.

    Both able-bodied and disabled gamers have strengths and weaknesses, but I think Blizzard is and will only further make sure the playing field is open to everyone.

  12. I will agree with the others here as to the post being obviously well researched, if a bit rambling.

    Unfortunately…..

    Saying Blizzard isn’t as committed to being accessible as they say they are is like saying you don’t care about the issue because you couldn’t be bothered to polish your writing more by removing fluff and/or breaking up the article into multiple posts to allow those with ADD and other learning disabilities to be able to read the entire article and comprehend it better.

    Well, the fact of the matter is, you both obviously care because you got the ball rolling on your own, without prodding. (you for writing the article and researching it in the first place)

    Blizzard created a fairly flexible ability to apply tweaks to aid accessibility through not only their own in-game tweaks, but giving others the tools to add tweaks of their own to carry that even further. The best part about this is that they started off with adding accessibility on their own, without needing to be badgered by a special interest group, and have continued to add onto it as you have mentioned. It’s no secret that blizzard allows UI mods so they can have a nice test laboratory to see what ideas they themselves may have missed, and have proven so by adding user-created ideas to the game in the past and is continuing in the expansion.

    Basically, Blizzard set the bar for accessibility in an MMO. Is it any wonder that potential competitors will look at every aspect of what Blizz does and do their best to obliterate it with something vastly better? If the differences mean that much more, people will vote with their wallets. At what point though, does more accessibility become more of a crutch for those who can’t be bothered to take on a challenge than truly enabling someone to play the game who wasn’t able to before?

    Several minor tweaks in the current UI of WoW (emote text for EVERY spoken emote, sound cues for some text-only things, a clearer, more legible font, etc.) will go a MUCH longer way towards improving accessibility than most people would like to admit.

    One last note:

    Don’t EVER consider the makers of Glider as ANY kind of ally. They are not and never will be. They have found, in taking the “we’re helping disabled people” line, a convenient, powerful, excuse to argue for continuing to make their software. Consider that the software was not created to help the disabled play the game so much as to automate farming and less “fun” activities in the game to those who couldn’t be bothered to play the WHOLE game. They could care less if their software can assist the disabled so as long as they can continue to sell it to those who are too lazy to play every aspect of the game.

  13. Dwarf Priest: This is a fantastic article. As a deaf gamer, I’m usually frustrated by reliance on speech as a means of interacting with the game. It’s a hassle to turn on subtitles, if they exist at all. I remember when games first moved on to CD/DVD media and all of the sudden, voice acting was in vogue. I had to give up playing several games because I simply couldn’t follow the story.

    While I’m able to play WoW without difficulty, the reliance on Vent or other forms of voice chat frustrates my attempts to interact with guild, raids, or groups. Forcing other people to use text media isn’t really an option since hearing people, for whatever reason, prefer using their voice to communicate. Often, my guild or group members will have to sum up an entire conversation just to keep me involved.

    For deaf gamers such as myself, there is no easy solution for convergences towards voice-driven player interactivity. Unless, of course, someone were to perfect a speech-to-text program!

    Psst. The ADA was passed in 1990, not 1984.

  14. My Voice Controller

    This software allows you to emulate mouse and keyboard inputs by using your voice. Common uses for this software are gaming and assistance for the disabled/injured. I wrote this program to assist me with playing various games including World of Warcraft. The software is free.

    More infomation at
    http://www.5hyphen.com/5hforum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=709

  15. 1990 it is! Thank you. :)

  16. Well I have found that people who can not see. Can use a Braille screen. Such as this one at this site here –> http://designzen.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/siafu-computer-a-surefire-braille-concept/. I have tried ones like these before and even I am impressed by them. All though I am not blind. So I can not say for sure.

  17. […] specific to games, an interesting article by “Dwarf Priest” regarding World of Warcraft creator Blizzard’s commitment to disabled gamers cites statistics […]

  18. […] Dwarf Priest has a nice long post up about the relationship between Blizzard and one of the more hidden (and yet surprisingly large) […]

  19. Wow before reading your post – or at least a big part of it, it’s quite a large wall of text ;) – I’ve never heard about disabled gamers, that they had a community etc.

    I guess one could expect that there are disabled people in every aspect of life, but I admit I haven’t heard anything in relation to gaming or WoW.

    Thanks for sharing this, but although this is an important topic, you could have broken it down into smaller posts that were easier to read :)

    PS(unrelated to topic): ROFL At your subheader “I melt kneecaps” XD That’s great

  20. Do you have ANY idea the advantage playing with one hand would present?

    My druid in wow for example:
    I have all 5 buttons on my mouse hotkeyed to healing spells.
    I have `-5 with offensive spells
    Stack on wasdqr to move
    Plus zxcv for my cooldowns
    Then there are macros

    I’ve never sat back and enjoyed the graphics of a map during a raid when I heal (Just try getting a group if you’re dps-only) and when I pvp there’s so much going on it gets ridiculous.

    I’m all for a streamlined system.
    Better sound and visuals never hurt anybody either…
    Unless you’re playing Starcraft 2… because then the visuals literally melt your computer.

  21. Hello all! I like this forum, i inaugurate numberless compelling people on this forum.!!!

    Great Community, regard all!

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