Mark Barlet should have been in Seoul right now, but obviously that hasn’t happened. The founder and CEO of AbleGamers has left his calendar intact throughout the global shutdown caused by COVID-19, a ghostly reminder of the normality lost during the pandemic.
“I was supposed to be in San Diego, I was supposed to be in Berlin. I’m supposed to jump on a flight home at 4:15 tomorrow morning to fly to Baltimore from Barcelona,” Barlet tells us, as we talk to him from his home during what should have been Gamelab Barcelona last month.
The disruption of Barlet’s packed calendar plans is just one of the more obvious effects of the virus on the charity which advocates for accessibility in games, while providing custom controllers and sensory devices so players with disabilities can still enjoy them.
COVID’s arrival has forced the cancellation of many of the conferences and expos AbleGamers would attend, which has had a significant impact on their ability to advocate. But shutting them out of events where they could tell the world about their mission hasn’t simply been a net negative to the organization. Paradoxically it has also helped spread that message, too.
“Our mission is to enable play in order to combat isolation, foster inclusive communities, and improve the lives of people with disabilities,” Barlet told us. “We’re all about combating social isolation, so from one side COVID-19 has given the world a taste of what players, or people with disabilities in general, are dealing with every day. Social isolation is an epidemic. It’s an epidemic before COVID-19, it’ll be an epidemic after. AbleGamers knows that an internet connection and a well-designed video game allows a player with disabilities to connect with the world in really meaningful ways.”
It’s true that COVID-19 has forced a spotlight onto our support networks. Friends and family have been setting up video calls far more frequently than they would if they could head outside whenever they wanted. For some with disabilities and conditions that kept them inside during normal daily life, this could be a small relief – or a reminder of what they’re missing.
But this sudden awareness has come at a heavy cost for AbleGamers. A cost that many in the third sector are also having to navigate, in the midst of already uncertain times.
“COVID-19, it really is a double-edged sword for us, because we’ve lost a ton of money,” Barlet told us, candidly. “Our funding has plummeted, we were going to be part of some big gaming events. We raise money at the PAXs, we raise money at all these different places where we as gamers gather. Esports events where gamers gather, we were big beneficiaries of that, and all of that disappeared.”
In total, Barlet estimates that as a direct result of the event closures caused by COVID-19, AbleGamers has lost out on around $250,000 in funding. That’s quite a hefty chunk of the organization’s yearly income to support their programs. According to tax filings, the AbleGamers Foundation had revenues of $544,852 in 2018, of which $528,263 was from charitable contributions. That's 50% fewer custom controllers for disadvantaged gamers.
Regardless of how much we may all be coming to realize the mental toll of living every day like we have the last three months, half of your annual operating budget being wiped off the board must be a crushing weight. "I love what we do and I know that the world loves what we do," Barlet said. "And if you love what we do I highly recommend you go to our website AbleGamers.org and throw us some money, let us keep doing this great stuff all the time."
The timing of the lockdown – during the busy early summer gaming festival season – is unfortunate for AbleGamers, which seems all the more cruel given the organization’s reason for being.
Barlet, as a service-disabled veteran, uses video games to stay in touch with family, friends from the military and old school friends. In 2004, he would log in each week to play EverQuest with a friend from middle school, to catch up and enjoy the game together.
“We always used to log on together just to raid on Friday nights, I was waiting for my best friend Stephanie to jump on Ventrilo,” Barlet remembers, as we wistfully recall a time before Discord. “And one night my friend didn’t actually log in, so I picked up the phone and her husband answered and I could hear my best friend – my best friend from the sixth grade until adulthood – was crying.
"And what we had learned is a couple years prior she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and that night her mousing hand decided it wasn’t going to work anymore. And so this amazing thing that we did using video games to stay connected was largely just being taken away from us by her disability.”
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative condition that slowly removes the nervous system’s ability to tell the muscles what to do. Unwilling to allow his friend to fall into the social isolation that so many suffer after MS progresses to the point of disabling motor functions, Barlet began looking for solutions to let her keep gaming. He was shocked to see that there were no ready-made controllers or software that could help his friend.
“I’m an engineer by trade and I kind of said ‘hold on a second, there’s gotta be something out there,’ Imean this is the 2000s, everything should be out there,” Barlet said. “And when I started doing some searching on the internet i wasn’t finding anyone talking about how people with disabilities were approaching video games. So I kind of took that as a calling, and this one incident, this one Friday night in 2004, really was the genesis of why we created the AbleGamers.”
As part of the mission Barlet undertook that night, he began attending conventions such as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), to get in contact with developers and publishers. At one GDC in 2008, he surveyed attendees by asking them one question: “Have you thought about how people with disabilities play video games?” Aside from the overwhelming number of responses saying that they hadn’t at all, Barlet also received abuse from other attendees. “I was literally called an A-hole by somebody for even asking the question,” he said. “And yet, now this industry has done a 180.”
The 180-degree turn happened slowly, but compared to the blanket negative response he received in 2008 just before incorporating AbleGamers as a not-for-profit charity foundation, the tide has changed significantly. This year's State of the Game Industry survey (conducted by GDC themselves) found that now 28% of developers were implementing accessibility measures into their games. Though the same survey also found that 48% of developers had still not considered players with sensory or motor impairments.
Of course changing the minds of developers is only half of the battle, as Barlet’s friend also requires specialist controllers to stay in the game. Here big names have also made big progress, with Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller providing fully customizable input devices for motor-impaired players. This is a far cry from the reception Barlet found when he attended that GDC in 2008.
“It was at that same GDC where I asked the one question I was also looking for someone from Blizzard because they were banning people with disabilities out of World of Warcraft,” Barlet said. “Because they were using custom controllers, and their anti-cheat software was banning people for it.”
Barlet hunted the GDC floor for someone he could talk to about this problem, that was seeing many of his friends unable to join him in Azeroth for fear of having their account nuked. He eventually tracked down former Blizzard Chief Creative Officer Rob Pardo, which gave him just the in he needed.
“I got to talk to Pardo and make my case in 30 seconds, and to his credit he understood and gave me a contact that let me break through all of the walls that one of the largest gaming companies at the time had to set up between its fans and its developers,” Barlet said. “And that was 11 years ago, to now, spending last week with people that are making Call of Duty and StarCraft and Overwatch and they’re absorbing all the material, and they’re asking some of the most amazing questions.”
The now Barlet is talking of is AbleGamers running an Accessible Player Experience course (APX) for dozens of Activision Blizzard employees last month. The program is aimed at teaching developers about the sometimes invisible barriers that can stop players with disabilities from accessing, controlling and enjoying their games.
It’s clear that Blizzard, in particular, has been taking a lot of these lessons on board over the past decade. From their anti-cheat wrongly punishing players with disabilities for trying to use a custom controller, to adding support for the Xbox Adaptive Controller to World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Shadowlands. The times are indeed changing.
Barlet’s small team has run these APX courses for many of the biggest companies in gaming, including Square Enix Montreal, Avalanche, Activision Blizzard, and King. Together, these small helpful accessibility changes have added up, and as each big developer sets the standard, others follow. Which is sometimes hard for Barlet to comprehend.
“A couple of years ago I actually had a little bit of a reflexive moment going wow, a bunch of people, a small group of people, privileged enough to be mostly led by me and we’ve effected change in this $164 billion industry,” he said. “We’ve only launched the [APX] program for six months and there’s already 70 people who are out there really advocating for, but also creating, accessible experiences so that everyone can enjoy this work.
“I have to kind of not take that in all at once because it’s overwhelming. When you truly look at this small group of people, all the game accessibility advocates over the last 10 years could fit in my office. We would definitely be defying social distancing, but they could fit in my office.”
If you would like to know more about the activities and programs that AbleGamers offer, check out the website. If you would also like to replace some of that lost $250,000 in funding due to COVID-19 cancellations, they accept donations online via NetworkForGood.