Disability and Video Games: En-/Disabling Modes of Digital Gaming

"Disability and Video Games: En-/Disabling Modes of Digital Gaming (Edited Book)

Beate Ochsner / Markus Spöhrer, Universität Konstanz
Vom - Bis
15.04.2021 -
Markus Spöhrer, Universität Konstanz

Edited Book, Deadline for Abstracts: 15.4.2021

"Disability and Video Games: En-/Disabling Modes of Digital Gaming (Edited Book)

Concerns with the accessibility and adaptability of digital games, corresponding gaming platforms as well as peripheral devices have been uttered from different perspectives and sources during the last decades. Interestingly, subcultural or amateur DIY-accessibility practices have been documented since the mid-1970s. Counterplaying the arcade game Touch Me (Atari 1974) as a game for blind persons (cf. Kirke, 2018, p. 66; Spöhrer, 2019, p. 91), reconfiguring and adjusting Atari 2600 game controllers to left-handed persons or persons with differently abled bodies (cf. Morgenstern, 1983, p.4), the evaluation of games in terms of accessible use such as done by the Audissey magazine from 1996-2006 (cf. Spöhrer 2021), developing, providing and discussing about amateur audio games for blind persons as in the case of Audiogames.net (Spöhrer, 2021) or online guides to subtitles or closed captions tools for Deaf persons (e.g. Baker, 2020) as well as other communities of ‘accessible play’, both profit and non-profit organizations, such as for example AbleGamers or the numerous online message boards on the topic.

Meanwhile, however, the issues of game accessibility, inclusive gaming and ‘disabled gamers’ have been recognized by academia (e.g. Atkinson et al., 2006; Hofmann, Hoppe, Jantke, 2010; Yuan, Folmer, Harris, 2011; Mangiron, Orero, O’Hagan, 2014; Gibbons 2015; Miesenberger, Kouroupetroglou, 2018, pp. 241-290; Parisi, 2017; Ellis, Kao, 2019) and gaming industries (e.g. Mut, 2019; Geraldo, 2020). The latter is manifest in a variety of marketing decisions and promotional campaigns during the last decade. Prominent examples are multi-accessible consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, the alternative, non-normative ‘bodily techniques’ (cf. Parisi, 2009) and a variety of therapeutic modes of play (cf. Pearson, Bailey, 2007; Shih, Chen, Shih, 2012) of which the wireless Wii-Mote Control as well as the ‘Balance Board’ are capable of enabling. Further examples are Nintendo’s accessibility policy in case of the Nintendo 3DS (cf. Schröter, 2011, pp. 100-101), the therapeutic use of the ‘physical’ interface of the Microsoft Kinect (cf. Chang et al., 2012); the growing number of games with a wide range of accessibility options in the last 10 years, such as closed captioning, audio and graphic adjustability, enlargeable subtitles, adjustment of game-speed, custom button-layout and compatibility with alternative peripheral devices; as well as recently the introduction of the Microsoft Adaptive Controller, a peripheral device that is customizable in relation to individual physical or sensory bodily setups. Interestingly enough, acceptance of accessibility issues in digital gaming by public institutions, governments, commissions and organizations remains comparatively moderate with the exception of developments in the area of therapy and serious gaming.

In contrast and likewise, research on accessible design and the development (e.g. Grammenos, Savidis, Stephanidis, 2009; Kwon, 2012; Antona, Stephanidis, 2015; Brown, Anderson 2020) of games as therapy and assistive technology – mostly from medical, pedagogical or designer perspective – as well as on gaming and well-being (e.g. Jung et al., 2009; Pallavicini, Ferrari, Mantovani, 2018) is plentiful. In some cases, an effort is even made to conceptualize and develop technologies that grant ‘universal accessibility’ (e.g. Grammenos, Stephanidis, Savidis, 2009). The idea of a universal design that translates and subjectifies individual body types and different abilities according to the model of “a normative, or standardized, body” (Boluk, LeMieux, 2017, p. 40;) is, however, a highly problematic imposition of hegemonic ableist concepts of dis/ability (cf. Parisi, 2017; cf. Sterne, Mills, 2017, p. 365). Focusing on how differences or interferences, such as disability, gender, and class are made and unmade in sociotechnical practices, designer Sara Hendren, however, asks “how might we reflect our mediated landscape as a built environment in which differently abled people have varying degrees of access both as consumers and producers?” (cit. in Cleary, 2020, p. 61; cf. Hendren, 2020). In a similar way, Aimi Hamraie, in her book on Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (2017) shows that Universal Design was not just an approach to creating new products or spaces, but also a sustained, understated activist movement challenging dominant understandings of disability in architecture, medicine, and society. Interestingly enough, Disability Studies, Game Studies and Cultural Studies have only rarely dealt with Disability and Games, with some notable exceptions (e.g Parisi, 2009, 2017; Ellis, Kent, 2011; Ledder, 2019), despite disability researcher’s distinctive interest in digital media and disability (cf. Elcessor, 2016; Goggin, 2012). Some scholars have analyzed the representation and negotiations of disability in digital games, focusing on the reworking of disabled bodies as a means of othering and a fortification of hierarchical power structures (e.g. Carr, 2014, 2020; Ledder, 2015; Plank, 2018). Others focus on the effectiveness of serious games on persons with different disabilities or so-called “exergames” respectively (Freyermuth, Gotto, Wallenfels, Fabian, 2013; Garcia-Redondo, 2019).

While these publications offer valuable insights into narrative and discursive constructions of dis/ability – in accordance with research on development of accessible games and game usage – , little has been said about the modes of en-/disabling digital gaming that occur as a reciprocal process between a wide range of heterogeneous elements involved in gaming situations. As Mara Mills and Jonathan Sterne pointed out, a majority of approaches to the relations between media and disability often continue to “rely on concepts whose ableist genealogies have been forgotten” (2017, p. 365). This equally applies to the practices of gaming that are often neglected in favor of the narrative, systemic elements or the aesthetics of the game. We therefore propose, as a critical counterpart to the lacking self-reflection of both disability and game studies, a new perspective
focusing on the co-construction of gaming and dis/ability through en- or disabling practices of gaming. Recent publications that apply Science and Technology approaches to game research, have reconceptualized digital gaming as processes that are conditioned, enacted and ‘played out’ in fluid actor-networks (Giddings, 2009), sociotechnical arrangements (Waldrich 2019) or specific ‘gaming situations’ (Spöhrer, 2020). Instead of departing from an ‘ideal player’, stable interfaces, generalizable sociocultural contexts or systemic models of games, such approaches highlight the relationality of digital gaming, the situated en- or disabling of modes of ‘inlusio’ (Huizinga 2003[1949], pp. 10-11; also see Spöhrer, Waldrich, 2020) and the processes of ‘being-in-play’ (Gadamer 1986), that are mediatized by the interplay of human and non-human elements. Usually such approaches opt for an ethnographic methodological tool-kit in order to grasp the situativeness and the corresponding situated modes of play. Likewise, Disability Studies engage in similar approaches: Michael Schillmeier’s (2010) concept of “en-/disabling” practices, for example, in which the interrelated materialities, bodies, objects and sensory practices shape and configure spaces, experiences and discourses, could help to ask how ‘playing a game’ and ‘being-in-play’, as a process, is enabled or disabled in and through (everyday) practices, materials and socio-technical environments (cf. Mol, 2020, pp. 1-27).

The proposed edited book intends to fill this research gap by examining the following, nonexhaustive, questions and topics from an interdisciplinary perspective and with regard to a variety of topics – both from a theoretical perspective or with regard to case studies:
- Gaming and Dis/Ability Studies: How can game studies profit from a disability studies perspective of en-/abling gaming and issues of disability and ableism and vice versa?
- How can we conceptualize gaming practices and processes in terms of “dismediation” (Mills, Sterne, 2017)? How can (auto-)ethnographical, sociological and media studies’
methodological tools be used to describe such en-/disabling gaming practices?
- How does digital gaming prescribe, translate and configure specific ‘normalizing’ sets of bodily and cultural techniques? In which way are tacit and body knowledge involved in this process and how can these be described as a means of en-/disabling? How can these practices be understood as a means of disobedience? How are power structures generated and reinforced in such processes?
- How do gaming interfaces translate and configure ”ideal bodies” (cf. Parisi, 2017) and which strategies of ‘enabling’ gaming can be used to counteract such ”disabling infrastructures” (cf. Parisi 2017)? (DIY-practices, Adaptive Controllers or the use and construction of individual peripheral devices, subcultures of ‘enabling’ gameplay). How are modes of capitalist or neoliberal ‘normalization’ inscribed in such processes?
- By taking into account the manifold requirements, digital gaming generates: Can digital games and gaming literacy be describe as inherently ‘disabling’? In which way is gaming related to adaption and translation processes that require the players, technologies and gaming systems to adapt to each other in order to enable gaming processes?
- Sensory practices: How are senses addressed, configured, translated or en-/disabled in concrete gaming practices? How can sensory and digital ethnography help to research such practices? How can these practices vary among different systems and sensory output and input devices? (Virtual Reality Systems, Audio Games, haptic games, commercial audiovisual games etc., vibration controllers and vibration vests)


Deadline for Abstracts: 15.04.2021 (300 words)
Deadline for papers: 15.09.2021


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