The Special Olympics in Forza were a huge success. We asked experts from Microsoft and NGO Special Effect about the state of inclusivity in gaming.
Photo Credit: Forza/Microsoft Twitter
When Microsoft started its first collaboration with the Special Olympics in 2018, it turned out to be one of the biggest pilot projects for inclusivity in competitive gaming. The Special Olympics USA Games featured a tournament in Forza Motorsport with eight teams from four states competing at the University of Washington. Each team consisted of one athlete with an intellectual disability and one without, aiming at melting both together into one unit.
Team “Dempsey”, featuring Timothy Dempsey and Nicholas Rasmussen, managed to win the gold medal. The friendship between the two was a sign of success for the event. Even though they didn’t know each other before the tournament, they synched their schedules to practice together in the weeks leading up to the competition. Their efforts paid off when, together with the title, they got to take home the only two Special Olympics USA Games Xbox Consoles ever made.
Bringing people together, now more than ever
Two years later, Microsoft Xbox and Special Olympics have started a second cooperation, but this time while also being confronted with the limitations of the corona pandemic. Nonetheless Jenn Panattoni, Program Manager for the initiative “Gaming for Everyone” at Microsoft, saw an opportunity within these limitations. As the Special Olympics USA were looking to adapt and find innovative ways to support their athletes during the lockdown, Panattoni’s team realized it was time to partner up and create something special once more.
The result was the 2020 Special Olympics Xbox Virtual Gaming Event, now focusing fully on athletes with disabilities. Staged once more in Forza Motorsport, the event took place on May 30 and featured 35 athletes from eleven states. All participants presented their stories in preparation for the main event. Due to the limitations of the pandemic, every athlete played from home. The races were broadcast and hosted on all major streaming platforms.
Beyond that, a unique area was built in the game Minecraft, featuring a giant stage with a host desk plus a podium for the victorious players. This area served as a showroom for ceremonies to honor the best drivers of each of the five divisions. Every participant plus both hosts created Minecraft avatars to represent themselves during the virtual event. Even a greenroom was built for the athletes inside a gigantic torch. In between races, they could swim in a pool or chill in the lounge with the other competitors. It was a perfect, virtual monument for the core message of the event: live inclusivity, combat isolation.
Of empowerment and enablement
In order to live up to that motto, the goal is to further evolve these kinds of tournaments and spread the word as much as possible. Maxi Gräff, Marketing Communications Manager at Xbox has a precise idea of where the journey should lead: “If you don’t open up your tournament, people might not even know: ‘I’m able to play. I can actually compete!’. You need to push it. You need to empower everyone.”
But before enabling everybody to compete, one first has to enable everybody to play. Microsoft has already made a big step in that direction by releasing the “Adaptive Controller”, a piece of equipment which can be customized into many different shapes with different kinds of control schemes to fit the individual player’s needs.
While this might seem like a niche product at first, it’s actually anything but, as Gräff explains: “There are about a billion people worldwide that live with a disability. Every disability that people live with is totally different. That is why the adaptive controller is so important. You have the flexibility to be 100% unique to your needs.”
Even with customizable access devices like the adaptive controller available, inclusive gaming is far from a one-size-fits-all affair. Mick Donegan knows this too well. He is the founder and CEO of Special Effect, an NGO which helps people with a disability to find specific setup solutions that enable them to play.
When a person with a disability gets in touch with them, they are put in contact with a member of the team to find out exactly what they have difficulties with and what they would like to achieve. Their strengths are matched with different access devices and software to enable each person to play the games they would like to play, in the way they would like to play them.
Once an initial setup has been worked out, Special Effect lends whatever equipment is needed to the person to trial the full experience. Because the individual needs might also change over time, Donegan and his team continue to support each service user, so that they can revisit or change their access at any time. “This means that, as their needs and abilities change or when a new game is released that they find difficulty with, they can continue to receive our help for the rest of their lives.”, says Donegan.
Inclusive game design
Apart from controllers and access devices, the games themselves also offer varying degrees of accessibility. No matter the genre or intended control scheme, making the games as customizable as possible is always helpful.
Control schemes should ideally allow for ‘remapping’ on the controller, so that moving the joystick can act as a button press, for example. This also helps with the integration of the custom access devices that a player might want to use.
The interface of the game is just as important. The menus and various UI elements should be easy to understand, see and navigate. Any kind of accessibility feature should be obvious to the player from the get-go.
Beyond the controls and UI, there are also features like modes for people with colorblindness, subtitles for people with hearing impairments in different languages and text-to-speech/speech-to-text to be considered.
Tomorrow it’ll be 4 weeks until #OneSpecialDay so we thought this #ThrowbackThursday would be the perfect opportunity to take another look at Aaron’s amazing SpecialEffect story, which had such a powerful impact on people last year! Find out more at https://t.co/H5gnKwUs2U pic.twitter.com/xiCW3aYFNR— SpecialEffect (@SpecialEffect) September 3, 2020
While small developers may find it especially hard to include certain features, it’s more a question of development philosophy for Maxi Gräff:
“I think it is important to understand, when you begin developing, that you have a mindset which says that you want to intentionally include, so you don’t unintentionally exclude. When you have this in the back of your mind, you can make your game more accessible from the beginning. (…) I think every developer can start with some features and then decide what doors they want to open or actually can open.”
Donegan considers an open design philosophy to be very important as well:
“We often hear developers who have succeeded in producing very inclusive games, remark that their initial aims were to design an experience that everyone could enjoy; the end result being that the aspects of design implemented within this process happened to specifically benefit those using alternative access methods.”
Are racing games suited to inclusive gaming?
It is not an accident then, that Forza was chosen as a game for the Special Olympics as a pioneering inclusivity project. While racing games vary a lot in terms of the level of control and precision that is required to play, a lot of them offer a multiplicity of ‘difficulty levels’ through different assists that can be turned on or off. Steering assist, brake assist and traction control are customizable options in many racing games, even if they weren’t specifically made with inclusivity in mind.
Generally speaking, racing games require fewer inputs than other genres might. Most games can be broken down to three basic actions: steering, accelerating and braking. According to Donegan, that gives racing games an advantage over other genres: “The more complex the game, such as a first-person shooter style, that might require the use of every button on a standard controller as well as simultaneous multiple button presses, the more difficult it is to find a way to access all of these inputs in alternative ways.”
With potentially fewer buttons required for full control, racing games are also a good point of entry for those looking to play games with a disability, as they might not require expensive customized controller solutions.
However, this does not mean that inclusivity should be limited to racing games. Nothing would be more welcome than more developers and other types of games moving more in the direction of inclusivity and accessibility in the future.
In the meantime, some players with a disability manage to compete at the same level as their counterparts without one. Maxi Gräff has some inspiring stories to share:
“There is a player from, I think, Austria or Switzerland. He plays Gears(of War) and he plays it with one hand. He uses the traditional controller. It has a lot of buttons and triggers that you need to press. He kind of managed to work his hand around to play Gears competitively, with one hand. I met him the first time on Gamescom in our booth and I was so excited and thought: ‘Now he can try the adaptive controller and he can be even better than before!’ But for him it was new. He said: ‘I don’t want to try it out now. I want to play like I am used to.’ (…) Or there is Dennis, who plays Apex Legends. He plays only with his mouth, with a podstick. It has like three different tubes and you suck and blow in these tubes and move your neck. That is how you ‘push’ the different buttons and Apex is not easy! Everything is possible, you just have to get used to it.”
Inclusivity in competitive gaming does require some time and effort. If organizers and developers alike open their competitions and empower players with disabilities to join them, there is surely a chance to broaden their communities and lead the way towards more inclusivity.
As disabilities are tremendously diverse, nobody should expect the perfect solution right away. Racing games are a good starting point for this and with the Special Olympics in Forza, the first crucial steps have been made.
In the end, that’s what gaming is all about: coming together and having fun, no matter who you are. That rings especially true in times of global difficulty like these. Our favorite genres provide a golden opportunity to make a difference. If all of us learn together, step by step, maybe someday we will have truly inclusive competitions with athletes with disabilities competing and winning on the big stage.
What is your take on inclusivity in gaming? Have you had any experiences or know people who are affected? Share your stories with us on Twitter at @overtake_gg.