It was 7:00 p.m. when people started to leave from my 9th birthday party, which my parents had been planning since the past week. Elated, I rushed to the living room to open the gifts I had received. “Cricket 96!” I squealed in delight; my mother was known for her gifting ideas. Ever since I can recall, I have been extremely passionate about cricket. Knowing that I cannot play on the field, my mother had always tried to fill the void by bringing me cricket goodies and hampers.
I disappeared within seconds, almost forgetting about the other gifts sitting on the eight-seater dining table. A few hours had passed when my younger brother came to my room to play with me. The fast bowler that he is, I missed out on a few balls and lost the match to him. In a child-like tantrum that I was known for when it came to cricket, I switched off the desktop and put my hand on the button, making sure my brother couldn’t start it.
Over the years, I moved to the PlayStation and Xbox and got my hands on strategy games such as the Cricket Captain. I pre-order the latest versions of my favourite cricket games even now. My passion for video games made my school life more liveable. I was socially isolated in class, but having the latest games in possession did make me the occasional friend who wanted to try his or her luck with the newest games in town.
Gaming has come a long way since then. Bloodborne, for example, is set in the city of Yharnam, whose inhabitants have been afflicted with a blood-borne disease. The player, a Hunter, is on a mission to find the source of the plague while exploring houses and battling beasts. In one of the very first houses in the game, the enemies are lurking, but by now the player has mastered the art of killing. As the Hunter comes downstairs after having killed the beasts, they see an item glowing in the centre of the room, next to a man on a wheelchair. As is very common, players walk past the unresponsive man on the wheelchair, assuming him to be passive. However, in that very moment. the man sits up and shoots the Hunter in the back.
Characters with disabilities are highly underrepresented in games, and even when they come to occupy a space, they are used as mere props. Bloodborne has broken the norm. In the city of Yharnam, the disabled citizens are as dangerous and violent as the rest, with many actively playing the role of enemies. They attack the Hunter, almost catching him off guard. The game compels the Hunter to recognise and treat all enemies, disabled or non-disabled as potential threats. The visibility of disabled characters comes as a refreshing surprise, even more so for gamers with disabilities, who feel a sense of connection with these characters.
Gaming as a form of entertainment is very common to the millennial generation, and young people with disabilities are no exception to this rule. The prevalent notion that Persons with Disabilities are less than human, requiring no forms of entertainment, has changed over time.
The gaming sector is booming in India. There has been a 1000% growth from a mere 25 to 275 game development companies in India since 2010 (KPMG study). A study conducted by a leading mobile advertising platform, POKKT reported that as of 2017, over 22.3 crore active gamers spent an average of 42 minutes on mobile games every day, over five sessions in India.
Economically speaking, taking advantage of the boom in the gaming industry in India, new start-ups and businesses can have a competitive edge over the old gaming bigwigs by tapping into the large pool of Persons with Disabilities. Gaming, as a form of entertainment and means of money-making, has been a popular activity since years. What started with rummy and poker by companies like Adda52 and RummyCircle has undergone an exponential change since the mobile revolution. Real-money gaming provides an alternative opportunity to Persons with Disabilities, particularly for those with mobility restrictions to earn a dignified living.
Advancement in gaming technology has revolutionised coordination, controls and graphics, making the gaming experience almost lifelike for the viewers. However, progress has been slow in the sphere of disabled-friendly gaming, which is picking up with international actors taking the lead. While many Persons with Disabilities choose to play games on their PCs with screen readers, magnifiers, audio descriptions and open captioning coming to their rescue, there still remains a lot of potential to be tapped into.
Microsoft has been working with principles of Accessible Design and has recently launched four new ‘Eyes First’ games where eye motions can substitute the working of the hands. Windows 10 eye-tracking APIs power these games, which can be used with or without Windows 10 Eye Control, a key accessibility feature for people with speech and mobility disabilities. Moreover, it has introduced the Xbox Adaptive Controller which can be connected to external switches, buttons, mounts and joysticks to help make gaming more accessible. It also provides the feature of customising button mapping to suit the needs of the player.
Discussions on inclusive environments should move beyond the twin ideals of education and employment. The two are indeed necessary for the empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, but real inclusion can only be achieved by covering all aspects of human life. Entertainment is an integral right of Persons with Disabilities and its access is equally important for their growth and empowerment.
Nipun Malhotra is CEO, Nipman Foundation and Founder, WheelsForLife. He can be followed on Twitter @nipunmalhotra