At the beginning of March, 21-year-old PlayStation owner Peter Byrne sent an email to Sony. Byrne has cerebral palsy and he found that his left hand was hitting the large touchpad in the centre of the PlayStation 4 control pad, constantly pausing his game. He wanted to know if there was anything the console manufacturer could do. He did not expect what happened next.
Alex Nawabi, a retail marketer at the company, got in touch. He told Byrne that he’d taken on the problem as a personal project. After 10 hours of work he’d managed to reverse engineer a PS4 controller, unwire the touchpad and rewire the button to the back of the controller. “Let me know if the button placement is uncomfortable,” he wrote. “If there are any changes you’d like made, please email me.”
Delighted, Byrne shared his experience on Facebook. “I honestly got choked up reading the letter as I did not expect anything like this to happen,” he wrote. “Mr Nawabi really cared about my situation and did this on his own time to make my experience better. I honestly can’t thank him enough for everything he did for me. Thank you Mr Nawabi it really means a lot too me.”
The heartwarming story has, of course, gone viral, attracting mainstream media interest all over the world. Nawabi has reacted with modesty and amazement, carefully pointing out the work Sony’s R&D department has carried out to improve the accessibility of its products. “What I did only works for a single individual and it should not undermine their work in any way,” he said. “I cannot stress this enough.”
What the story beautifully illustrates is the importance and pleasure of video games. This medium – sidelined in cultural discourse, viewed with suspicion by parents, pilloried by moral campaigners for the greater part of its history – offers much more than the odd hour of shoot-’em-up action here and there. It is an escape route, a nexus of interlocking communities, a place where other things can be forgotten. Alex Nawabi didn’t just fix a controller, he reopened a whole avenue of experience.
It’s something that’s very familiar to Mark Saville, who provides community support at UK charity SpecialEffect, which creates custom controller set-ups for people with a huge range of disabilities. “Reading that story through, it’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s a really good example of people shouting about what can be done. The technology is there if you work one on one with a person – you can raise their quality of life. If any one phrase encapsulates what we try to do it’s that one.”
As we chat, he reels off stories of the people SpecialEffect has helped. When someone gets in touch with the charity, their staff visit, assess the gamer’s needs then come up with a solution. It may be a special sort of input – a controller operated with the chin, an eye movement reader, a voice control – it may be a combination of those. The charity’s R&D team works with existing technologies as well as taking conventional joypads to pieces and reworking them. Then people with complex, sometimes deteriorating conditions start playing games again.
“We’re in the process of helping a 20-year-old who had a stroke,” says Saville. “Physically, he can’t run very well anymore, but put him in a game and he’s the same as everyone else. It’s about normality, it’s about inclusion, it’s about being part of the crowd again. This guy can compete online with his peers as though he didn’t have a disability. It’s very important to him. The increase we see in confidence and self-esteem is not to be underestimated.”
There are lots of stories like this – they have a similar theme. Keen game players being reunited with the medium – and with vital parts of their lives. Thomas has Friedreich’s ataxia, a progressive condition that affects his nervous system, but he’s now playing Uncharted using a customised controller with additional buttons and some custom voice controls. Lisa is 29 and has a condition named arthrogryposis, which causes certain joints to become fixed. She uses a custom array of buttons in combination with an Xbox One controller.
Tom Clark has a wasting disease named spinal muscular atrophy. He now plays games with a joystick he operates with his mouth. As his condition has progressed, SpecialEffect has found ways to accommodate it – to the extent that it has become kind of symbolic. It is about not being beaten. And it’s this sense of determination that video games have always tested and indulged.
“Gaming means so much to me; not only as a fan of video games but also as a disabled person,” says Clark. “So many things in life are limited because of my condition, like my inability to play football but when I play a video game, I’m in a world where the only limits are the ones that I allow to be there. As a competitive person, games like Fifa, Battlefield and Need for Speed allow me to compete with everybody else and that means everything.”
Video games are places of escapism but they also create and sustain a sense of togetherness that is vital and intrinsic. They are places that we meet and play. The beauty of Peter Byrne’s story is that Alex Nawabi saw and appreciated that. His act was not about fixing a controller, it was about recognising something in video games that gets overlooked so much. They are essentially about freedom.
The games industry is catching on. There’s a site entitled Games Accessibility Guidelines that provides interested developers with a vast range of inclusivity solutions, from allowing customisable controller sensitivity all the way through to more complex undertakings like sonar ping mini-maps and binaural sound to aid visually impaired players with navigation. Last year, Sony made it possible to re-map the PlayStation 4 controller functions, adding hugely to the accessibility of the pad.
“It’s still a case of raising awareness throughout the games industry, from developers to publishers, that small changes right at the beginning can make a huge difference,” says Saville. “I mean, the simplified control option that was introduced in Fifa a few years ago – it let people play with just the controller and ‘pass’ and ‘shoot’ buttons – suddenly, people could beat their friends and families again.
“Sometimes we get a phone call from a developer who’ll say, ‘we just saw something about eye tracking, could we have a chat about how to use that as a control method?’ It’s things like that … It shows we’re beginning to make in-roads.”