Social Games Can Help People Living With Disabilities

03/19/2010

Ayogo’s home town of Vancouver is temporarily honoured to also be the home town of the 2010 Paralympic games. Ayogo is also lucky enough to have an employee who exemplifies the same determination that we see in Paralympians. David Thomas has worked with members of the Ayogo team ever since he impressed us as co-op three years ago. The blog post below contains David’s personal thoughts about how social games can help those people living with disabilities.

A bit more about David: David personifies the Paralympic spirit by refusing to ever let his disability get in the way of his considerable abilities. Over the years, he has done everything from quality assurance to technical support and even content curation. He frequently suggests great ideas for games or game features, based on his love of games and his considerable gaming experience.

David also introduced us to inspirational charity/movie/movement called Darius Goes West (DGW). Open another tab so that after you read this blog post, you will remember to visit the DGW site where you will learn the story of another indomitable spirit. Ayogo is celebrating the Paralympic games — and thanking David for his ongoing contribution — by adding permanent features to our Hockey Pool that will encourage awareness of DGW.

Here’s David:

Courtesy of Flickr's tomt6788

After watching much of the Olympics here in Vancouver, I’m now gearing up to watch the Paralympics and I’m reminded of how the spirit of sports and games have the ability to bring us all together regardless of race, sexuality, religion or physical ability. While I realize that only a select few in the world will ever be able to compete at such a world-class level as the Olympics, sporting events like these still bring us together: athletes, fans and cultures can enjoy a shared experience. For me, social games, like the ones we make for Facebook and the iPhone also seem to have the same power; they can bridge gaps and provide a feeling of a shared experience.

Why? Well other than being a self-professed geek who loves playing video games, I am also a self-professed geek who loves playing video games living with a disability. Being able to participate in social games with my peers and friends is even more meaningful, because otherwise (in real-life) I am not able to do it as easily.

Growing up and having to use a wheelchair to get around prevented me from doing many after school activities. I couldn’t join the baseball or hockey team and play with my friends. Obviously, it would’ve been great to compete with them from time-to-time..well, once I received my Atari 2600 that was possible. (What a Christmas!) The barriers of the physical world that were preventing me from playing side-by-side with my friends were now virtually and literally removed. During my mid-to-late teens, when most of my friends were driving their own cars – unfortunately – I could no longer hang out with them because their cars were not wheelchair accessible.Around this time, Bulletin Board Systems and the Internet started to become popular. This was great for me because now instead of just sitting at home or hanging out at the mall, I was able to hang out online and utilize gameplay to make new friends all around the world! Perhaps the best part was that no one could see that I was any different from them and I was treated the same as anyone else. I could be on a level-playing field in a video game and even beat them most of the time. When I talk about a level-playing field, what I mean is that somehow it feels like we’re all equally able to perform online. I believe that my online achievements in Pac Man and Asteroids made me seem “normal” to the other kids. So it also helped my self-esteem. Now, they could finally see me as real competition and not just someone in a wheelchair. I thought it’d be interesting to get one of my friends (1armbandit) who also plays online to tell me what he thought about my concept of a “level-playing field.” He lost his hand at 19, so he can offer a perspective from both points of view. This is what he had to say.

“Competition is part of being human. Since what really matters in online games is skill, I think it levels the playing field. On-line I use names that give away that I only have one hand. I guess I like to tell the people I’m playing with that I have a handicap, but I also feel I shouldn’t need to hide from who I am. Being able to be me helps my self-esteem. (It’s) better to just deal with what you got, rather then focusing on what you don’t.”

So how can social networks (and social games) be a source of opportunity to help those with disabilities lead a more socially fulfilling life?

I think that sites like Facebook and MySpace have made it extremely easy for people to get connected and stay connected. It’s your own personal social network, now organized and intersecting in one place. When you throw games into the equation, it opens all kinds of doors, especially for people with disabilities. We can escape into these games and live-out a life or “virtual life” of sorts that we otherwise can’t do. As an example, in real life I can’t drive a car, but on Facebook, I can do so by playing a game like Need for Speed Nitro. I can also race my friends, which I also can’t do in real-life (although it’s probably not recommended that too much real-life racing take place anyways). But you get the point. I can be a part of a meaningful experience and involve my friends.

One key feature in social games (a part of game design) is that they require you (or at least suggest) that you help your friends. So for example in the Facebook game called Pet Pupz, not only can I can take care of my own pet, but I can care for my friends’ pets when they are not able to. This makes me feel like I can connect with them and that we’re really collaborating, since I can help them (and they can return the favour) when it’s necessary. I think that this an another reason social games help people with disabilities: we can feel more connected to the people around us, show our friends that we care and are able to do stuff for them, when otherwise we couldn’t.

To conclude, for me, as someone who lives with a disability, computers, games, the Internet and social media (social games in particular) have opened many doors. These social spaces have allowed me to keep in touch with old friends and to make new friends. As for social games, I’ve been able to not only have fun, but I can also use the games to help my friends out virtually and compete on an equal level with people of all abilities. Social games have also given me the ability to be employed in a job I enjoy. I look forward to the future of seeing how this technology will open more doors for people with disabilities.

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