Gaming: Creating Inclusive Experiences
with Mark Barlet of AbleGamers
Video games can be a gateway to community participation, lifelong friendships, and unforgettable shared experiences.
Mark Barlet, Founder and Executive Director of AbleGamers, joins host Tetiana Anderson to share how accessible and inclusive experiences in video games benefit all gamers.
October 29, 2021
Anderson: The popularity of video games grew during the pandemic, as many Americans turned to online gaming for stress relief and social connection in addition to entertainment. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Especially for people who are socially isolated, online video gaming can foster a sense of community and give gamers opportunities to meet and socialize with others. And for some, those opportunities to connect with others can be life-changing. Joining me to talk about all of this is Mark Barlet. He is the founder and executive director of AbleGamers. And, Mark, thanks for being here.
Barlet: Tetiana, thank you so much for having me.
Anderson: So, gaming for people who are living with disabilities is about more than just fun. I mean, there are some real therapeutic benefits that come along with this, right?
Barlet: Yeah, for so many profoundly disabled people, Video game is -- is their window to the world. It's an opportunity for them to connect and make meaningful connections with peers in a shared space with shared goals. And you know, that's really important for our social well-being, and for people with disabilities, it might be their only window.
Anderson: And you've seen this kind of thing work in real life. I'm thinking of your friend Stephanie Walker. She was a real motivation for you in starting AbleGamers. How was she that motivation? What happened?
Barlet: You know, I'm a service-disabled veteran, but my disability largely doesn't affect the way I play games. Stephanie and I used games as a way of bridging the thousands of miles that were between us. When she didn't log in, I picked up the phone and her husband answered, and I heard Stephanie crying in the background. This was 2004, and in 2001, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And that afternoon -- in fact, just an hour before we were supposed to play -- multiple sclerosis, it decided that her mousing hand wasn't going to work. Now, I'm an engineer. I've worked in software for a while, so instead of gaming that evening, I decided I was going to go find the solution that got my friend back in the game. And I was disappointed to find that there was no one really talking about how people with disabilities and video games connected. And so I took that as a calling, I took that as a problem that I decided we were going to solve.
Anderson: So you started AbleGamers because you were essentially called to find a solution. So, what is the AbleGamers doing to change the game, so to speak, for people living with disabilities who do want to game?
Barlet: Well, early on, it became clear for us, to be able to support people with disabilities, we had to really focus, in the beginning, on the industry that makes games. So that's going to the people that are making the content we're playing right now, because a lot of the features, a lot of the things that people with disabilities would need would have to be programmed into the game. They would have to be baked in to the game. And so we really started a track of advocacy. We went to places where game studios met -- you know, conferences and things like that -- and we started talking about people with disabilities as a market, where people with disabilities had billions of dollars of disposable income and that they wanted to spend that money on goods and services that cater to their needs. And the industry -- you know, it took a really long time, but the industry started really listening to us and wanting to make sure that they could include as many people as possible to have the diversity that I think we all want in the gaming space. And so, slowly, over the last 15 years, the needle has moved and the industry is really making sure that people with disabilities are included in the next big hits.
Anderson: So, you are, in fact, a nonprofit, but it was sort of tough for you to raise money as a nonprofit, but you succeeded mightily as an industry influencer, up to this point. What's next for you and AbleGamers?
Barlet: That's an excellent question. What we're doing now, as an organization, is we're building capacity. We have a peer counseling team that works one-on-one with people with disabilities to help them craft solutions that get them into the game. I have an engineering research team that's working on new devices to help bridge that gap. I have a user research team, where we're working and we're actually pairing people with disabilities with game companies, so that they can lend their unique experiences in life to create a more rich, accessible experience. And I'm working with the industry itself, training them on how to create accessible experiences in the professional development scheme. And then, because gaming is about community, I have a community-inclusion team that's working to make sure that all those amazing spaces that are created around gamings -- the conventions, the fan clubs -- those are rich, accessible experiences that people with disabilities can join and can continue to connect.
Anderson: Mark, this is amazing work. I know that people are going to want to find out more. So, what's your website? Where can they go?
Barlet: Sure. We keep it really simple. It's ablegamers.org.
Anderson: Mark Barlet of AbleGamers, thank you so much for being here.
Barlet: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.