With all the studies on therapeutic uses for Nintendo's Wiimote, a deaf school's innovative use of PlayStation Portables and the potential for Microsoft's Project Natal to make games accessible to players with disabilities thanks to its ability to recognize objects, voices, gestures and facial expressions, it's easy to think that motion-sensing technology is an unequivocal boon to players with disabilities everywhere. But is it? It's certainly easier for some people with disabilities to move an arm than to push a small button (or six). But what about those players with disabilities who are attracted to video games partly because pushing buttons allows them to do things they cannot otherwise do? Will the move toward motion control realism bar some players from their hobby?

Jennifer Allan writes in Motion Control and Disability that her mother was in a car accident 25 years ago and, as a result, has a lot of trouble swinging her arms quickly. Her mother is an avid gamer, but with the advent of the Wiimote, she's having a lot more difficulty playing games than she used to:

"She was watching me once play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the N64, and liked the look of it, so I thought I’d purchase Twilight Princess for the Wii. She loved [it], but there was just one big problem: the combat. She was great at everything else, loving the puzzle-solving elements and the exploration, but every time she got into a fight with more than one enemy, she needed me to do it for her to allow her to continue. This became very frustrating for both of us, and was certainly very demoralizing for her because she had to admit defeat, something that no disabled person ever wants to do."

When it comes to my own disabilities, Nintendo's Wiimote does some things well and others, not so much. My left side is 40 percent weaker than my right, partly because my brain isn't fully aware of where my left body parts actually are. Since those internal hardware drivers haven't been loaded (so to speak), I use external feedback to remind myself that I have a left side. Since my left hand is weak, it doesn't have as much motor control, but it can grip things—which means I like the way the Wii's nunchuck attachment fills the whole inside of my hand.

But I also have trouble learning how to do movements of various kinds. This was mostly a problem in gym class, but it comes into play using the Wiimote as well. In particular, fending off Drackies in Dragon Quest: Swords is…awkward. Fighting enemies is accomplished by swinging the Wiimote like a sword, and I haven't mastered the art of slashing vertically just yet. It helps to remember that with the Wiimote more movement is not necessarily better; little flicks of my wrist are better understood than grand sweeps of my arm.

Nintendo's Demo Play feature could help some players with disabilities over motion-sensing hurdles. Also, some Wii games have multiple control schemes, but as Jennifer points out, expecting all developers to design control schemes for the Wiimote, the GameCube controller and the Classic controller is problematic: "[T]hat will increase development times and costs to the point where it’s just not practical." Perhaps some sort of development library would help here—something that streamlines or even semi-automates control-mapping. How—or if—such a thing would work, I have no idea.

As motion control becomes an increasingly integral part of video games, I hope developers will find more and better ways to use it. I also hope they know when not to use it, or keep alternatives in mind. It would be a shame to close the medium for some players while opening it up for others.

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.
Tera Kirk

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3 Comments on "Motion control: Boon or bane for gamers with disabilities?"

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Jen Allen
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Nice to see my article has sparked another article on the topic 🙂 I really do hope that Demo Play can help some people in the long run.
Devs take note!

Wedge Walker
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As a guy with only one normal arm, on that fateful day when the world got its first look at the Wii remote, once I realized it did all this motion stuff (and had the nunchuck) and wasn’t just a NES pad turned on it’s end, I thought, “That’ll be cool…for other people. I guess that’s it for me and Nintendo consoles. Hope they keep making good stuff for the DS.” But it turns out I’ve been able to adapt to every game I’ve played so far. And FPS games like CoD…I’m better at on Wii than I ever was… Read more »
Parker
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Hi! one of my best friends from childhood is physically disabled. Playing games together was something we loved to do, and for him it became important because it put him on the same level as anyone other kid. i fear that the majority of people/players who haven’t been touched (thankfully) by disability either to themselves or someone they are close to are streaming ahead and forgetting that this was a *vital* tool in allowing disabled children to ingrate with able-bodied children in a way that ensured the barriers were completely brought down for as long as you in that game… Read more »
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