Humans are selfish creatures; when we think of ways for people to accomplish a task, we often focus on what we want them to do instead of what they need to do. In all the tantalizing distractions (3D television! Motion control! Touch screens!), it's easy to lose track of the essentials. Case in point: Nintendo's Wiimote. It's a controller, and it's a good one for some people. (For some people with disabilities, it's a better way of operating a computer than keyboards and mice.) But Nintendo got so caught up in its specialness that they forgot what they designed it to do: to maneuver something on a screen.
Universal design is the idea that problems and their solutions are separate things. The principle can be applied to architecture, education, (if the objective is for students to learn about the American Civil War, does it really matter if they learn it by reading a book, listening to a lecture, watching a film or playing a video game?), and technology, including gaming. Thinking this way—separating style from substance, conceiving of problems in terms of what's necessary instead of just what we think would be really cool—is the opposite of how most of us think. It's a challenge, but developers who are up to it will make better games for everyone.
In fact, many game developers have thought this way. The past's technological limitations meant that there were far fewer ways to tackle problems than there are today, which in turn brought those problems into sharper focus. There weren't many ways to move Pac-Man, so we can move Pac-Man in lots of ways—a joystick, a D-pad, a keyboard, a Wiimote.
Universal design doesn't need a lot of money. Some of the most accessible games I've seen recently are indie games from small developers. The bullet-hell shmups from developer x.x. (Blue Wish Resurrection Plus, Eden's Aegis) break the cardinal rule of shoot-em-ups. There are no tiny ships, including the player's. The large sprites can be much easier for some gamers with visual impairments—including me—to see. They also don't require much reading, have no auditory cues, have three weapons at the most and only ask the player to move in four directions. Even some of the games' accessibility problems—the enemies' blue bullets, the player's green ones and the yellow collectibles, which can be hard for people with certain types of color blindness to differentiate between—can be easily remedied if the developer chooses.
Solid design, in a way, is about letting things go. Mommy's Best Games has released an updated version of their Xbox Live Arcade shmup Shoot1UP, which adds one-button controls and other features for gamers with disabilities. Developer Nathan Fouts gives up control over the background colors, the game's speed (players can slow the game down), and button mapping. There are also more options for judging one's flight path (icons or text), as well as auto-fire and auto-formation of one's ships. Fouts knows what design choices are essential to his game and which are not.
Do I want a world without Wiimotes? No. (I don't even want a world without joysticks). But I want a world where Wiimotes are one option among many, where technology is a tool and not an end in itself. We are often so busy trying to revolutionize things that we forget that technology is supposed to make people's lives easier. Our revolutions should not get into anyone's way.
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.