How Virtual Worlds Are Evolving and Supporting Players with Disabilities

Virtual worlds can profoundly
impact both our personal
sense of self
and the ideals of a wider community, but how is the
Metaverse affecting younger generations? A thought-provoking report by
Gizmodo reveals that our perceptions of who we are may be evolving with
our exposure to new technology.

I've
written a few articles about virtual world accessibility by those with
disabilities, but I've never taken as deep a look as I'd like at the
potentially liberating aspect of virtual worlds on those with severe
mobility limitations. 

Though far from perfect, virtual
worlds are evolving for those with disabilities, and changing the
perceptions of may others when it comes to playing a game with an
able-bodied avatar controlled by a physically disabled player. Let's
take a look at some interesting examples of this virtual-real crossover.

Pixels and Perception

Technological advancements in
communication and entertainment provide younger generations with more
opportunity for exploration of social and personal spheres than ever
before,
the Gizmodo article shows.

From the article:

The
generation of children growing up today has a distinct advantage in
this realm of identity, thanks to their daily interaction with the
internet and video games.

It's
commonplace for them to create avatars and parallel
representations of themselves, and they see their ability to change,
transform, and augment those bodies to best suit their surroundings as
beneficial.

The human body – or rather, a
body – is more fluid in the minds of those acquainted with the routine
modification of avatars in a virtual environment. The subject of
Gizmodo's piece is a young girl faced with a leg amputation. Normally, a
child might worry that such a major procedure would create social
problems.

Thanks to the
experience of recent generations with virtual worlds and avatar
modification, the idea of a false leg may not appear as traumatic as it
once did. As children expose themselves to the realms of possibility in
virtual worlds – and the increasing merger between the virtual and the
real – they will carry real-world ideas into the Metaverse, and virtual
ideas into reality.

The virtual world certainly isn't
on the verge of eliminating prosthetic limbs, but it is advancing our
perception of what human modification could become. Gizmodo makes the
astute argument that our virtual fantasies can easily become research
projects in reality:

There's
plenty of evidence that connects our visualization of what we
dream to be possible to what we eventually create as a new reality.

Gene
Rodenberry's imagination in Star Trek and that of Arthur
Clarke's, Marvin Minsky's and Stanley Kubrick's in 2001: A Space
Odyssey

had a direct impact on funding certain projects at NASA because
scientists and researchers had "seen" this whole imaginary world, and
they sought to make it real.

Amputees may soon see a time where losing a limb is not as traumatic an
experience as it once was. Instead of providing prosthetic limbs merely
for function, the virtual world asks us to take a look at form as well.
In time, and thanks to the horizon-expanding landscape of virtual
environments, amputees may see a wide range of prosthetic options well
within their budgets.

As
perceptions evolve and societies fill with citizens experienced in
virtual worlds and conversant in the language of character modification,
perhaps the entire notion of a physical disability will undergo a
shift. Prosthetics continue to advance along with our understanding and
willingness to engage in wide-ranging virtual body modifications.

We're even seeing the emergence of virtual world therapeutic centers aimed at returning soldiers with major disabilities – including one finalist picked up by the Army's Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge. Visually impaired gamers are finding solace in a growing body of experimental audible virtual worlds thanks to research at the University of Tel Aviv. All around, variety of developers and researchers are addressing disabled gamers previously excluded from the virtual community for one reason or another.

But all isn't well in the
Metaverse, and several disabled gamers have in the past opted to pursue
litigation as a means of opening up the full possibilities of virtual
worlds. Perhaps most notable is a story we covered in brief several
months ago about a disabled gamer suing Sony for what he argues is a
lack of functionality for those with mobility and visual impairments.

Lawsuits to Open Up Virtual
Worlds

Alexander Stern
is suing Sony,
the
developer of Everquest, under a new interpretation of the
Americans
with Disabilities Act
. The
Act prevents those with disabilities from being discriminated against by
mandating accessibility standards in everything from telephone
communication to
hotel accommodations.

Now
Mr. Stern argues that the ADA protections against discrimination extend
to
accessibility in virtual worlds. As
Stern's legal
filing argues
, Sony is
holding out on the disabled:

Sony
is denying persons with disabilities equal access to the
goods and services Sony provides to its non-disabled customers through
each and
all of Sony's computer game software products and each and every
upgrade,
sequel, and patch.

In
Stern's opinion, every patch and upgrade to Everquest and other online
games
that doesn't include explicit accessibility features for the disabled
constitutes a willful violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As
an AllGov.com write-up of the Stern filing points out
, this
case provides an interesting legal opporunity – the Americans with
Disabilities
Act was authored in 1990, before the widespread availability of virtual
environments.

Does
the ADA apply to virtual environments? Tough call. Title
IV of the
ADA governs telecommunication
, which is where virtual worlds are
likely to fall. This is the section that mandated accessibility of
telephones
to those with hearing disabilities. Phone companies responded by
creating
telecommunications relays – real people mediating calls for those hard
of
hearing.

Washington
already
has a small interest in the regulation of virtual worlds
– if a
claim for Americans with Disabilities Act protections hit the headlines,
politicians would almost certainly ramp up their schedule of
technology-related
hearings. As attention to the issue grows, so will the potential
financial
downside to developers like Sony and Blizzard.

Pre-empting a possible fervor by
working on a series of
best practices related to ensuring access to virtual worlds for all
potential users would be a smart move. Will developers respond?

How Are Virtual Worlds Evolving for Players with Disabilities?

One thought on “How Virtual Worlds Are Evolving and Supporting Players with Disabilities”

  1. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more Closed Captioning in Second Life builds, but then again, I’m also continually surprised we don’t see more multimedia content being integrated with marketing, educational, and other business-related builds.

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