video games are a part of modern life for a lot of adults as well as kids, michelle hinn says. people talk about the latest games like they talk about the latest episode of the "sopranos" or the latest best-selling book. some online multiplayer games are, in fact, little societies in and of
hinn, a university of illinois doctoral student, is doing her dissertation on social interactions and learning among college students in such games, which she became interested in during a stint working for microsoft. here's no law saying that games have to be accessible," hinn said.
while a few game developers have begun to include accessibility features -- "half life 2" sported closed-captioning and the adventure game "terraformers" was designed to be played solely by sound as well as visuals -- hinn is working to make the practice widespread.
she founded the international game developers association game accessibility special interest group, has chaired it the last two years and is running for a seat on the association's board [note: well...that didn't end up working out but, hey, it was my first effort in game politics]. at the 2006 game developer's conference in san jose, calif., last month, she was one of three people who received an MVP award from the association. she works internationally with other people promoting and developing accessible games and is co-writing a book on accessible game development for charles river media, a computer books publisher.
she's also started a software company, donationcoder, with friend jesse reichler, a doctoral student in computer science at the UI, and is starting a consulting business centered on accessible game development.
"i'm just trying to create my own job basically," hinn said jokingly.
she does all this in between, among other things, teaching classes at the UI and serving as a counselor and instructor for the women in math, science and engineering section of the florida avenue residence halls, a classroom and residential program for women majoring in scientific and technical fields.
hinn is the rare person older than 30 that college students think of as "cool," said piper hodson, who directs the women in math, science and engineering program.
hodson thinks that's due in part to "street cred" from having worked for a big-name tech company like microsoft and also a result of hinn's research, which gives her a feel for youth culture.
"energy" is a word that seems to come up when people talk about hinn, including UI professor bertram "chip" bruce, her dissertation adviser. bruce said he's excited about the insights that could come from hinn's research using games as a window into understanding how young people collaborate, learn from each other, interact and share information. "i think michelle is doing terrific work," he said.
jason della rocca, executive director of the international game developers association, wouldn't disagree. "she's full of energy and excitement and really has a drive to advocate for building accessibility into video games,´ he wrote in an e-mail. "she is an exemplary leader and has done so much to organize and coordinate the efforts of the IGDA's game accessibility SIG -- one of our most active groups."
besides closed-captioning and audio games for the blind, hinn said games can be made more accessible in a variety of ways. for example, designing them so that the controls can be remapped by the user to allow game play to be conducted easier with a mouth stick or the feet. likewise, font sizes and colors could be adjustable for people with low vision.
members of the game accessibility group hinn chairs created a game modification program, or mod, for doom III that allows not only closed-captioning for dialogue, but also for ambient sounds that tell a gamer an enemy is close.
game consoles also could be made to more easily accommodate alternative controller hardware, hinn said, like a finger pad to allow someone in a wheelchair to play the popular footwork game "dance dance revolution" with friends.
"each group is going to have their own different need," hinn said. she noted that accessibility can have advantages for game companies beyond the new customers with disabilities it may yield for them. for instance, "switch," or one-button, games easily usable by the disabled also work well on cellphones, a growing and potentially lucrative game market.
hinn, who should finish her doctorate in august (note: well...there's been a bit of a delay with that...), earned bachelor's degrees in music performance and psychology and a master's in instructional systems design at virginia tech before coming to the UI's college of education for a national science foundation fellowship focused on educational technology.
she got interested in web-based classes and simulation games for educational purposes and has worked on projects related to those topics at the UI, the national center for supercomputing applications and elsewhere.
her own experience overcoming dyslexia and experiences with disabled friends and students working in programming and on computers got her interested in accessibility, first in educational software and online resources.
hinn, who described herself as being into computers and social justice, was interested in games already, and accessibility in games gradually became a big interest.
"we always had game consoles in the house (growing up)," she said.
writer: greg kline