Intel studies disabled gamers to help make future products more accessible

As Intel pivots from chip-making to more consumer-facing technology, two researchers zoom in on a niche, but revealing community

James Spiro 11:5511.09.20
Researchers at Intel have joined forces to learn about the ways disabled users approach video games, and how their experiences can impact considerations when developing future tools and products. Studying dozens of gamers living with a variety of challenges, Darryl Adams and Jamie Sherman have spent more than a year examining the intersectionality of videogames and disabilities.


Intel’s focus from simple chip-processing to customer-facing solutions has evolved alongside some of the technology that is becoming available in recent years, and the team realized that the research and development required a different way of thinking. “We started realizing that we’re getting closer to the consumer with the work we’re doing so it’s important not to just create the technology but to understand the user,” explained Adams, the assistive technology program manager at Intel’s Accessibility Office. “We are looking at capabilities like AI, computer vision, and natural language processing within the process… What can computer vision do to help somebody who doesn’t have much vision - what can we do to make the computer experience more natural to them? What do you do if you have the ability for a computer to become conversational? How does that change how someone uses a computer if they can’t see it or touch it effectively?”

Darryl Adams and Jamie Sherman. Photo: Intel Corp Darryl Adams and Jamie Sherman. Photo: Intel Corp


Adams suffers from an eye disease that slowly impacts his peripheral vision. In learning about some of the ways to assess disabled people and helping products and services become more inclusive, he joined forces with Sherman, one of Intel’s research scientists at the Client Computing Group.


The pair realized that if their work could reach millions of people around the world, it meant they had an obligation to better understand each end-user. While researching disabled communities and how hardware and software can be personalized for wider usage, one issue came up more than the rest: online gaming.


“We had some research we wanted to do around competitive gamers but we were thinking of this as an opportunity to be more inclusive and to have the voice of disability not just as a one-off but an ongoing part of our recruitment and thinking about who users are,” Sherman explained, about how the study came about. Initially, the plan was to meet competitive gamers at the Extreme Masters Tournament in Poland. However, as they prepared to travel to the event in February, it quickly became clear they weren’t going anywhere due to Covid-19.


By looking at some of the ways disabled people interacted with games and the gaming community at large, the researchers believed they could better understand how to prepare for Intel’s new possibility of optimizing products that are more consumer-facing. This was done virtually by recording daily video diaries about volunteers’ everyday habits and routines - and any challenges they might have faced along the way.


“People experience disability in different ways, whether it’s a deficit or impairment for physical challenges,” explained Adams. “If you take a group that has the same diagnosis, their contexts and outlooks are different. Their life experiences are different.”


Gaming has often been challenged with questionable reputations, often involving online toxicity brought to light after the 2014 controversy known as #GamerGate. However, as with any community, those with similar interests or values can find each other and foster positive experiences. Adams and Sherman both saw vast benefits for disabled gamers who took an instant liking to what the games had to offer.


“You talk about toxicity,” Sheman affirmed when CTech questioned them on some of the more ugly sides of gaming. “That came up across the board with competitive gamers: it can get your spirits up. Unlike many of our team sports, there isn’t a lot of oversight. It was a mixed bag in terms of what people felt about being treated respectfully or whether they heard things they found offensive or upsetting. Some of the gamers actually said they valued not being seen because the people weren’t treating them as if they were different.”


It becomes sensitive when the researchers discuss the benefits or drawbacks of being ‘seen’ online. Adams affirms that while the world of disabilities is incredibly idiosyncratic, the online gaming community all strive for one thing: “the cognitive side of gaming is that people want to achieve,” he explained. “You want to contribute and when you have limitations, it’s a little bit more difficult to tell yourself what you’re achieving in life... Gaming is wonderful for that because it’s built-in. You’re creating that scenario where you are showing someone how to improve incrementally and rewarding them for that. It’s built-in that feeling of accomplishment.”


Usually, Intel’s research into social and technological developments takes a few years. This is to make sure they gather insights from a population, understand it, and create the user experience based on those insights. Ultimately, the goal is to then bring those into a platform they are developing for future uses. Intel has had existing relationships with game developers for years, yet they are not actively involved in projects to help optimize hardware for those facing accessibility challenges. Hopefully, it’s something they can get involved in in the future.


“We want to listen to our customers and we want that disability voice to be a part of that,” Adams and Sherman conclude. “We’re not here to make assumptions based on what we’re seeing. We want to understand the problem.”