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Chronicles from the CHI Play Workshop on Disability and Digital Games

Colour profile image of Dr Giulia Barbareschi, a caucasian woman with brown hair

Dr Giulia Barbareschi

Researcher in Assistive Technology

By Dr Giulia Barbareschi

CHI Play is the largest and most important conference that brings together researchers and professional working in different areas of play, games and human computer interaction. This year the conference was held in the technological neighbourhood of @22 in Barcelona, Spain between the 22ndand the 25th of October 2019. This year, Dr Catherine Holloway and Dr Giulia Barbareschi, together with colleagues from UCLIC, KU Leuven, the University of York, Universität Wien and the University of Prince Edward Island had organized a workshop titled Disability Interactions in Digital Games: from Accessibility to Inclusion.

The aim of the workshop was to bring together researchers and practitioners working in different areas of disability, human computer interaction and play to discuss how digital games could be used to change perception of disability and how we could better leverage the experience of disabled gamers to improve the current efforts to make games more accessible to players with a diverse range of abilities. The workshop was well attended and it received contributions from five papers that illustrated different examples of accessible games developed by different institutions, presented new methodologies to guide accessible game designs and presented new possibilities for novel modalities of interactions.

After a round of introductions and some warm-up games that gave participants the chance to know each other, the room was divided in three areas where participants discussed different topics, posed questions and proposed new ideas. The three themes explored where:

  • Changing societal attitudes through diversity of characters: As much as it is important for other media such as movies and comic books it’s crucial for players for disabilities to be able to see themselves represented in the digital games they play. Participants in this working group discussed different possibilities for how this could be achieved. On the one hand, accurate representations should include compelling storylines that move beyond stereotypical representations that solely focus on the disability of the character rather than highlight their complexity as persons. In this context, participants thought important to find a balance between normalization of the characters and the risk of tokenism where characters are depicted with a disability only in order to “tick a diversity box”. Another aspects discussed was the possibility of leveraging different kinds of game mechanics to enhance the experience of disability and promote new types of interactions at the same time. One important aspect highlighted by several participants was the necessity to present both pros and cons of disabled characters to promote a more realistic game experience (i.e. a character who uses a wheelchair might be unable to climb stairs in game but they would move much faster, compared to a walking character, on a flat surface)
  • Adapting games to increase social inclusion: Many games offer options that enable players to adapt the interaction to their particular needs (usually within limits). Participants in this group shared ideas and challenges about when and how to make games more accessible. Several tensions were identified such as the one between improving the accessibility of games while maintaining the integrity of gameplay as much as possible. Similarly, the need to enable play for gamers with different abilities need to be balanced with a gaming experience that is challenging enough to be rewarding. To address many of these challenges, participants highlighted the need for more nuanced and comprehensive research that encompass the experiences of players with disabilities from the imagination of the experience beforehand to the post-gaming reflections after the person has played the game.
  • The role of co-development of games: Participatory approaches can look very different between academia and the gaming industry. Participants in this group discussed possibilities on how we could facilitate better engagement strategies that satisfy both the needs of developers and players with disabilities. Co-design was seen as crucial for most features of digital games from narratives and storylines to game mechanics and interface design. Important aspects to take into consideration encompassed multiplayer scenarios, both in regard of cooperative and competitive play; how disability is framed within the game itself and the game development process; and ethical considerations for the co-design process to ensure that there is no exploitation and that players, and wannabe players with disabilities are included in an equal and democratic manner.

At the end of the workshop, participants pledged to continue working on these themes and they express interest in developing a series of position papers that could work as a call to action for researchers and developers interested in making the world of digital gaming more inclusive and enjoyable for players with a different range of abilities. If you are interested in knowing more or you would like to contribute to this work, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Dr Catherine Holloway ( or Dr Giulia Barbareschi (

Dr Giulia Barbareschi presenting at the CHI Play workshop