By Carrie Banks

Forty-six bleary-eyed librarians got up early on Saturday morning to find out how to develop adaptive gaming programs.  They left wide awake and energized!

Gaming Rocks

Adaptive gaming is simply gaming designed to include people with disabilities.  Mark Bartlet is the President of the Able Gamers Foundation, which works to change the quality of the lives of people with disabilities using the power of video games.  He set the stage, describing how games are the “only place on earth where your disability doesn’t have to define you.”  It allows for socialization and helps with depression and pain control, one study demonstrated that the effect is equal to morphine in this respect.  He summarized gaming allows people to “just be free.”

John Huth, the Teen Librarian at Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) service for children and teens with disabilities, introduced the idea of cheat codes.  Cheat codes are lines of code that can be used to change a game’s behavior.  He quoted James Paul Gee who stated in his book What Video Games Teach Us About Learning and Literacy “The cheat code supplemented me in just the right way, allowing me to be more powerful, while fulfilling my goals of finishing the game on my own as much as possible.”  John showed us that cheat codes are actually “[t]he keys that open a door so that a person with a physical disability can drive a car 100 miles per hour… a person with a developmental disability can master the martial arts or a person with an emotional disability can become a super hero.”

Adaptive gaming helps builds skills in a neutral, non-threatening way.  Older adults learn technology skills that can help them email their grandchildren.  Patrick Timony, the Patrick Timony, librarian, Adaptive Technology, DC Public Library(DCPL), pointed out that gaming is part of mapping literacies onto each other and promoting literacy overall.

Play throughout our lives promotes relaxation, friendships and quality and longevity of life, according to Carrie Banks, who is in charge of Brooklyn Public Library’s services to children and youth with disabilities.  “Gaming has a role to play here,” she stated.  Patrick Timony reinforced this view with his discussion of universal playgrounds and explaining that his program provides board games as well as electronic ones.  DCPL has the most experience, having worked with AbleGamers to establish the first library-based adaptive gaming arcade in the country.

The general consensus was that games are designed to work for a wide swath of people, aka the largest possible market.  Scaffolding, supporting players as they master one skill while moving on to the next, is built in.  Multiple means of access, auditory and visual for example, are built in and multiple intelligences are accommodated.  For example, Candy Crush has both a countdown clock and a visual timer for its timed rounds.  It is these types of characteristics that make gaming a good fit for all players.  Other needed facets, such as a tactile interface, can be easily added.

A Naturally Inclusive Community

Several presenters spoke to the idea that adaptive gaming is a naturally occurring inclusive program.  Nick Higgins, Director of Outreach Services at BPL, described how adults and teens flock to Exergaming Bowling, their Xbox based bowling program, when are held in visible areas.  The bowling leagues, developed for older adults, pit branch based teams virtually against each other.  They draw adults with disabilities in group programs and individuals of all ages.  Rachel Meit, Manager of the
Center for Accessibility at the DCPL, agreed, explaining how the teen program often brings in typically developing teens.  In addition, adults with intellectual disabilities are interested in gaming.  The bottom line is everyone wants to join in the fun when they see it.  As Nick Higgins said adaptive gaming is a:

“truly intergenerational and multicultural program for people of all abilities.  Everyone enjoys playing together… [It creates] comradery between participants of all ages, backgrounds and abilities… [S]ome trash talk (is) necessary… When I failed to pick up a spare, Freeman said ‘[b]etter sit down and let me show you how it is done’.”

Getting Started

The right players.  The success or failure of the program is in large part a function of staff attitudes toward gaming and inclusion.  So finding the right staff is key.  Avid gamers are passionate, used to thinking outside the box and they know the games and standard equipment.  They can lead the way.

A big picture view is also necessary.  Rachel Meit sees her role as “looking strategically at accessible gaming as part of our mission” and how studies show “the importance of play and socialization.”  She seeks to foster an emphasis on the process  versus the product.

Along with staff, volunteers and interns can be helpful.  BPL’s Adaptive Gaming programs uses volunteers with and without disabilities to vet the games, to assist the players and to support socialization   John Huth explained that using interns  with disabilities gives them a sense of pride and “gives us a powerful way to interact socially.”  At DCPL a volunteer helps create the right atmosphere with snacks and music.

The importance of involving community partners when developing and implementing the programs was another common theme.  None of us have expertise in everything.  More to the point, we do not need to.  AbleGamers, instrumental in setting up both BPL and DCPL’s adaptive gaming arcades, provided expertise about equipment and games.  DCPL leveraged their longstanding partnerships with agencies in the disability community to get the word out.  John Huth mentioned that BPL partners with schools, bringing the gaming to them.  BPL also partners with community agencies like United Cerebral Palsy and has used the gaming program partnership with agencies to develop universal makerspaces.  Nick Higgins discussed the importance of the partnerships with the New York City Department for the Aging and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication.  They are also reaching out to senior centers to expand the program.

The right equipment.  John Huth put forward the “Rule of Three”:   3 systems, 3 screens, and 3 controllers.


  1. XBox 1 for its hands free interface, voice commands and spatial and facial recognition.
  2. Play Station 4 for its plug in options zoom and text to speech features, color inversion and enhanced text size.
  3. XBox 360 for its closed captioning, bold text and ease of button mapping.


  1. Adroit Switchblade to remap buttons
  2. A gooseneck joy stick
  3. Atrox Razor to customize and remap buttons as well as its cool factor that kids like


  1. A blank wall or roll down screen
  2. A TV screen
  3. PC or laptop screen


It is not always smooth sailing.  Transportation can be a barrier because of the cost and  the difficulties with paratransit.  Subscription game services can be difficult to manage in  a library setting.  System glitches such as sensor lags and misreading clothes or wheelchairs are to be expected.  Software updates can temporarily transform a previously smooth running program chaos.  Finding games for people who are Deaf and blind is another challenge.  John Huth suggested the Scroog and glove controllers.  But the biggest barrier is adult attitudes towards inclusion.  Rachel Meit emphasized that strong leadership and staff training can help alleviate this.


  • Make a splash when you launch. Marquis events were recommended to launch the programs but continual outreach and recruitment of new gamers is critical over the long haul
  • Train the adult staff well
  • Have a cool down room, a quiet space where an individual can play on his own
  • Offer a variety of switches and interfaces
  • Offer a variety of games
  • Look for non-traditional funding. AbleGamers can help you find it
  • Accept that trash talking is required, no matter how old or young the players are.

Adaptive gaming reinforces the library’s role as a third space.  Our branches are neutral places without the stigma of a senior center or special program. Mark Barlet summed it up this way: “Children and young adults with a disability don’t want to ‘fail in front of friends’.  Gaming gives permission to overcome societal attitudes that reinforce isolation – don’t look, don’t ask, giving shared experiences to children with and without disabilities at the same time and in the same space.”

Adaptive Gaming brings new people into the library.  It creates the opportunity for and a brother and sister to stay connected after one develops a physical disability.  It gives a mother and her daughter with an intellectual disability, the chance to do something fun together.  It allows a teen with profound cerebral palsy to play with his brothers for the first time.  It encourages older adults to be physical activity and socialize.  And it allows people with and without a disability to come together on a level playing field.  Get your game on.

To hear the entire presentation go to


Image: XBOX Bot by Jenn and Tony Bot