Researching Disability and Play: Where's the Fun in That?

Games research that investigates representation and accessibility is slowly diversifying. One type of investigation that is starting to seep in is a theoretical materialist and embodied understanding of play in games. However, we are missing critical examinations of what kind of bodies are invited to participate in play and how these different bodies can participate. While games and play are mostly conceptualized as entertainment for “normal” bodies, disabled bodies are often relegated to playing for externally motivated purposes 

Using the theory on the surrogate body in play, Dr. Spiel illustrates how we must critically engage with understanding what bodily norms govern digital play and why. From there, we can identify design opportunities to holistically cater to disabled audiences that may not fall into the govern bodily norms. They do so by focusing on the critical analytical category of disability to expand on the access-oriented lenses and include principles of disability justice to play.

Watch the highlights:

Remote video URL

Key Terms:

Surrogate body theory: This theory comes from media studies, and states that immersion in media occurs when the viewer has an emotional response to the actions presented so that they embody the emotions of the character. In games, there is a higher degree of immersion as players are not passively observing the emotions of the character but imposing their own emotions and biases through controlling the actions of the characters. This centers the character being played as a surrogate body for the player’s actions  Experience of access: One has an experience of access when there are no barriers to understand what is being delivered or use something easily. For instance, we experience this form of access whenever a structure or experience matches our needs and/or abilities. When games are not designed with considerations for diverse accessibility needs, the experience of access might only be possible for able-bodied and neurotypical players  
Disability models: Dr. Spiel highlighted three models of disability. (1) medical model, where disability is seen as something to be fixed, (2) social model where the disability is seen as something that does not line up with the social environmental norm, and (3) identity model where it is seen just as different way of thinking and living in the world In play research, disabilities are often treated under models 1 and 2, thus many games are created to “fix them” instead of just being for fun. Disability Justice: Creating games and opportunities for play that consider the diversity of bodies who would engage with them. This differs from the norm that many games do not consider body differences and thus perpetuate the use of inflexible technologies preventing many players from engaging in the games. 


Graphic of people surrounding a tablet

What does it take for someone to have an experience of access? Dr. Spiel began their lecture on Researching Disability for Play by highlighting this important question. They began talking in Austrian sign language, then in German, before finally speaking in English. As many of the participants only understood English out of the three, Dr. Spiel noted that we would only experience an “aha” moment when we were finally given an experience of access and understand what was being said. So, how might games provide disabled players with more consistent experiences of access? 

Currently, gaming research points to self-determination to view how players interact in games. This means that players are motivated to play and interact in games in ways that are enjoyable, self-determined, voluntary, and unproductive. However, this notion of “fun” is premised on normative and neurotypical experiences, which are not necessarily fun for disabled and neurodiverse players. Moreover, fun experiences are often absent in games designed for neurodivergent or other disabled players. These games often do not emphasize playfulness, and instead base their play on external motivators that frame their disability through a medical or social model. Disability in these games becomes something to be fixed. Why do others get to play games for enjoyment yet neurodivergent and other disabled people don’t?  

Dr Spiel concludes that games should not treat disability and neurodivergence as something to fix in games, but instead as a unique way of viewing and interacting in games. Everyone deserves to engage in playfulness in games 

Game Design for Disability Justice:

Disability justice principles call for interactive media and games to be created in ways that afford better access to neurodivergent and other disabled people to engage in play. The framework aims to guide an understanding and application of disability justice in games through understanding how body diversity plays a part in gameplay, and how to account for these bodily differences. Choose a game that you play and/ or are creating and reflect on these questions in context of your chosen game.  

Take 10-15 min for each of the three main questions and refer to Dr. Spiel’s lecture for examples and clarity.  

How do surrogate bodies in games construct actions for players

First, we must understand that characters in the games are surrogate bodies for the players, as they lend their emotions and actions to the character. Players often interact through rapid-fire button pressing with controllers, or using gestural interfaces, or leaning toward the screen or reflexively ducking as bullets fly, and sometimes they will feel it in their gut when their character falls from a precipitous height.  

What are the required actions within your chosen game? And what is involved in the player’s body to successfully perform the actions? Does the fun rely on players inhabiting the character’s surrogate body in a certain way? 

Who is afforded experience of access? How? 

Once we understand what actions are required, we must analyze what bodies are able to complete these actions. Feeling what characters feel assumes neurotypical forms of empathy and identification. Rapid fire button pressing assumes that the player has precise control over the speed they can push down their finger, which people with tremors cannot do. These failures are not a pleasurable experience within play, but a frustration caused by lack of access. The game is thus designed to highlight the disabled player as being different, and the notion that “practice makes perfect” only further highlights that they need to change to engage in play. By analyzing which bodies can perform these actions, we can highlight how a game needs to be designed more justly.  

How might we foreground an experience of access so that everyone has an opportunity to engage in these forms of play? How can we make different ways of playing possible? 

How might games apply principles of disability justice? 

Only after understanding how different bodies can engage in play, can we reimage games to better accommodate this diversity. This diversity must be accounted for at the start of game development, through specific user testing with the stakeholders who would benefit from these accessible designs. It is critical to ensure that the way disabled and neurodivergent people use their bodies physically and emotionally is integrated in the design of the game, so that accessible design is not an afterthought that treats disability as a difference that requires accommodation or changes the game.  

How might we include considerations for access throughout a game design process? How might disability justice principles create more equitable access to games and play? And how might disability justice principles enable more broadly appealing and marketable kinds of play and games 

Dr. Katta Spiel (They/Them)

Dr. Katta Spiel
FWF Hertha-Finnberg Scholar

at the HCI Group of TU Wien (Vienna University of Technology)