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Mark Barlet has 25 years of hands-on experience in the tech and assistive technology field. An injured veteran who left the Air Force in 1996, he became trained in assistive technology and supported hundreds of people with disabilities.
In 2004, his best friend, Stephanie Walker, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition that nearly took away her ability to play video games. To help her and others with similar problems, Barlet started AbleGamers, a nonprofit that provides disabled gamers with assistive technologies in the belief that gaming fosters inclusive communities, combats social isolation, and improves the quality of life for people with disabilities.
And today, he is being named the 2021 recipient of the Vanguard Award by Games for Change. Games for Change is a nonprofit that runs a game conference and festival promoting the power of games for social impact. It takes place online July 12 to July 14 this year.
“We can’t think of a more deserving recipient of the Vanguard Award,” said Susanna Pollack, the president of Games for Change, in an email to GamesBeat. “Mark’s work with AbleGamers advocating for the needs of gamers with disabilities has reached so many people, and his efforts to inform the industry through corporate training have a tremendous impact on how we think about accessibility and how to make games playable for all.”
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To date, AbleGamers has helped 3,568 people with disabilities through peer counseling and assistance with hardware and software challenges. It has engineered 49 custom equipment solutions for people with disabilities through the work of its in-house engineering research team. It has trained 114 developers to make accessible games and distributed over 2,000 decks of APX Cards. And it has connected 328 players with disabilities to the industry since 2018, empowering them to lend their voice to creating a more accessible gaming world.
Barlet devoted himself to the cause, traveling around the world giving speeches about accessibility, assistive technology, and video game-adjacent disability topics for organizations such as Microsoft, Yahoo, and other Fortune 500 companies to spread his message of bringing fun and returning joy to those in need.
In the summer of 2016, Barlet and his AbleGamers partner, Steven Spohn, were invited to the White House to discuss accessibility and technology. Barlet has grown his passion into a global movement, changing the way multibillion-dollar companies operate to stop ignoring accessibility. He also worked with Microsoft to create the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which can be modified to enable people with disabilities to play games more easily.
Now he is working on AbleGamers’ effort create an adaptive esports tournament. I spoke with him about the award and his efforts.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What does it mean to you to get the award?
Mark Barlet: To me it just means recognition from an organization that I’ve always respected and always loved. I meant it when I said that Games for Change has always been a highlight on my social calendar. I love coming up to the city. I’ve met some amazing people and gotten to reconnect with them.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me how you got started with Able Gamers, or what came before it?
Barlet: I’m a person with disabilities. I’m a service-disabled veteran. But my disability doesn’t really affect the way I play video games. I use video games to stay connected with my best friend from the sixth grade. She was a military wife. She moved across the country, and we used games as a way of being involved with each other, having those shared spaces, doing cool stuff.
In 2004 we were supposed to be playing a game. I put my headset on and I was waiting for her to dial in. She didn’t dial in at the prescribed time. I picked up the phone, and my friend, Albert, answered. I could hear Stephanie crying in the background. A couple of years previous, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis had decided that her mousing hand wasn’t going to work that day. She was watching a disability take away her ability to play games, something she loved to do, something she used to connect with people.
I took that as a calling. I was a technologist. I was running a little website, a fansite for EverQuest II. I thought this was something interesting. I never thought about my own disability that way, but I have a disability. That was the birth of AbleGamers. It was because I wanted to play games with my friends. We created a website. We thought if we created this safe space for people with disabilities, we could come and solve our own problems. That was a dumb idea. That didn’t work.
What we learned quickly was that in order to make change, to move the needle on combating social isolation through play, we needed to go and talk to the developers. We needed to talk to people that made games. I can craft a solution for a person with a physical disability. I can create a custom controller. I can solder things together. I can manipulate that. But I can’t add closed captioning to a game — I have to work with the people that make the game for that. I can’t add sound cues so I can help my visually impaired friends. I can’t make sure that subtitles are in there for my deaf or hard of hearing friends. It became clear that we needed to go to the developers to solve these problems.
There’s two ways you can do that. One, you can get quick change, and the other way is you can make systemic change. We went with the longer road, the systemic change, not the quick change. I could have told a sad story. I could have done what I call the Sarah McLachlan sad puppies route. I could have raised a fortune, but I probably wouldn’t have changed anything. Instead, I really went on a crusade. We at AbleGamers went on a crusade of educated game-makers on the buying power and the market that is people with disabilities. Talking about the population. Talking about the userbase. Treating people with disabilities as a market that was worth catering to.
With the advent of the iPhone and iPad and the rise of the indie developer, there was so much competition for eyeballs. Going into the 2007 through 2014 range, there was so much competition that people were starting to hear what we were talking about in the way of marketing. They were using accessibility as a market differentiator.
GamesBeat: Was there something, right after starting in 2004, where that became your best path? Something that got traction? Did you get a lot of awareness in some way?
Barlet: No, not at all. It was me going to GDC 2009 and going to where the developers were and just pounding the pavement. We also did a lot of work in the community spaces for a while. Leading up to where we are today, I think several things had to go in place. The advent of that indie developer and the rise of the story we’ve been telling, and then, because we’d been around so long, a lot of our community work, a lot of that going to the PAX [events] and talking to gamers and educating gamers on the plight of people with disabilities — we discovered that those high school kids and college kids we talked to a decade ago are now wandering the hall of some of those big game companies. Now we had advocates.
The world aligned to where we had been doing this work on educating developers around the fact that people with disabilities — there are 46 million of us in the United States alone. We have buying power. Rise to that with the indie developer and the competition for eyeball space, it helped resonate that marketing of accessibility and accessibility features. Do you want to sell more games? Then you need to think about accessibility. We’d educated developers that there’s this market. With those internal advocates who we had interacted with a decade ago, who were now in positions to be the squeaky wheel inside the studio — us yelling outside the walls, them saying, “Hey, those guys outside the walls have a lot of important stuff to talk about.”
Last of all, the rise of social media and the fact that players with disabilities could give that voice themselves, could praise developers that were doing it right and chastise developers that were doing it wrong. Developers knew what they were talking about, because we’d been doing that work for so long, pounding that pavement. To me, right now, I’m so busy because — I’m meeting with players, but this week alone I’ve met with Oculus, with Amazon Gaming, with Activision Blizzard. Now they’re coming to us and asking us for more work and more help and more guidance.
What I’ve said to my team, and what we’ve been doing in the organization — this has been a sea change for us. How I describe it is, we’ve had to evolve from an advocacy organization, which is what we were for so long, to an action organization. I no longer have to advocate on behalf of players with disabilities, because players with disabilities are advocating for themselves. Because we’ve done that work and laid that foundation, going all the way back to 2007 when we were talking to developers and trying to seed this idea, all the world has aligned and now I’m busier than ever creating rich, accessible experiences that are allowing a totally blind person to have an amazing experience in Last of Us II, a multimillion-dollar game that took accessibility so seriously. A person who identifies as being blind knew what was going on. My God. And we did that. The work of AbleGamers led to that experience taking place.
GamesBeat: What kinds of changes had to happen to get to that? I also wonder, early on, did you hear any particular objections? “We can’t do this”?
Barlet: Absolutely. That’s all we heard. “That sounds expensive.” “Why would we do that?” But look at the world we have now. Microsoft has a first-party accessibility controller that we helped them build. We built the precursor to it. Here it is. We hand-built it for the Xbox 360. We worked with Microsoft on the adaptive controller, a first-party controller for people with disabilities. That’s where we’ve gone.
So yeah, at the very beginning, it was, “That’s too expensive.” “How many players really need it?” Or in the very early days, which is why I told you that one of the successes in getting where we are was the rise of the indie developer — in the before times, because we were around before that, game companies had captive audiences. They didn’t care because they could put out a game and make a trillion dollars. Why spend $5 million more to make a trillion and one when I already made a trillion? I’m OK as I am. I think the stars aligned to where these things happened.
I will say, had we not been doing that work, had we not already been there, I don’t think we would be — I try to be very self-deprecating all the time, and I get told to stop it sometimes. But we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all the work AbleGamers did when these things started happening. Had the indie developer come to be before we fully understood what needed to change, I don’t think that the indie developers would have used accessibility as a market differentiator. Had social media come about before we were already fighting the good fight, I don’t think those voices of players with disabilities would have had the amplification properties that they do now. Had we not been out there for the last 15 years in the spaces where gamers congregate, we would not have had the advocates inside the walls fighting the fight from inside.
It’s funny. In the process of going through this advocacy to action evolution, I had a real mental health crisis a couple of years ago. Very rarely do you start — I started a charity to make sure that people could play video games. And guess what? People can play video games. Very rarely does a charity get to say, “I did the thing. I set out to cure cancer and I cured cancer.” And so when I talk about advocacy to action, it doesn’t change the fact that there are players with disabilities that need our help getting in the game. That’s a specialized solution, which is why I have a peer counseling team and an engineering research team. New games are being made, and we still need to educate developers. We don’t have to convince them anymore, but we need to educate them on what they need to do, which is why I have a user research team and a professional development team. We still have amazing communities that we want to be accessible as we bring people in, which is why I have a community and inclusion team.
But I had this real mental health crisis because I thought, “My God, we did it.” If you think about it, you don’t have my shoes, but it was one of those things like trying to contemplate infinity. If you’ve ever tried to do it, if you don’t feel like you’re falling for a second — if you can truly get into that space, that meditative space, and you don’t feel like you’re falling for a second, then you probably aren’t contemplating infinity. I kind of had that — it took a decade of tireless, thankless work.
GamesBeat: You had a Super Bowl ad. What are you going to do next?
Barlet: That’s it. What do you do next? You’re staring at a tree. You don’t realize you’re in a forest, because all you look at is this tree. For a brief moment you’re able to zoom out and see the big picture of what you were able to accomplish, and it’s overwhelming. I have a wonderful team. But it took me about six weeks of kind of being — I wouldn’t say I was a basket case. But having to recognize that you’ve done it and process it. It just took time to process it. You know what, you did that.
For me, being a person who founded the organization and did the first thing I set out to do, with my amazing leadership team and my amazing board, really going and saying, “What are we going to do next? How are we going to keep this going?” Our mission didn’t go away. It evolved into action. And what are we not going to do anymore?
We had a big retreat. My leadership team came in a couple of years ago and we said, “This is where we are. This is what we’re doing. What do we stop doing? What do we give to Twitter? What do we give to those other players with disabilities? We don’t need to be an advocate anymore. There’s an army of advocates. What are we giving up, and what’s next for us?”
We went on a one-year journey where we built our strategic plan. That’s when we released our new mission statement. Our mission is to enable play in order to combat social isolation. Fostering inclusive communities to improve the lives of people with disabilities. We came up with that mission statement as a group, and we came up with that mission statement as a team. We all looked at it and said, “That’s us. So how do we bring that mission statement to life?” We came up with our pillars, our peer counseling, our engineering research, our user research, our professional development, and in the middle our community and inclusion pillar.
My peer counselors and my engineering researchers are on the front lines helping people with disabilities every day. My user research team and my professional team are advocating and working with developers so that they can create those rich, accessible experiences through our training programs, through our services work. Our community manager is in the middle, because all of those sides roll into community. They’re working every day to make sure that Twitch is accessible, that players with disabilities have spaces on Twitch to share their unique stories and amplify. We sponsor other players with disabilities. We amplify them so that they can be the advocates for us. We came up with that, and once we understood what our future looked like, it’s been full steam ahead.
GamesBeat: Where are you based?
Barlet: I’m in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We’re in Jefferson County. All this change comes from this little state that very rarely gets mentioned.
GamesBeat: Who did you think of as the friends along the way that made this possible? Either inside organizations or among the companies you were dealing with. I’d like to drill down a little bit on Microsoft, but I wanted to ask more broadly first, who did you think of as the friends of the organization that made this possible?
Barlet: I will say, and I’m not just saying this because of who it is, but there are a lot of great organizations that gave us voice. Because of our unique situation, we were able to backdoor opportunities at GDC. I’ve had a long relationship, and I’ve been given an avenue, at Games for Change. I consider Games for Change one of those organizations that didn’t need to help us. I don’t necessarily think we were bringing value to their conference year over year. But they always lent us that platform and gave us the opportunity. I’m blessed to be a good speaker. Google gave us a voice and let me do a Google town hall where I was able to talk about AbleGamers. I’ve had some great friends at Google. PlayStation has always worked to help us from time to time. PlayStation does it really low key. Two years ago they gave us a six-figure donation and didn’t even put out a press release.
When we were very small, Microsoft gave us $10,000, back when $10,000 was more money than we’d ever seen. I went to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to talk about Microsoft Kinect. Very early on, Microsoft gave voice to that. They helped us with this controller here.
GamesBeat: What was that one called?
Barlet: It was the Adroit Switchblade. So Microsoft has always been a friend. They’ve always helped us.
Where I think that we’ve had real success, and where I feel privileged frankly, is that my mission is to combat social isolation. That seemed interesting until COVID. And because of COVID, because of the pandemic, there has been a large understanding by a vast swath of people on what social isolation really means. And when I say to someone — I mean this. This isn’t just a line. For so many profoundly disabled people, the pandemic has looked just like 2017, 2016, 2018. Nothing’s changed.
That resonates with people. We have a mental health crisis right now in this country because of the pandemic.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller
GamesBeat: If you look at the Xbox Adaptive Controller, that feels like one of the biggest mainstream breakthroughs for both attention on the subject and also getting a product out there. What are some of your observations about how that happened? What kind of change had to happen that you saw within Microsoft in order to bring that about?
Barlet: The changes that had to happen, I squarely put on — as I told you, it’s some of these key events, these key things that happened that led us here. The drive for that, what moved that needle, is those internal advocates. There is a good group, Brannon Zahand from Microsoft, Bryce Johnson, a group of people that, even when their job wasn’t accessibility, they wouldn’t stop talking about it and the importance of it. I know they used our work and the advocacy we were doing to say, “Look over there. We need to do something about this.”
Microsoft being Microsoft, they have the money to do these things. But knowing the players and knowing the work that I did with Microsoft to get to the XAC, the truth is, that was the advocacy. That was those people that we met along the way that found themselves in a position to do something about it.
GamesBeat: It seems like there was a way of thinking that had to change. Consoles had always been proprietary. A game company like Microsoft had to come around to the idea that this controller could be open to other solutions that other people made. It didn’t have to make this a closed system in the way that all consoles are.
Barlet: That’s always been a challenge, always been an obstacle. What’s funny is that the base of this product here is a controller that we hacked apart because we needed the chip in it to bridge that proprietary gap. The reality is, we’ve always tried to say, “If you’re a player with disabilities, please game on PC, because that’s a more open platform.” But we would find ways to get around those hurdles.
A funny story, I was on Microsoft’s campus with our partners that helped us create these controllers, Evil Controllers out of Arizona. Microsoft had invited us to talk about some stuff. Evil Controllers and I were at this meeting. One of the Microsoft lawyers said, “You know we can sue you for making that, right? You broke an end user license agreement when you made it.” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “You’re welcome to sue me, but you’re suing a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities, so I’ll still probably win.” He chuckled, because his demeanor wasn’t, “I’m gonna sue you.” It was, “You know we can sue you?” He said, “You’re right. In the court of public opinion we would be raked over the coals.” I said, “Yep, you would.”
He asked us how many of those we made each year. I said, “12 or 14.” He said, “OK, no problem.” But there’s always been this — sometimes being a charity can be a superpower. I could look at a Microsoft lawyer and say, “Your move, Batman.”
GamesBeat: How do you align interests so that what you want becomes what they want or what other people in the industry want?
Barlet: My biggest conversation, going back to that advocacy and looking at people with disabilities in the market — when I would talk to developers, one of the first questions I would ask is, “Who makes games? Who wants to get paid making games? Who wants to make more money making games? Great, listen to my talk.” I told an economic story. It was always an economic story. I don’t know, because I don’t get into the console wars — I can’t not imagine that there wasn’t conversation — I’m not privy to this, but I know, if I know how these things work, someone said, “PlayStation isn’t doing this, so why don’t we do it, so we can be the first to bring a first-party controller to market?”
This isn’t the first of the first-party controllers. Nintendo made one back in the ’90s. But looking at the world we live in now, I’ll consider this one of the first first-party controllers specifically geared toward people with disabilities. I can’t imagine there wasn’t a conversation around, “Let’s beat PlayStation to this.” Or something like that.
Funded by gamers
GamesBeat: You’ve gotten to this point. What else have you set up as the goals to achieve to get further with this cause?
Barlet: Now we want to build capacity so we can help more players with disabilities get into the game. Being disabled is expensive. There’s not a lot of information out there. My next big move for the organization is that we’re growing. We’re eight full-time staff members and three part-time staff members. We’re growing as an organization so we can build more capacity to help more people so we can help more industry. The industry is now clamoring for help. As one of the by-products of helping more industry, we’re getting people with disabilities jobs in the gaming space. We’re creating a new role in the gaming space for people with disabilities in accessibility, helping align those things.
As I say, we’ve evolved. We have a complete vision of what AbleGamers will look like. It’s just a matter of that change management, growing in a strategic way that brings those impacts in a way where we can sustain it. Our biggest expense is payroll. When we bring a person on, we’re bringing professionals. Our next big hire is an occupational therapist with a Ph.D. Those don’t come cheap. Making sure we do that growth in a way that we can sustain with our donor base. My biggest heartbreak would be that we ramp up and we can’t raise the money to pay people and we have to start laying them off.
GamesBeat: Are streamers one of the best conduits for raising money?
Barlet: The streaming population is probably — up until the last 24 months, I’d say, this organization has been funded by gamers. By streamers, by people that watch streamers. Small-dollar donations made this organization what it is. I just added a $1 million thing, because we got Microsoft’s stuff. But I think until then — our average donation up until the Microsoft donation was $71. We’ve had big streamers and small streamers. This last week alone, streamers raised $27,000 for AbleGamers. This organization is funded primarily by gamers.
GamesBeat: Looking back on it, and seeing other people trying to do similar things, do you have any advice for them?
Barlet: I said this in the keynote that I did at Games for Change last year. Changing the world is hard. Grow a thick skin. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is not to wait for permission. Nobody will give you permission to change the world. If the world needs changing, that means you’re going to make enemies. It’s the way it is for a reason. Just keep going.
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