Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Steve Spohn Able Gamers Interview (Dragon Age Day 2019)

Let's hear it for Dragon Age Day 2019!

In celebration of this year's Dragon Age Day online event, which takes place all over the world on December 4, 2019, as one of the co-founders of Dragon Age Day, I'm very excited to join them in shining the spotlight on our charity for this year, Able Gamers, and to talk to Chief Operating Officer Steve Spohn.

Able Gamers is an amazing organization, a charity working to improve the lives of gamers with disabilities utilizing the power of videogames. For Dragon Age Day 2019, 100% of this year's donations and charity auctions via Tiltify will benefit Able Gamers. Please do check out our Tiltify link here, and don't forget to visit their website for more information on getting involved!

Dragon Age Day founder Teresa joined me to talk to Steve a few weeks back, and that transcription follows below.

We're delighted to be here with Steven Spohn from Able Gamers, and to have Able Gamers as our chosen charity. It means a lot to us.

STEVE: Thanks for having us! We appreciate the support. Thank you so much for including us in this special day!

We're so happy to be supporting you. Now, for the benefit of Dragon Age fans—first off, you are already a fan of Dragon Age, right? And you played Origins?

STEVE: Yeah, it was one of the games that got me out of the online Star Wars games I was playing, and got me into the more story-driven games formats. I loved the characters and loved the game, and probably spent way too much time playing it.

How long ago did you play?

STEVE: Probably the last time was maybe seven or eight years ago. Origins was a game I really loved the most.

Everyone definitely has their favorite Dragon Age chapter in the trilogy!

STEVE: The accessibility aspect in Inquisition was a little questionable, so I wasn't as able to easily participate, so here's hoping they go back to some of those choices that made it easier for more of us to play.

Were you ever able to play Dragon Age 2 as well?

STEVE: Yeah, I played it. 

TERESA: That's my favorite right there. Yes, I am one of the rare people for whom Dragon Age 2 is my favorite in the series. I also really connected with the characters, and Fenris, specifically. 

STEVE: I know Fenris is popular with so many! Guys, gals, nonbinary, everyone loved Fenris... but you know... oddly enough, while Origins is my favorite game of them all in the series, my favorite character is Varric, from Dragon Age 2. He's my favorite Dragon Age character of all time.

I think we all want Varric on our side in life in general...

STEVE: You do. And actually, the only other time I've ever mentioned Varric was on a podcast with Danny O'Dwyer, and we were discussing a book I'd written that I don't talk much about—it maybe wasn't the best thing I'd ever written—but one of the inspirations for one of characters was Varric.

(laughs) Now I'm hoping EA doesn't sue my butt off.

TERESA: On the other hand, I'm sure that Mary Kirby, who wrote Varric, would be incredibly flattered to know that.

I love the fact that in Dragon Age 2, everything is at an eleventhe drama, the emotions, the characters. I love that it's so operatic.

STEVE: They did very well with the stakes, balancing the story, the beats, there's several instances where the story didn't bite quite enough, but Dragon Age is always especially good at that. How many of us have played an RPG and then quit because it didn't grab us? But Dragon Age always does.

It builds to this big great huge conflict and I felt it was very cinematic and well-done.

STEVE: I thought so too, but I miss playing Origins. I did like the way they flipped perspectives and gave us different ways to see the story.

Which Hawke is your Hawke of choice?

STEVE: Blue is always my favorite.

So you went for the kinder, more peaceful Hawke.

STEVE: In any game, so many times, I'm like, "This time I'm gonna go with the more evil or challenging answer..." and then I do... and I'm always... in Dragon Age and any other game, every time, I'll think, and yeah, maybe I'll go with the evil answer... 

And then I click it, and instantly, I'm like, "No, I can't do this," and go back.

TERESA: Oh, I feel that so much.

ANGELA: In my first playthrough of Origins, I killed Connor. I had no idea there was any way to save him, so boom, I killed him. And I still feel bad about that! I ended up going back 45 minutes in the story to make it right so Alistair would stop yelling at me.

TERESA: At least you didn't do what I did. I got attacked by Conner, and mis-clicked Alistair... and got the rose scene. With Connor on the floor between us.

STEVE (laughs): Timing is everything!

Steve, we're so excited to support Able Gamers this year, so can you tell us about Able Gamers and its mission for those who may not know about you?

STEVE: Absolutely. Able Gamers is a 501 (C)3 nonprofit charity that has been around for nearly 15 years now, and we're supporting gamers with disabilities by creating opportunities in order to help them combat social isolation, foster inclusive communities, and enhance quality of life. Our main initiatives include giving people with disabilities the equipment that they need to play, whether that is 3D printed, or it's just a piece of velcro on a table, there are lots of different accessibility options out there for everyone. 

We have various programs within our tiered support, where we take people through, allowing them to go from not knowing anything about videogaming, all the way to being a gamer, just like anyone else. We also have community outreach, which includes going to PAXes, and doing things like Dragon Age Day, and having community outputs to show that we are out there, that people with disabilities can participate, and want to participate in the gaming community. And it's really part of our core design, to incorporate this loving community into. 

And now we all feel this affiliation towards gaming, and it's all changed our lives in various ways. And that's really what it's all about. We're a gaming charity, we're a disability charity, we're a human charity. We're out there showing that it's all about family and friends, which is ultimately part of what being a gamer is all about.

We all like to bring it back to videogames, but at the end of the day, it's just a matter of you and me, connecting as humans.

What would you say the biggest difference is that Able Gamers is able to make in the lives of disabled gamers?

STEVE: There are 46 million disabled gamers in America today, alone. And that's a staggering statistic, if you think about that. It's everyone who watches the Super Bowl—plus some.

Wow. That's an incredible number.

STEVE: And that's just America. You start going worldwide, and the numbers quickly become even bigger. It's impressive, the numbers. And when we started doing this fifteen years ago, we'd ask people, we'd go to events and ask if they'd ever thought about gamers with disabilities, and most of them would say no. 

But it would vary. For instance, one person we talked to openly laughed at us... and walked away.

TERESA: What the—?

STEVE: Yeah, you know? 

But things have changed. Things have changed a lot. And now people realize how important it is to be able to game, no matter what your challenges may be.  So it's hard to pinpoint one big moment of change or one thing that helped one gamer, because we've helped so many, and each one's situation is unique and different.

We've got a great Player Research Division that does nothing but find out these amazing numbers. And it's now able to take a group of 500 gamers with disabilities and get them into our player panels program and give them opportunities for amazing companies, just like BioWare, the makers of Dragon Age, to come to us and say "Hey, we want to make sure our game is accessible." 

So then we may have twenty players with disabilities that we connect with them to see whether or not that game is accessible. So there are lots of different ways that Able Gamers is out there fighting the good fight for everyone.

As we rally the Dragon Age fanbase to support Able Gamers, what would you like to see our followers do to support your mission?

STEVE: It's always a matter of funding. So, you know, having a day like this can really help us to raise some capital for the charity. It costs $2.2 million dollars for us to run a charity like Able Gamers every year (with 92 cents on the dollar going directly to Able Gamers' missions and objectives). Every dollar counts!

$350 is the average cost of what it takes to buy or create one piece of equipment to help a single gamer to be able to play. But that total can go up to multiple thousands of dollars for someone who is profoundly disabled, for example. 

Meanwhile, outside of funding, there's also the need for awareness. Now, people are more aware nowadays than in the past, and the world is more welcoming of people with disabilities nowadays, and the gaming industry is more welcoming too. 

So our goal is really to keep working with great events like Dragon Age Day, so that there's more awareness, and so that gamers can play any game they want. Any of them. And one of the things I get to do is to get out there and help with that, and also to reassure disabled gamers that yes, people care. People care.

And the only way they can be guaranteed to know that is when you tell them, when your followers tell them, when you tweet out to them, "Hey, I care about people with disabilities, and I care about accessibility." And people listen. They really do.

For future reference, for our BioWare friends and other developers, what can be done to increase accessibility, and what could have been done, for example, on Inquisition, that maybe you would hope to see in Dragon Age 4?

STEVE: There are several answers to that, and it's a great question, because number one, in Inquisition, they changed the camera setting so that it was locked more behind in its focus. And that means you have to sort of control it more like a typical over-the-shoulder camera game, as opposed to isometric. And then what they could have done was separated out the mouse, uncapped it, so that it wasn't at a certain level, there's lots of things that could have been done with that game as an example. 

And there are very simple things you can do as a developer that don't cost a lot, and yet that would help billions of people be able to play your game, more easily, more readily, and more availably.

For the next game, I really hope BioWare goes to our accessible player experiences, and it's a free resource anyone listening can visit now, here.

Beyond Able Gamers as an organization, do you have any tips for how friends and families of gamers with disabilities can help them to enjoy more gaming options and better experiences?

STEVE: Absolutely. First, you have to ask them if that's what they're interested in. There's nothing worse than being helped by someone if you don't want the help. 

But if they do have interest in gaming, or you just want to show them how important it is, Able Gamers has a swathe of articles on the Internet to help you with that. You can just go to Google and type in "Able Gamers" and there are thousands of articles that may be a resource.

And it can be so transformative and fun! My favorite thing about gaming is playing a story and living it at the same time. So you are that car racing around the track, you are that mage trying to take down a dragon. It allows us to live a story in real time.

STEVE:  Lord knows, I wanted to marry Morrigan.

You and pretty much everyone, I think!

TERESA: I mean, my boyfriend already knows that if Fenris ever showed up at my door, he'd be like, "Oh. Okay." (laughs)

I have a list. I've blogged thousands of embarrassing words on my love for The Iron Bull and Solas.

Meanwhile, for gamers or fans who are disabled, and who would like to reach out to Able Gamers for help, what's the best way for them to do that?

Go to Ablegamers.org, then click on "Get Help," or go to https://ablegamers.org/our-services/ and people will see options to get accessibility help, to apply for a grant, and more. I also always encourage people to follow me on Twitter, on Twitch, and more.

Thanks so much for this opportunity to speak, Steve. It was great to learn so much about Able Gamers and what it's accomplishing. We're proud to support you for this year's Dragon Age Day.

STEVE: We always tell people, expand your world. One of our gamers plays in Street Fighter tournaments every year, and last year he was seventh overall, in the entire world. And he literally plays with just his face against the controller—plays, and beats people up. It's amazing.

So, you know, expand your world. If you've never met or hung out with a disabled gamer, seek that out, find out how someone else plays, and you'll see how much they love the same games you do. 

At the end of the day? We just want to make sure everybody can play.

All images courtesy of Able Gamers.

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