When I started work on my Thesis for the honors program at Arizona State University I expected revelations about the computer gaming world and the social significance of MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games). However, I never expected that I’d stumble upon information that could literally re-define and enrich the lives of individuals with physical disabilities.
The quote that got my attention came in the form of a response submitted to the survey I had posted as part of my thesis work. The open ended response came from a Canadian man in his late 30s who reported working in the government/civil service industry. The gentleman reported,
“My current group of onlie friends have run our own forums and closed site. We have become teh RL equivalent of friends – we share stories, opinions, heartache, and frustrations. Some have met (who are usually more local). I personally am profoundly deaf – most MMOS use text chat thus it make conversing and socializing easier than voice.“
The last sentence in particular really struck me as significant and also shows that – not only can MMOGs serve as a beneficial tool for the disabled, but even today it already is serving in that capacity.
While recently news coverage has started to shift, coverage of online gaming (I’m talking Orcs and Elves not Blackjack) typically revolves around mal-adjusted, antisocial, violent youths. While I’m a firm believer that that type of coverage is a disgusting distortion of reality – the issue I’m writing about today deals with a very different type of gamer. It is my belief that online games – specifically massively multiplayer games – such as World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, SecondLife etc. are a gift to individuals with disabilities.
The sad reality is that America is a beauty obsessed nation. Beyond that though, humans in general typically experience discomfort when initially interacting with individuals with disabilities. For many that discomfort can cause them to shun, flee, or avoid situations where they might have the opportunity to interact with individuals with disabilities.
Now, to be clear – when I say MMOGs are a gift to individuals with disabilities I’m talking about anyone with a physical disability that would still allow them to engage in game play (e.g. the ability to see the screen and to enter keyboard commands). On the flip side of that I’m not just talking about people confined to wheel chairs or their beds. I’m talking about severe burn victims, the deaf, people with severe allergies – anyone who faces obstacles while trying to communicate with other people.
The magical thing about MMOGs is that they are virtual, immersive worlds. They are not about individuals escaping human interaction, but rather built from the ground up around human interaction and community building. These rich virtual environments result in relationships every bit as rewarding as your normal real world ones, the only thing they lack initially is face-to-face interaction. So, where in the real world an individual with severe hearing loss effectively loses the ability to socialize with anyone who does not know sign language, in the virtual world they can once again communicate, socialize, and interact on equal footing with millions of individuals spread across hundreds of countries. Where an individual with bad facial scarring might have trouble/be self conscious while trying to interact in face-to-face environments, in the virtual world they are once again judged solely on their personal merits.
I cannot help but feel that, especially now, in a time of war when we have thousands of wounded soldiers returning to civilian life that more should be done to look at the legitimate social merits of the MMOG community. These communities offer incredible potential. Not only as opportunities for the disabled to branch out and socialize, but also as a tool to help break down the real world walls between those who don’t understand or are scared of the disabled through mutual exposure and interaction.