Finding Our Accessibility Collaborators

September 29, 2020 By Andy Robertson

One of my favorite things about working on the Playability Initiative is all of the incredible people I have met as I’ve been gathering knowledge and tools to share. I’ve been fortunate enough to find some amazing individuals to guide me and travel with me on this path. 

Photo of Andy Robertson as his desk. On the left is an screen capture of the Family Video Game Database website.

My role in the initiative is to create and add information to the Family Video Game Database ( that enables players to discover and search for games that match their needs. Early in this process, I realized that this was a mountain I would need to climb.


Even coming up with search terms was a challenge. What datasets would be the most useful? I began by asking questions on social media and reaching out to the accessibility community. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I found experts who kindly gave me their time and advice. With their help, my plan for how to add accessibility search terms to the database came together much more accurately and completely.


As I’ve moved from planning to implementing the database, this group has grown to offer advice not only on what information I should record but also the sorts of games I should add to the database. They have given me fantastic recommendations of games that reflect good practices of inclusive design.


This means that I have opened up the editing of the database to this wider group. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about having other people working on it. But it’s been brilliant. And again, the conversations that have arisen from collaborating on entering data have enhanced the content in many ways already.


Although we’re still early in the process, we now have 155+ games ( with accessibility information entered for them. I have only been able to get so far so quickly because of the generous support and time of a wide range of individuals.  I feel privileged to be working alongside all of them. The database is better because I met them, and it can be better still with your help.


The database is now ready to enable a wider group to contribute accessibility information and update the data for individual games. If you have suggestions of games to add, or you would like to play a role in adding accessibility data for games please do get in touch via this blog, via Twitter ( @GeekDadGamer) or email


Considering The One Who Needs More Time

September 24, 2020 By Amy Green

Part One – Cycling Menu Choices For Single Button Players

This week, Jack wrote a blog for the Playability Initiative telling everyone why he hates timers in games. Players like Jack can find themselves artificially barred from the fun when a timer interferes with their play experience.

Screenshot of Jack Freedman's Timer Blog post offering three suggestions on getting rid of time limits in games and keeping the game fun. 1. Instead of a timer, they could put in a limited amount of chances without a time limit. 2. They could measure how accurate I play instead of how fast I play. 3. If they had the same game without a time limit, I could finish the game whenever I want to.

In a world where physical environments often exclude people who have limited mobility, video games have the potential to open up the fun to everyone. Design choices that do not consider the abilities of the user may needlessly create an impassable barrier.  Design is all about who you consider. It is important for designers to ask questions like, “Who am I making this for? How do they interact with the world, and how can we make them comfortable?” As we design Painted Waters, we are asking ourselves these questions.

We have established a few key design constraints to ensure as many children with spinal muscular atrophy can play our game as possible. Our design constraints may change, but these are our current priorities.

Big Red Button (an example of a Switch)

  • A single button press or control switch controls gameplay
  • We never require the player to “press and hold” a button or control switch
  • We never require quick-response, repetitive button pressing (button smashing)
  • We never penalize the player for slow reaction times 

Many games require the player to react quickly to the events on screen, and if instead the player reacts slowly, their reaction is flagged as a mistake. We aspire to create a game that is just as much fun for players with slower reaction times as it is for those who are able to respond quickly.

For Part One in this blog series, we will show you one style of cycling options for players that we are considering. We’ll be illustrating these principles using napkin sketch animations. In Part Two we’ll share how we’re adapting these principles to the design of levels and features in Painted Waters.

The One-Switch Player:

Some players are physically unable to use traditional gamepad or keyboard controls. These players may rely on buttons or levers that they control with their hand, mouth, or eyes. These controls are known as Switch Access

An animated image portraying a cycling keyboard. The user waits for the orange outline to select the desired letter, and uses the switch to type out a message.

To accommodate this style of input, the game can present the player with a set of choices.  The player can cycle through the choices, and activate their switch to select their desired choice.  This process can take a long time, especially with a large number of choices. In the following examples, we’ll share some different cycling patterns we are considering when designing our game.


Example One: The Automatic Cycle

Visual example of automatic cycling. A frog is rotating between 3 plates of food, a bad banana, an apple, and a piece of cake. The frog rotates to face each plate of food at a rate of 2 seconds per plate. A timer displays for the user to know when they can tap. An orange button shows the user selecting the cake plate.

Automatic cycling means that between the three choices presented here, the banana, the apple, and the cake, the game will automatically rotate the frog to point at each choice after a given amount of time.  When the frog points at the choice the player wants, they hit their switch to select the cake!


Pros to The Automatic Cycle:

  • This works very well for a limited set of choices.
  • The time between choices can be adjusted to suit each player’s needs.
  • It only requires one tap of a switch to select the desired choice.


Cons to The Automatic Cycle:

  • If a player misses their selection, they have to wait for their desired choice while the game cycles all the choices again.
  • More choices take much more time to cycle through.
  • If a player selects the wrong choice, there is no way to undo their selection.
  • Multiplayer games often put players with slower reaction time at a disadvantage against those who are able to react quickly using a different input method, or players whose physical response is more reliable.


Example Two: The Automatic Cycle with Increasing Time Between Choices

Visual example of automatic cycling with increasing time between choices. The same frog is rotating between the same set of plates. This time the visual timer waits longer, the longer the player waits. The first three cycles of plates are 1 second apart, the next cycle 2 seconds, the third 3 seconds, until the orange button is pressed, selecting the cake.

This Automatic cycling with increasing time between choices is almost identical to the previous method, with one variation. The longer the player waits, the slower the choices cycle.


Pros to The Automatic Cycle with Increasing Time Between Choices

  • This method provides a good balance between increasing efficiency, and lowering the risk of the player selecting a choice they don’t want. If a player wants to play fast, they can, or they can take their time to make sure they select the choice they want.


Cons to The Automatic Cycle with Increasing Time Between Choices

  • For players who want to play fast, they could grow frustrated by having to wait for a longer period of time whenever they miss their desired choice.


Example Three: The Manual Cycle with 2 switches

Visual example of manual cycle with 2 switches. Same frog, same plates. This time the orange button cycles which plate the frog is looking at, the yellow button selects the cake.

Manual cycling with 2 switches means that the player uses one switch to cycle between choices, and another switch to select their desired choice.


Pros to The Manual Cycle with 2 Switches:

  • The game can eliminate any time pressure placed on the player.
  • Selecting the wrong choice is unlikely, because the player selects the choice controls when the choices switch themselves.


Cons to The Manual Cycle with 2 Switches:

  • This method requires a player to press a switch once for every choice they cycle through and again for the selection.  In a set of 5 choices, this can mean 6 or more switch activations. For players with decreased motor function this increased pressing can cause fatigue and discomfort.
  • This method requires 2 switches, which increases the need for players to both pay attention to the game, but also focus on moving their hand or finger to another switch.  For players who experience difficulty moving their limbs, or with impairment in depth perception, this task can take longer to complete as well as cause increased fatigue.
  • The player’s game setup may only have one switch, or the player may only be able to use a single switch reliably. This method would exclude all players who do not have access to two unique switches or who are unable to control two switches reliably.


Example Four: The Manual Cycle with 1 Switch

Visual example of manual cycle with timeout. Same frog, same plates. This time the user presses the orange button to select which plate the frog looks at, however to select the cake, the player stops pressing the orange button long enough for the timer to run out and select the cake automatically.

Manual cycling with one switch allows a one-switch player to select their desired choice reliably, by only switching choices when they activate their switch, however it can reintroduce time pressure on the player because if the player does not choose to cycle to the next choice by pressing their switch before the timer runs out, the system assumes they are making an intentional selection of the current choice.


Pros to The Manual Cycle with 1 Switch:

  • Accessible to the one-switch player.
  • Selecting the wrong choice may be less likely, because the player advances the cycling themselves. 
  • The player can focus on the screen, and not the physical switch, since they don’t have to alternate between 2 switches.


Cons to The Manual Cycle with 1 Switch:

  • This method can cause increased fatigue in players, since they have to activate the switch more times to complete simple tasks.
  • Younger players may find it difficult to wait, as they tend to enjoy pressing buttons rather than waiting for the timer to “fill up” and confirm their choice selection.
  • A player may “run out of time” and accidentally select an unintended choice.


Example Five: The Undo

Visual Undo example. Same Frog, but only 2 plates, the apple, and the cake. The frog is automatically cycling between each option at a rate of every 2 seconds. This time the player presses the button to select the apple. A message is displayed asking if the user wants to undo? The player selects undo by pressing the orange button before the timer runs out.

The undo is an option you can add to any of the above methods to make sure the player is able to correct their choice, if a mistake has been made.  A built in undo within the game gives the player the opportunity to go back and select the choice they desire.  In this animation, there is still time pressure to click at the correct time, however if the player activates the switch at the wrong time, they can activate the switch again to select the other option before the Undo timer expires. To finalize their choice, they have to push the switch  to select their choice and then wait for the undo time to expire.


Pros to the Undo:

  • It is unlikely the player will be stuck with an undesired choice.

Cons to the Undo:

  • Undo can slow down gameplay. If every selection must be “confirmed” by the player a second time, it doubles the selection time. Every choice requires the player to wait for the undo timer to expire.


The Eye Gaze Player

Eye Gaze players have the benefit of quick reflexes. Our eyes can move fast! However, players typically can’t play as fast as they move their eyes.  Just looking at something on the screen doesn’t mean they want to move their avatar, or attack an enemy on the screen. The game needs to know what the player intends to do with their eyes.

Eye Gaze systems often use onscreen dashboards to control the player’s intent.  

Visual representation of an eye tracking dashboard. The image displays 6 buttons, one for left click of a mouse, one for double click, and 4 arrow keys to move the mouse cursor incrementally across the screen.

When the player wants to move their mouse cursor, they may select a “move mouse” option, or when they want to “double click” they may select the “double click” option, and then look where they want to double click.

When designers don’t think about the time it takes for a player to comfortably input what they want to do, then game design can penalize these players or leave them out.  


In Jack’s case, he had to move a cursor a little bit at a time across the screen using buttons like the ones represented in the image above. Then, he had to look at a different screen to determine if his mouse was in the correct location for what he wanted to do.  For a timed mini-game, it didn’t matter that Jack knew how to play and knew how to solve the puzzle, the time limit didn’t wait for Jack’s eyes.

In Part 2, we’ll share with you some of our design considerations for reducing timer dependency in the action and movement of the game. We’ll also discuss how our level design and game play consider those who need additional time. We want to make sure that Painted Waters is fun for everyone to play together.

Jack’s Gaming Column: Why I Hate Time Limits in Games

September 22, 2020 By Jack Freedman

My name is Jack Freedman and I’m 25 years old. I have a disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. My muscles are too weak to use a computer mouse or the keyboard that comes with the computer. I use Eyegaze. 

A timer counts down

Eyegaze is a computer system that I use with my eyes.  A camera reads the way my eyes move. I select a letter or symbol by holding my gaze on that place.  There are two computer screens, one for the game and one for the Eyegaze keyboard or mouse control. I can use my Eyegaze to type and to move my cursor and to move and click my mouse.  I play games using my (Eyegaze) keyboard and mouse. I can play some games independently, but sometimes you have to be quick, and then I need help!

When I have a time limit in a game, I have to ask other people to help me because I have to be quick. I can’t be quick because I have to look back and forth between my Eyegaze screen and my computer screen.  It’s too fast for me to do two things at once with my Eyegaze when there is a time limit!

It feels frustrating to me when I ask other people to help me with a time limit because I’m not quick enough to play the game independently.

Jack Freedman smiling
Jack Freedman


Here are a few ways that I think game designers could get rid of time limits and still keep the fun: 

  1. Instead of a timer, they could put in a limited amount of chances without a time limit. 
  2. They could measure how accurate I play instead of how fast I play. 
  3. If they had the same game without a time limit I could finish the game whenever I want to.


Introducing the Family Video Game Database!

September 3, 2020 By Amy Green

Finding Accessible Video Games To Meet Your Needs

Last week we introduced you to Jack Freedman, our friend with SMA who plays video games using an eye tracking system. This week we are introducing Andy Robertson, who is working with us to support gamers like Jack.

In our early conversations with Jack’s dad, he told us that he and Jack took countless trips to Game Stop as Jack was growing up. They’d pick games up off the shelf and study them, making their best guess at which games Jack might be able to play. More often than not, they’d get their selections home, open them up, and discover that the games weren’t accessible enough for Jack to play and back they’d go to try to buy different games. The whole process was incredibly frustrating for Jack and his dad, but trial and error was their only option at the time.

I’m happy to report that times have changed. The internet has allowed people to share information and recommendations much more easily, STEAM and other digital stores offer free returns. A little of the guess work has been removed from the process of finding great games for players with unique needs. However, we think more can be done.

The Playability Initiative is partnering with the Family Video Game Database to create searchable, curated lists of video games. The Family Video Game Database was already offering lists of games for parents on topics like “hope through play, games that encourage reading, games you can play that commit no violence, games that help you be a good neighbor, and the lists of games you can search for is constantly expanding based on user requests.

A selection of games from the Family Video Games Database

The Playability Initiative is now sponsoring the database to add even more lists of games that offer great accessibility features. So now you can also search for games “designed to be easier to see, designed with deaf and hard of hearing functions, and games designed for reduced motor function.”

We’re excited to introduce you to Andy Robertson, a family video game journalist who created this database because he loves helping families find new ways to play games together. He will be sharing blogs with us all about the database, and how he’s curating new lists of games, as well as what he’s learning about accessibility in games during this process.  

He would love to hear from you in the comments on our blog or through the Playability Intiatiive facebook group to find out what kind of parameters you want to be able to search for on his database.

“Having only scratched the surface on helping people find games with great accessibility features, it’s exciting to be able to now make accessibility data an integral aspect of the Family Video Game Database,” says Andy Robertson, our partner in this endeavor.  “Whether you want to find games where you don’t have to hold down buttons, have resizable subtitles, visual prompts for audio cues or with customisable difficulty, the database will soon support these features and more.”

“Video games are now a normal part of childhood and growing up. It’s therefore crucially important that we minimise the barriers to play so that as many people can enjoy and benefit from these imaginative worlds, competitions, collaborations and communities as possible.”


Jack’s Gaming Column: A Game I Wish I Could Play

August 11, 2020 By Amy Green

(editor’s note: Yesterday we introduced you to Jack, our first collaborator from the SMA community. For today’s article, we asked Jack to tell us about a video game he wished he could play. He took to Steam, browsed the library and picked out a game that looked like fun to him, and here’s what he shared with us about that experience.)


A Game I Wish I Could Play

By Jack Freedman


My name is Jack Freedman, and I’m 25 years old. I have a disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. My muscles are too weak to use a computer mouse. Because of that, I use Eyegaze. Eyegaze is a computer system that I use with my eyes.  A camera reads the way my eyes move. I use my Eyegaze to type and to move my cursor and to move and click my mouse.  I play games using my keyboard and my mouse. I can play some games independently, but sometimes you have to be quick, and then I need help!


The game I wish I could play is called Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit.  I found the game on Steam.  The driving looks like fun to me. I would like to play it because it would be entertaining and fun for me!

Jack and Need for Speed on SteamI tested out the game on Steam, and it didn’t work for me because it required a keyboard. Sometimes the keyboard on my Eyegaze works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Some games work and some games don’t. I can’t play the game at all. I feel disappointed!


For me to be able to play Need For Speed, the controls would have to change from the keyboard to the mouse. If the controls were with the mouse, I would be able to do it on my own independently.


I wish that I could play this game all on my own!



We wish Jack could play a racing game all on his own too. So, we thought maybe our community could help us solve this problem for Jack. Do you know of any racing games on Steam that can be played with Eyegaze that don’t require a keyboard? We’d love to hear your suggestions for Jack.

Jack’s Gaming Column: Meet Jack

August 11, 2020 By Amy Green

Meet Our First Contributing Writer, Jack Freedman

This is Jack. Jack has a condition called spinal muscular atrophy. Over time, SMA has affected Jack’s ability to control his muscles, including his ability to breathe independently. SMA hasn’t stopped Jack from having a job, connecting with his friends on social media, or doing what almost all 25-year-old men love to do, play video games.

When Jack was little, his parents made his first computer setup which enabled him to play games on his own. They created slings for his arms so that he could hit the buttons to interact with the Living Books he liked to play, without having to support the weight of his arms. Once Jack had played through all the Living Books, he entered the world of Freddie Fish, Spy Fox, Pajama Sam, and all the other memorable characters from Humongous Entertainment’s  popular video games.


As Jack grew, his physical limitations increased, but his parents kept learning new ways to help him play the video games he loved. His dad, Al Freedman told us about all the trips they took to GameStop, searching for games they hoped Jack could play. They’d look at the video game cases, wondering how much Jack would be able to play the games on his own, but they would never know for sure until they purchased the games and took them home. More often than not the games wouldn’t work for Jack, but since they didn’t have a better system for finding accessible games, they always found themselves returning to GameStop to start the search over again.

Now, Jack plays video games using eye-tracking. He’s learned what games work best for him and found some favorites. He’s played every Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie game, always on the hunt for a new Hardy Boys or Sherlock Holmes mystery game to try out. However, even his favorite games have moments that block his progress. People love games because they get to make the choices themselves; nothing kills the fun faster than when Jack has to ask his mom, dad, or nurse to help him pass a level simply because the speed of his eye-tracking input wasn’t fast enough to beat a timer in the middle of a game.


Jack Playing Nancy Drew with Eye Gaze 


When we watch Jack play video games, it makes us want to work even harder to create video games that gamers like Jack can play with their friends and family, without assistance.

As we keep developing Painted Waters for children with SMA, we’re counting on gamers like Jack to ensure Painted Waters is a fun game, not a frustrating game. We’ll also be enlisting the help of gamers in our Playability Initiative community to help us solve design challenges to make our games more fun and inclusive for everyone.

Jack is our first collaborator from the SMA community. His column on the Playability Initiative Blog will focus on sharing the games he is passionate about with all of you. Tomorrow, we’ll share Jack’s first post where he tells us about a video game he wishes he could play.

Press Release – Announcing The Playability Initiative

July 16, 2020 By Ryan Green

News Release
July 15, 2020

For Press Inquiries
Ryan Green
Co-Founder Numinous Games
+1 (303) 249-8245

One-Button Adventure Game Offers Gateway To Hundreds Of Accessible Video Games

Des Moines, IA  – Numinous Games announced The Playability Initiative today at the annual Games for Change Festival. The Playability Initiative seeks to collaborate with the accessible gaming community to connect players to video games designed and adapted with their unique abilities in mind while challenging more designers to think inclusively. The Playability Initiative is made possible through the financial support of AveXis, a Novartis company. One-Button Adventure Game Offers Gateway To Hundreds Of Accessible Video Games

Through The Playability Initiative, Numinous Games will collaborate with the spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and disability community to create a new video game. Painted Waters will be a free, one-button multiplayer adventure game for kids designed to nurture togetherness, activate empathy, and celebrate creativity through play. 

Numinous Games will partner with The AbleGamers Charity to design a special game mode within Painted Waters that helps assess the player’s abilities. This diagnostic game mode will suggest adaptive technology resources to serve the player’s needs and games that may be suitable for the player as they venture beyond Painted Waters gameplay. 

“Children deserve the right to play,” said Steven Spohn, COO of The AbleGamers Charity. “At AbleGamers Charity, our mission is to enable play to combat social isolation for people with disabilities. We’re thrilled to support Numinous Games in creating a digital playground that allows children with disabilities to express themselves creatively, flex their imaginations, and most importantly, to play, just like anyone else.”

In addition to creating a new game, Numinous Games, through The Playability Initiative, is supporting the Family Video Game Database ( to offer new accessibility search filters in their rapidly-growing database of family-friendly games. These expanded search filters will empower parents and adult advocates of children with disabilities to find customized suggestions of games that will work for their children.

“Every child has different tastes and needs for video games,” said Andy Robertson, co-founder of The Family Gaming Database. “Finding suitable games for a child with a disability has additional considerations. Do buttons need to be held down? How much rapid motor function is needed? Can you alter the contrast? Can you adjust captions and subtitles? With support and guidance from The Playability Initiative, we are adding detailed, searchable accomodations for games in our database to empower parents and carers to make informed decisions.” 

Numinous Games will be collaborating with Games for Change in this year’s G4C’s Student Challenge, offering an accessibility modifier to the organization’s youth-facing annual games design challenge.

“Today, we have the tools and technology to create games that adapt to the needs of the gamer, and the new Playability Initiative further fortifies a mindset where inclusivity is the nucleus of all game development,” said Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change. “We believe the addition of the accessibility modifier to the annual G4C Student Challenge will inspire our student developers to imagine new and inventive ways to draw all people into the games’ community fully and authentically.”

Numinous will be working with Games for Change to create Playability Initiative teaching materials that will help designers of the future think inclusively in their projects.

“Numinous Games believes that a truly inclusive design begins with seeing the inherent value of every single player. As a studio, we aim to love the players who society tends to push to the margins,” added Ryan Green of Numinous Games. “We want to design a game and initiative that honors and considers those players from the very beginning. We are thankful to partner with AveXis to bring The Playability Initiative to life.”

Numinous Games invites parents, advocates, and therapists interested in adaptive gaming to sign up to receive the Playability Adaptive Gaming Newsletter for accessible game reviews, adaptive technology resources, and more. For visitors who are interested in becoming collaborators in the Painted Waters game design process, the Facebook group for the Playability Initiative will provide updates and opportunities to collaborate. To sign up for the newsletter, visit


The Playability Initiative Media Contact Information:

Contact: Ryan Green

Title: Co-Founder Numinous Games

Phone: +1 (303) 249-8245


For more information, please visit:


Numinous Games is an award-winning independent video game, serious game, and VR studio inviting players on a journey of cultural renewal, through meaningful interactive experiences which explore the heart of human interaction.

Numinous’s first title was the BAFTA and G4C award-winning experimental narrative game That Dragon, Cancer, which mixed expressionist environments, autobiographical narrative, and documentary audio into a creative non-fiction video game about a little boy named Joel Green.

Numinous has continued its innovative work in health, working with Novartis to release Galaxies of Hope, a neuroendocrine cancer patient, caregiver, and physician narrative experience.

For more information, visit:


The AbleGamers Foundation is a 501©(3) charity that wields the power of video games to break down the barriers of economic and social isolation for people with disabilities. Through received support and donations, AbleGamers provides disabled gamers with assistive technologies (including their Expansion Pack program) that allow those with limited real-world mobility to experience what it is like to walk, run, climb, drive and even fly – in a virtual world.

For more information, visit:


The Family Gaming Database is created by a small enthusiastic team of parents and carers. They write succinct information about each game for other parents and carers who may be new to gaming. Each game page has a single non-jargon explanation, how long it takes to play, costs and in-game purchases or loot boxes, detailed ESRB and PEGI age-ratings and accessibility provision. Games are arranged in searchable Netflix-style lists to help parents find games around different themes.

For more information, visit:


Games for Change (G4C) has been empowering game creators and innovators to drive real-world change, using games that help people to learn, improve their communities, and contribute to make the world a better place. G4C partners with technology and gaming companies as well as nonprofits, foundations and government agencies, to run world class events, public arcades, design challenges and youth programs. G4C supports a global community of game developers working to use games to tackle real-world challenges, from humanitarian conflicts to climate change and education.

For more information, visit:


AveXis, a Novartis company, is the world’s leading gene therapy company, redefining the possibilities for patients and families affected by life-threatening genetic diseases through our innovative gene therapy platform. Founded in 2013 and headquartered in Bannockburn, IL, the goal of AveXis’ cutting-edge science is to address the underlying, genetic root cause of diseases. AveXis pioneered foundational research, establishing AAV9 as an ideal vector for gene transfer in diseases affecting the central nervous system, laying the groundwork to build a best-in-class, transformational gene therapy pipeline. AveXis received its first U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in May 2019 for the treatment of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). AveXis is also developing therapies for other genetic diseases, including Rett syndrome, a genetic form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) SOD1 and Friedreich’s ataxia. For additional information, please visit

Focused on What Our Kids Can Do!

July 15, 2020 By Amy Green
A memory from seven years ago popped up on my Facebook feed. It was a video of my son walking. I watched it twice with the sound turned all the way up – absolutely captivated. Watching the video, some people may find themselves focusing on all the things he could improve on. Some might feel pity. A few might even watch his clumsy efforts and say to themselves, “what a shame.” His gate was uneven. His steps were clunky. His balance was precarious. But when I watch it, all I see is everything Joel was able to do. 

I see a little boy who learned to walk with a tiny gold walker, a boy who took his first steps at the age of three. He often gripped his shirt tightly in his fist as he walked, because he was so unstable on his feet that he needed the security of having something to hold onto. Even if the security he sought was an illusion. He didn’t just learn to walk once. He learned to walk several times after tumors put pressure on his spinal column, and the pain stopped him in his tracks. 

This video, in my “memories feed,” captures the first steps we’d seen him take in three days. We had been preparing for a road trip, a precious luxury after years of cancer treatment that kept us tethered to the hospital, never more than an hour away from the help Joel might need. But while he was terminal, we didn’t have active treatment to consider, and every now and then, we could whisk the children off on an adventure if Joel was doing well. He had just finished a series of radiation treatments. We couldn’t wait to escape. But we had begun to notice issues we tried hard to ignore. Was Joel walking a little less? A subtle wince shifted Joel’s eyes anytime he moved around. He fell after a few unsteady steps – not surprising, but not reassuring. And then two days passed without Joel taking any steps at all. Sometimes with cancer, you know before you know. Neither my husband nor I wanted to be the first one to question if we should cancel our plans.

But on this beautiful day, he rallied. All the worst case scenarios we tried not to imagine were chased away by the sight of our son up on his feet, exploring the neighborhood. And so I press play again. I watch his clompy feet stomp. I listen to his giggle as he “runs.” I remember the trip we didn’t have to cancel – the ribs we ate at a roadside bbq restaurant, Joel’s brothers jumping around on hotel beds as he laughed, not quite able to join in the fun but adding his merriment to the mix, and I remember Joel, climbing every step at the Lincoln memorial, as he held my hand, with fireflies beginning to light up the sky. The holiness I felt inside that sacred space mixed with the gratitude I felt that I had been allowed to witness this boy take each daunting step to the top. 

Joel Eating Wings | Joel and his brothers snuggling | Visiting The Lincoln Memorial

I play the video again, and I notice how Joel barely negotiates the curb, carefully managing his balance. And then he puts his hand on his head for a moment. Why? I wonder now, as I consider him and all he managed to do. Did his head hurt? Did he feel dizzy? He couldn’t tell me. He never spoke.

There was so much he couldn’t do. But we focused on all the things he could do because every ability he displayed resulted from a hard-won battle. Every shaky step was a victory.

Today, we are announcing the Playability Initiative at Games for Change. It’s an initiative that has our whole heart because it allows us to focus on the abilities of children like Joel, who may not be able to leap and run and dance and sing, but we know that everything they can do is a precious gift to the people who love them. We are designing a video game for “the one.” The one others may not see. The one that may get brushed aside so we can serve the majority. The one who the shepherd might leave the 99 for. And what if this one can only move a single finger, ever so slightly? Can we imbue meaning and joy and connection to that child’s ability? We can. We just have to be willing to consider them, to see value in their abilities, and believe they are precious enough to warrant our efforts. Because of Joel, we see all of these “ones,” and we don’t think, “what a shame,” we think, “look at them go!”

If you want to join us in considering children like Joel, follow our journey in the Playability Initiative by joining our Facebook group, and signing up for the Playability Initiative newsletter.