Game On: Combating Social Isolation using Video Games

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on December 18, 2020 # Technology, Mobility, Lifestyle

By guest blogger Mark Barlet

2020 has not worked out as many people had hoped. Many people made new year plans that could not be fulfilled because a virus upended the entire country. Countless people are learning what social isolation really is as commutes vanish, game nights move to the virtual world, and so many things that were considered routine become challenging, to say the least.

I’m going to let you in on a dirty secret. For so many profoundly disabled people, the social isolation that many have struggled with during 2020 was no different than any other year. Social isolation is something we’ve been combating every day of your life. The truth is for many people with disabilities, social isolation is an ongoing epidemic.

With that said, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Mark Barlet, and I’m a service-disabled Air Force Vet and the Founder and Executive Director of AbleGamers, an international charity. Our mission is to enable play, in order to combat social isolation, foster inclusive communities to improve the lives of people with disabilities. That’s a really fancy way of saying we work to make video games accessible so that everybody, regardless of ability, joins this rich amazing world and incredible communities that are built around them.

Friendships are built around shared experiences. If you look at the friends you have in your life, there was one commonality that connected the two of you. It could be you went to school together, you worked together, you worshiped together, you root for the same team, you are family, or you met them through another friend. We do not walk up to random strangers and ask to be friends. We build friendships on shared experiences and things we have in common. For people with disabilities, there is the added challenge of having a disability, of being different before you even try to connect.

Enter video games.

Video games are a great equalizer in our modern world. It is an arena where the rules are set by the game creator, and your abilities in the real world have little effect on your enjoyment in the game. But more importantly, modern video games are all about fun, but how you define that fun changes dependent on who you are. For many, the fun is really about connecting with one another in the community and accomplishing shared goals. Most importantly, from the start, you know something about the people you are playing with and play the same game you play. You have a shared experience that you can build a friendship on.

In my own life, I used video games to stay connected with my friends that had moved away. I have made friends who I met in a videogame. 20 years later, we are still friends. I have watched his kids grow up and go off to college. We do not play the same games, but our friendship is still strong.

This is why I founded AbleGamers 16 years ago because I knew the power of videogames, and we have worked tirelessly to advocate for people with disabilities. At first, it was to make sure that my friend Stephanie and I could keep playing in EverQuest and beyond. I knew that a well-crafted video game and an okay internet connection meant that I could combat my own social isolation and those of my friends. People with disabilities would have an outlet for fun and connection where the first thing that is noticed is your skill or contribution to the goal and not your disability.

About Mark Barlet

As the Founder and Executive Director of the AbleGamers Charity, Mark Barlet champions for the rights and inclusion of people with disabilities in the videogame space as a tool to combat social isolation. For most of his adult life, Mark worked in software development for various US Government agencies, including DHS, FBI, and the IRS. While balancing the demands of critical government work, he founded AbleGamers 16 years ago when his best friend since childhood saw videogames being taken from her because of Multiple Sclerosis. That powerless feeling started Mark on a journey to change the game industry. Challenging a multibillion-dollar industry to create new and exciting games that kept the needs of people with disabilities in mind. As we enter the golden age of game accessibility, Mark and his team at AbleGamers continue to fight so everyone can game.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.