By PAUL LONG
If you grew up playing arcade-style video games in the 1980s – iconic games like Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man – chances are you probably wouldn’t recognize the games being played today.
Of course, the technology behind those games has progressed far beyond what was even considered possible a generation or two ago. And perhaps the biggest difference is that most of today’s most popular games aren’t just tailored to one or two players; rather, they enable several players to participate. And those players don’t have to be in the same room, sitting side by side sharing a controller.
In fact, thanks to the Internet, they don’t even have to be on the same continent.
Whether you’re a veteran player or a newcomer, part of the widespread appeal of gaming is its social aspect. Many players look forward to the social interaction with their fellow competitors as much as they enjoy playing the game itself.
Mark Barlet, the founder and president of the Charles Town-based AbleGamers Foundation, is one such player. About 15 years ago, gaming was a Friday night ritual for Barlet and two of his friends, Stephanie Walker and her husband Albert.
Barlet had known Stephanie since childhood, and he knew Albert from their days in the Air Force. The couple hit it off after Barlet introduced them in the mid-1990s, and they have been together ever since.
In 2001, Stephanie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her condition eventually served as the catalyst for the AbleGamers Foundation.
One night, she was unable to log on for her usual Friday night gaming session, and in an effort to help his friend, Barlet searched online for information about gaming with disabilities. He found nothing.
That lack of information inspired Barlet to see what he could do to help people with disabilities, and in 2004, AbleGamers was launched.
According to its website, www.ablegamers.org, the charity “provides direct person-to-person services, assistive technology grants, community grants and access to data,” while helping people “afford expensive technology which allows them to participate in gaming experiences that improve their overall quality of life.”
The charity also strives to help disabled veterans see “how gaming can help them reconnect with friends and enjoy activities they enjoyed prior to being injured.”
Today, Barlet, with help from a small staff and a handful of volunteers, oversees a charity that has served more than 56 million disabled people worldwide. He travels extensively, speaking to Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft and Yahoo about improving accessibility for disabled gamers.
The charity’s staff includes two people based in Charles Town. Barlet also has staff members in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and its vice president, Dr. Christopher Power, resides in the United Kingdom. As is the case for many larger companies, modern technology makes the physical distance between staff members largely irrelevant.
Mark Barlet grew up in Texas and in Florida. He served in the Air Force and was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base when he asked his realtor to help him find an affordable home within commuting distance of Washington, D.C. The realtor suggested Jefferson County, and Barlet has been here ever since.
Barlet still makes the trip to the nation’s capital on a regular basis for his day job with the Department of Homeland Security. Between that position and his extensive work with AbleGamers, Barlet doesn’t have a lot of free time. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s so rewarding,” he said recently while recounting a story about one youth who has been able to put his life back together through gaming following a catastrophic injury.
The biggest challenge for Barlet and the AbleGamers staff, he said, is that everyone is working 110 percent and the funding isn’t available for him to add employees. He’d prefer to focus available resources on providing services to clients.
For many disabled people, gaming has served as a bridge that enables them to connect with able-bodied people. One wheelchair-bound college student, Barlet said, made friends with a group of classmates after hearing them talking about a particular game in which he happened to be an expert. Once the student mentioned the game to his classmates, they saw him not as a man in a wheelchair, but as a fellow gamer, and enduring friendships were formed.
According to Barlet, 68 percent of American households have at least some gaming equipment at home, and that doesn’t even count the millions of people who play popular games like Candy Crush or Words with Friends on their phones.
And, he added, gaming helps people connect in ways that popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram do not.
“What is so important is not the game,” said Barlet. “The game is the shared experience. Gaming is real-time communication.”
The contact between gamers, he added, is active rather than passive, whereas a Facebook post or a tweet is passive because it relies on other users to comment and share it.
Gaming can also be a huge benefit for people with disabilities who live in rural areas where public transportation is often not readily available. Currently, Barlet said, the cost of a wheelchair-accessible van can run anywhere from $45,000 to $60,000 or more. It’s an expense that’s simply out of reach for a lot of people, so many handicapped individuals become physically isolated from other people as a result.
But online access can make a huge difference for people in that situation, which is why Barlet believes that access should be a basic human right.
“An Internet connection is a window to the world,” he said.
Much of Barlet’s focus in recent years has been directed toward educating game manufacturers on the need for improved game controllers. Earlier this year, some of his efforts paid off when Microsoft released an accessible controller.
“That’s a big milestone,” Barlet said. “I used to try to convince game designers there was a market there. (I told them) Americans with disabilities have $1 triliion in disposable income; why wouldn’t they want a part of that?”
That accomplishment was personally rewarding for Barlet, since it meant he and his small staff were able to affect change in the $64 billion gaming industry.
“Four passionate people made that change happen,” he said.
The work done by the AbleGamers Foundation has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, Barlet received the Paul G. Hearne Award in Leadership for People with Disabilities from the American Association of People with Disabilities.
The following year, according to www.fitness-gaming.com, the AbleGamers Foundation was honored by the Multiple Sclerosis Society with the da Vinci award for best product in the category of Communication/Educational Aids for Includification, as well as the Leo Award for receiving the most views and likes at the da Vinci Awards website.
With the Microsoft breakthrough behind them, Barlet said he and his staff will now focus on creating new controllers and continuing to work with clients to give them what they need. They will also conduct research to help provide game designers with real-world advice from people with disabilities.
Anyone who is interested in the work of the AbleGamers Foundation can visit its lab at 179 E. Burr Blvd., Suite Q, Kearneysville. The facility is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and by appointment on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Donations can be made at the foundation’s website.