Out of a personal awareness, I always pay attention to accessibility and thus inclusion in everyday life, because all too often, even at a time when integration is very important, “handicaps” lurk for those affected. With smaller companies, like the tavern next door, it is annoying when you have to have your meal in the beer garden because there are insurmountable steps in front of the entrance, and sometimes a reason to choose a more accessible restaurant soon, but from global players and major events I expect a conscious approach to this sensitive topic.

For this reason I have decided to deal with the accessibility and inclusion understanding of Gamescom 2016 in Cologne in the following article. To show that a handicap should not be a reason to avoid major events. Rather, the organizers have to rethink their approach towards inclusion.

Gamescom - a brief overview

Gamescom is the world's largest trade fair for interactive entertainment, especially for computer and video games. It has been held annually in August on the Koelnmesse site since 2009 and has over 300.000 visitors under its spell. In addition, over 100.000 visitors visit the Gamescom City Festival in downtown Cologne. Here fans can expect a colorful stage program with national and international stars, gaming offers and catering highlights.

The accessibility of Gamescom - my own impression

If you can still stroll freely through the aisles and use the elevators on the trade visitor and media day, things will look a lot different the next day. Every aisle of the fair was teeming with interested parties, cosplayers and gamers. Every trade fair visitor wants to arrive at their favorite stand as quickly as possible in order to get a good seat in the queue of those waiting, because this is the only way to test games or receive exciting information without long waiting times. Even after the trade fair is open for a short time, narrow passages in the aisles become a torture for those who walk and a barrier for wheelchair users and those with walking difficulties that has to be overcome. Here people are pushing and shoving wildly with impatience; even when the security forces at Koelnmesse intervene in the action and attempt to steer the crowds in a common direction by cleverly blocking paths. Given the high number of visitors to Gamescom, it cannot be avoided that the described jostling occurs again and again. Many pedestrians try to avoid these situations by using the existing elevators. Apparently there are those who are considerate of their fellow human beings who are dependent on the elevator and willingly let them go first, and others who, in turn, jump in quickly and allow themselves to be transported leisurely to another level of the fair without the consequences of that to be considered, which can not so easily resort to the stairs.

Inclusion and accessibility at Gamescom - dream or reality
Inclusion and accessibility at Gamescom - dream or reality

Similar situations occur to me again and again on my way across the exhibition grounds. If there are mostly those who gently evade when a wheelchair user comes towards them or who take their time and do not insist on overtaking every traveling fair visitor with an annoyed comment in the crowd, unfortunately the behavior is exactly the opposite in some exceptional cases. I ask myself, is this due to the lack of awareness in our childhood when dealing with the “handicapped”?

In the queues in front of the stands, I can rarely find a wheelchair user and when I speak to one of the few, he says something that I had never considered before: “I can't sit for much longer, my butt hurts ! ". A wheelchair usually seems comfortable for us walking, but if we sit too long in one place, we can shift or get up differently. For many wheelchair users this is not possible and therefore a long waiting time, as is usually the case at the exhibition stands at Gamescom, can turn into a painful ordeal. I cannot answer this question whether the respondent still reached his goal on that day or had to give up beforehand, but I wish him so and ask myself, is that why I hardly see people in wheelchairs playing on one of the many PCs? Is inclusion still a foreign word in our society and do disabilities have no right to exist at a gaming fair?

Accessible gaming

On the other hand, there are organizations like the AbleGamers. On their homepage you can find a quote, which in my opinion every developer studio should take to heart: "I believe that there is nothing more powerful for people with disabilities than freedom that only videogames can provide." for people with disabilities than the freedom that video games offer).

Or gamers like Dennis Winkens, who is paralyzed from the neck down after a bicycle accident and is dependent on his wheelchair, but still insists on taking part in a fast-paced racing game duel at Gamescom. He overcomes his limitations with a joystick that can be controlled by mouth. The association Aktion Mensch also gave a lecture on the subject of barrier-free gaming at Gamescom: “Games without borders. Accessibility: How inclusive is gaming?”.

But have all the good ideas on the subject of barrier-free gaming already been implemented at this year's Gamescom or is there still a need for action towards inclusion?

Few of those affected want to give me the answer to this question - the fear of attracting attention seems too great. Nevertheless, three young men agreed to give me a short interview.

From life: Stefan with his cousin at Gamescom

Even many words cannot replace the impressions of the people who inevitably have to deal with the subject of accessibility. Not because they do it professionally, but because it is part of their life, their everyday life, to face challenges that others sometimes do not even notice. We asked, for example with Stefan, who visited Gamescom 2016 in Cologne with his cousin.

Inclusion and accessibility at Gamescom - dream or reality

Stefan with his cousin at Gamescom

Stefan: Yes of course! This is my second time here.

I see you're waiting for an elevator, may I ask you a couple of questions about accessibility and Gamescom's understanding of inclusion?

Stefan: There are ramps and elevators everywhere. I can go anywhere; that worked out well last year.

Do you have the feeling that you can easily explore any location at the trade fair and that you can always find a contact who will help you if you have a problem?

Stefan: If I want to try a game, it has always been possible so far. I didn't notice any problems. If someone offered me that I didn't have to wait that long, then I would accept that too. We just got here and my cousin is here for the first time. We'll see how it goes this time.

When you want to try a game, do you have the feeling that you can do it without any hurdles? For example, are there seats that are geared towards your wheelchair and can you bypass the long lines of people waiting?

A quick look at Stefan's Twitter profile suggests that the day continued as positively as it began. He describes his days at Gamescom as "damn awesome". Great!

Positive signs also from Carsten and Patrick

Now Stefan could have been a lucky hit, who was in the right queue at the right time at Gamescom 2016. So we had to ask for more opinions, like those of Carsten and Patrick, for example. 

I conducted the second short interview with Carsten and Patrick. The two young men struck me with their enthusiasm in the middle of the well-filled exhibition hall 5.2.

Inclusion and accessibility at Gamescom - dream or reality
Carsten and Patrick like to be at gamescom

Carsten: Nope, actually not at all. So far we've actually gotten everywhere we wanted to go. Just the commotion, you can hardly get through with a wheelchair. There are definitely enough ramps and such, and if you want, you can get help from the exhibition staff.

How do you experience Gamescom; is it designed to be barrier-free for you, or are “handicaps” lurking over and over again? What do you think of the number of elevators and ramps on the exhibition grounds?

Carsten: Not always. So really not at every booth! If we see that it fits and ask: "Can we test it", then we can come to the games through a separate entrance. We'll wait about ten minutes. That depends on how crowded the stand is.

And how do you experience the gaming possibilities? Have you been able to reach all the games without any obstacles so far?

Carsten: I would like it so much that all stands are barrier-free. You cannot climb the steps at most of the stands. You often ask yourself "are you really going to do this to you?"

Does anything have to change fundamentally so that the Gamescom 2016 experience becomes even better for you?

Carsten: Well, they often jump in front of the wheelchair. There is such a commotion everywhere. That's not great, but what can we do about it? I think we have time ... We go everywhere in peace and then that's okay.

How do other trade fair visitors react to you? Is consideration taken?

Patrick: Resident Evil 7! We've been to Tekken and Dragonball 2 too.

Carsten: Blizzard was cool too. You could roll in front of the stage immediately. That wasn't a problem at all. We just had to let them know. At Blizzard they are very friendly.

What have you already experienced and do you still want to try or see something special?

I would like to take this opportunity to once again expressly thank Stefan, Carsten and Patrick. You answered my questions very openly. It was a pleasure to interview you.

One opinion: improvements are welcome

As a personal conclusion, I have now got the impression that the goal of accessibility at Gamescom and in the gaming sector is far from being achieved, but that the trade fair organizers are clearly making an effort to set up an inclusive concept. Apparently, Gamescom and Koelnmesse are very progressive in their efforts to achieve inclusion, but there is often a problem elsewhere: at the booths of the game manufacturers. It is questionable if a person with a disability thinks about "not doing" a visit to a trade fair because they cannot access every game without barriers. Everywhere there are steps lurking for visitors to the fair. Most of the exhibition stands are built in the form of stairs and the lowest level can only be reached via one or even several steps. This is not only poorly thought out, it actually excludes this group of people.
I also find play stations that cannot be reached by wheelchair and little seating in the exhibition halls to be counterproductive. These would be of great relevance, especially for trade fair visitors who are quickly exhausted due to their physical limitations. All of these are points that should not happen at a trade fair of this size. Inclusion has to be a constant topic.

I will keep my eyes open for you at future events and hope that the topic of accessibility no longer has to play a major role at some point and everyone can enjoy their gaming sessions free of obstacles.

To come back to the initial question: Is accessibility at Gamescom a dream or a reality?

It's a bit of both.