Interview: Steve Spohn from The AbleGamers Foundation

AbleGamers is a nonprofit charity that aims to improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.

The SF&F Binge Reader Bundle gives you the option to donate a percentage of the purchase price to AbleGamers. While that bundle won’t be around forever, future bundles on both StoryBundle and BundleRabbit will offer this option as well – and you can always donate directly to AbleGamers. 🙂

Meet Steve!

Hi! I’m Steve. I’m the COO of AbleGamers, and a 36-year-old from Pennsylvania with SMA, a terminal form of Muscular Dystrophy, which slowly makes you unable to move any muscles. My life experiences are what have guided me to be able to talk to you, and I’m grateful for that.

The Interview

How has the ability to play games improved the lives of the players you’ve helped?

Steve: Video games provide a different form of improvement for everybody that we help. For some, improvement can be defined as the ability to interact with the world – an inaccessible world which has excluded them in some way. By providing a means to interact with their community and loved ones, we’re improving their lives by introducing a new way to feel included, loved, friendship, and to be valued. For others, it’s a way of regaining a sense of independence; being able to completely care for yourself in a virtual environment beyond the likes of anything the real world can provide.

For each person is different; it’s a blend of those improvements and many others. When your mind is willing and your body isn’t able, video games provide a window into an otherwise inaccessible world.

What kinds of technology are used in the customized equipment?

Steve: We have hundreds of different options. There are dozens of controllers, thousands of switches, and a plethora of possible combinations. We have devices that allow someone to play with only one hand, with only their mouth, or even their eyes – combinations of every ability someone possesses.

Do you offer standardized solutions, or tailor each solution to the individual?

Steve: Little bit of both. There are some fantastic controllers on the market made by partners of AbleGamers and allies to help the cause of supporting people with disabilities. And those standardized solutions, or off-the-shelf solutions, as we call them, can be manipulated and adapted to suit many environments and individual situations. Then, if none of the off-the-shelf solutions will work, we get to work designing something custom for that particular individual based on their particular set of challenges.

So, in a way you could say all of our solutions are tailored to the individual. It’s simply a matter of how much customization is needed for each situation. Some people need $10,000 worth of specialized gaming equipment, while others might need a $20 trackball and some Velcro to open up an entire world of gaming.

How much does it cost to create/provide customized equipment?

Steve: The average set up costs approximately $350. That’s taking into account people who need a lot of assistive technology and those who need minimal support. Overall, the average for one controller is around $350.

What types of accessibility issues have you seen, and what should game developers consider in order to make their games playable by everyone?

Steve: Each individual who comes through our doors, physically or virtually, has a unique set of challenges they deal with in everyday life. We have seen people who have trouble reaching a single button, holding a controller, and even a few that need technology more advanced than what is currently available.

That is where software comes into play. Sometimes hardware isn’t enough in and of itself. Game developers have to step up and make their games as accessible as they can so that we can do our jobs and give people the ability to access those games.
There are many things that game developers can do, and that’s why we established our game accessibility guidelines of Includification – a free 50 page guide to game accessibility for developers and anyone who wants to know more about how to develop games that include people with disabilities.

What types of games are the most popular with your players, and why?

Steve: RPGs and MMOs are the easiest to play. They have inherent accessibility in their design. While racing/sport/fighting games are often entirely based on fast reflexes, RPGs are usually more about strategy, allow slower play, and include the ability to group with others. Playing games with others isn’t only a social boost, it’s also a way to conquer many disabilities.

How many people has AbleGamers helped to date?

Steve: We don’t have an actual number of people helped because the number is determined by what metric you use and nearly impossible to pinpoint.

AbleGamers receives approximately 20-50 requests for consultation per week by email and phone. Every Tuesday and Thursday, grant specialists go through 5-20 cases currently waiting in queue to be assisted after the initial consultation. And there are hundreds of cases waiting in queue. Every Thursday, Friday, and some Saturdays the AbleGamers headquarters is open for people to walk in without an appointment and try out accessible equipment.

We answer dozens of questions on social media each day. Plus our articles on our website give insight into how to play games with your disability without contacting us and waiting for help. An untold number of people utilize the changes that we have asked game companies to include in their games. And things like systemwide remapping on consoles, which was a result of the awareness-raising initiatives deployed by AbleGamers and allies, add an extra layer of mystery. If someone was helped by one of the software or hardware changes that we have made in the industry, we may never know that we help them because they are off playing games and not contacting us for help.

Not to mention our expansion packs, which are mobile video game arcades set up with accessible technology and placed into hospitals, long-term living facilities, and rehabilitation centers that may see 1000 people a year.

So, you can say that we’ve helped tens of thousands of people in various ways. Dozens of people every week, and hundreds every year, depending on what the definition of help really is.

How do you find people to help/how do they find you?

Steve: We go to conferences in the video game industry, which allows gamers to see that we exist and spread the word about our services to their friends who may be disabled or who know someone who is who also wants to play video games. We go to disability Expos where people who are disabled come to view technology that can give them a greater quality of life, introducing people to the fact that they can play video games even if they are disabled.

But for the most part, people find us through word-of-mouth or Google. Occasionally people are introduced to us from mainstream places like CNN, or grassroots efforts like book bundles.

We don’t really go searching for people with disabilities. When someone needs us, we’re always available, always ready to help.

Do any of the customized solutions use machine learning to help address the player’s disabilities?

Steve: So far, all of the customized solutions are the result of game accessibility experts taking the time to individually assess someone with a disability who needs help.

How does gaming help people with disabilities connect to other people (with or without disabilities)?

Steve: Something I’ve been fond of saying recently is that video games are the façade AbleGamers uses to help people reconnect to one another. When you have a mind that’s willing and a body that’s unable, video games are a window into an otherwise inaccessible world. In fact, video game researchers have determined through long-term studies that most gamers who play massively multiplayer online games do so for the social aspect. While there certainly is a need for the game to be fun, people will play video games long past the time when they are bored or tired of playing them, if there are people in those games who continue to draw them in.

AbleGamers is a quality-of-life charity. Whether you view what we do as giving people independence, so that they can interact with the world around them through virtual worlds, or as providing a way for people to have a greater slice of the human experience, including love, loss, and a sense of accomplishment, our charity is built from the ground up to give people with disabilities a chance to live life the way they see fit.

Are there disabilities that can’t be addressed by today’s technologies?

Steve: Not enough technology exists to help blind and deaf gamers. There are limited things we can do to help, but the research and development costs of finding these options are expensive. We wish there were more options available.

What types of technological improvements would allow you to help more people, and/or would make the gaming experience even better?

Steve: Virtual reality is a real pickle of an option. For some, it’s a godsend; allowing people with disabilities to enjoy and experience things that they would’ve never been able to do otherwise. But for others, virtual reality is a nightmare; yet another experience where being disabled precludes the enjoyment and fulfillment of participating in a new technology.

We continue to work with virtual reality companies in hopes that the technology will evolve to be more inclusive towards people with disabilities in the very near future.

What do you personally like most about being part of AbleGamers?

Steve: As cliché and cheesy as it sounds, my favorite part is helping people. I used to be a low-level professional gamer, and then when my disease progressed to a point where I needed help, I found AbleGamers. While utilizing the technology available to continue gaming would’ve been an acceptable option, the enjoyment I received from helping others experience the same things that I had already gone through was completely priceless.

How can people help AbleGamers?

Steve: As a charity, we depend on the generosity of amazing people like you. The average cost of helping one of our gamers is only $350. That means we only have to get 350 people to donate one dollar. It’s the small things that add up.

Spreading the word about AbleGamers, telling people who need our help, and even talking about it on social media, are all things that anyone can do for free that help change the world a little bit at a time.

Find The AbleGamers Foundation

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Bundle story: “The Flipside #4: Eagle Eyes” by Valerie Brook


 
Nine-year-old Max has always noticed things that other people don’t see. That’s why he’s been told he has the eagle’s eye.
 
But when Max witnesses something scary that no one else knows, will the eagle’s eye be a burden or a guide?
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The Flipside #4: Eagle Eyes” is in the Haunted bundle. You can learn more on BundleRabbit, Goodreads, and the bundle’s Facebook page.
 


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About the Author

When Valerie was a little girl her parent’s television blew out one night just as the news broadcast ended. For some mysterious and fateful reason, they never fixed it. Not for five years. And during those five years her mother read to her nearly every night; filling her head with distant lands, magical creatures and heroic courage. This seeded Valerie’s childhood dream to be a writer. Now, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family and well-loved pets. When she’s not writing she can be found painting, riding motorcycles, or dreaming about living on an old-fashioned farm.


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Add a border to an image in Photoshop

Here’s an example of a situation where you might want a border around an image…

This is the very first book cover I ever designed. I spent hours and hours picking the artwork, font, and colors, ordered a paperback proof, made even more tweaks, and then I finally published it. I’m not sure how long it took me to realize that the fact that there was no border around the image meant the cover blended in to the nice, white background of its sales page. Oops…

Prerequisites

  • You have Photoshop.
  • You have an existing image in a psd file.

How to add a border around your image

These instructions will place a border on top of the existing image, like a picture frame where the frame covers part of the picture. If you’d instead like to have a border but not cover any of your image, you can resize the image or canvas size and then add the border.

Note that this is only one of the many ways to add a border to an image.

  • From the top menu bar, choose ‘Select’ and then click on ‘All’. A line of moving dots will appear at the edges of your image. This line is often referred to as the ‘marching ants’ because it looks like a bunch of tiny, electronic ants are walking around your selection.
  • From the top menu bar, choose ‘Edit’ and then ‘Stroke.’ A dialog box will pop up.
     

     
  • Select the desired color and width, but leave the location set to center. (See below for examples using different widths.)
  • From the top menu bar, choose ‘Select’ and then ‘Deselect’.

These instructions also work to put a border around a layer – the only difference is that you should select the layer, not ‘All’.

Examples of different border widths

After experimenting with border sizes, I went with a 2px black border. Anything thicker than that looked a little too hefty on some of the platforms I tested it out on.
 
Here’s how it looks on Amazon.
 

 
For comparison, here’s the same cover with no border, then 2px, 10px, 20px, 30px, and 40px.

I didn’t resize the canvas/image, so if you look closely you’ll see that as the width of the border increases, it covers that much more of the image. That’s easy to fix, just remember to keep this in mind.

Photoshop version

The version of Photoshop used for this post was the 2017.1.1 Release of Adobe Photoshop CC, 20170425.r.252 x64, on OS X 10.10.5.

   
 

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Bundle story: “Familiar Trouble” by Bonnie Elizabeth

Witches, familiars, and demons clash in this Halloween adventure.

Solitary Wiccan practitioner, Leanne, loves Halloween and dressing up for the children. She never loses sight of the fact that it’s a holiday. Unfortunately, as she’s preparing her late evening spells, someone calls up a demon who lands in her yard.

Fortunately for Leanne, her cat knows more about magic, real magic, than she does. Unfortunately, the young women who have called the demon hate the idea of having to send it back.

Even with Bast’s help, no one can be assured of success or even living through the conflict!

“Familiar Trouble” is in the Witches’ Brew bundle. You can learn more on BundleRabbit, Goodreads, and the bundle’s Facebook page.


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About the Author

Bonnie Elizabeth started writing fiction when she was eight years old. Fortunately that manuscript has long since been lost.

In between a variety of odd jobs, including working as an acupuncturist, Bonnie wrote articles about acupuncture and the business of being an acupuncturist for a variety of acupuncture journals. She also blogged as her cat while transitioning to her real love of fiction writing.

She writes the Whisper series, which begins with Whisper Bound, and has a number of other fantasy, urban fantasy and mystery projects in the works.


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Making a background transparent in Photoshop

There are lots of reasons why you might want to make the background of an image transparent.

Perhaps you have an image with a white background that normally appears on a white page, but you know it might appear on a page where the background is gray. Or maybe you’re combining multiple images into one, and you need to remove the original backgrounds in order to make the result look seamless.

For the cover for “To Be a Monster,” I combined two different images: one was a drawing of a Greek ship, and the other a drawing of an octopus.

The octopus image originally had a white background; I made the background transparent so that I could work just with the octopus itself, not the blocked-out rectangle. Then I was able to drag the octopus around, moving it pixel by pixel, until I found the right spot for it.

I could have changed the background from white to black, but then would have had to be careful that I didn’t accidentally cover up a corner of the ship with the black portion of the image.

Prerequisites

  • You have Photoshop.
  • The background of your image is a solid color.
  • Your image is stored in a layer in a psd file.

How to make a background transparent

To illustrate how this works, I’ll use this lovely image I created. 🙂

  • Select New/Layer/Layer From Background.
  • Select the Magic Wand Tool from the left panel in Photoshop.
  • Click on the image area you want to be transparent using the Magic Wand Tool. A line of moving dots will appear around your image and the edges of the layer, depending on where your image is. This line is often referred to as the ‘marching ants’ because it looks like a bunch of tiny, electronic ants are walking around your selection.
  • Once selected, click ‘Delete’ on your keyboard.
     
    The solid background color will disappear, and will be replaced by a white and gray checkerboard pattern. This is to indicate that there is nothing in the image where that pattern appears.
     

There are other variants that will achieve the same result as well. 🙂

Photoshop version

The version of Photoshop used for this post was the 2017.1.1 Release of Adobe Photoshop CC, 20170425.r.252 x64, on OS X 10.10.5.

   
 

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Bundle story: “Learning the Language” by Ron Collins


Gerald Riggs has been a good father and husband. He’s lived a good life, a safe life. He’s stayed between the lines. He and his wife raised their boy to be the same way. Now that Daniel’s matured, finished school, and gotten out on his own, he’s gone missing. Gerald has to look past the obvious to discover why.
 
The answers may change his life forever.
 
 
 
 
“Learning the Language” is in the Fantasy in the City bundle. You can learn more on BundleRabbit, Goodreads, and the bundle’s Facebook page.
 


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About the Author

Ron Collins is an Amazon best-selling Dark Fantasy author who writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction.

His fantasy series Saga of the God-Touched Mage was the #1 best-selling dark fantasy on Amazon’s list in the UK for a couple weeks (#2 in the US). His short fiction has received a Writers of the Future prize and a CompuServe HOMer Award, and his short story “The White Game” was nominated for the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2016 Derringer Award.

He has contributed a hundred or so short stories to professional publications such as Analog, Asimov’s, and several other magazines and anthologies (including several editions of the Fiction River Anthology Series).

He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and worked to develop avionics systems, electronics, and information technology before chucking it all to write fulltime–which he now does from his home at the foothills of the Catalina mountains.


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Manage your Instagram account via your Facebook page

Managing your Instagram account via your Facebook page links your two accounts.

Note that it does not mean your Instagram posts will show up on Facebook – that’s a completely separate topic.

Prerequisites

  • You have an existing Facebook page (note that you must be an admin or editor of this page).
  • You have an existing Instagram account.

Why set this up?

Allowing your Instagram account to be managed via your Facebook page gives you the ability to do the following from Facebook:

  • Edit your Instagram account details.
  • Manage comments on your Instagram posts. This means that comments will show up in your Facebook Notifications, and if you’re using the ‘New Inbox’ on Facebook, you’ll see something like this where you can quickly go to messages sent via Messenger, comments posted on Facebook, or comments on your Instagram photos.
     
    Here’s a peek at how easy it is to distinguish between post types using Facebook’s new inbox.
     

     
    You can also manage comments via the Pages Manager app, which is available from Apple’s app store and the Google play store.
     
  • Create and manage Instagram ads.

How to manage your Instagram account via your Facebook page

  • Go to your Facebook page and click Settings in the top right-hand corner.
     
  • Click on “Instagram” in the left-hand sidebar. The Instagram management options will appear on the right side of the screen.
     

     

    • To connect your Instagram account:
       
      Click on “Log in,” enter your Instagram account details in the pop-up window, then click “Log in.”
       

       
    • To edit your Instagram details:
       
      Click “Edit,” modify your Instagram details, then click “Save.”
       
    • To disconnect your Instagram account from your Facebook page:
       
      Click the “Disconnect” button at the bottom of the screen.

References

   
 

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Bundle story: “Roses Around the Moment” by Dean Wesley Smith


Eve Bryson died so fast that she felt fine, standing on a twisting mountain road in the rain, not realizing her body lay broken in her Miata down a slope.

Then hunk-of-a-man Deputy Cascade steps into her life, arriving on the scene to investigate her death.

Wet, cold, hungry, and needing to pee, she finds herself dead and in lust. Then things really start to happen.

Eve died. And life got better.
 

“Roses Around the Moment” is in the Haunted bundle. You can learn more on BundleRabbit, Goodreads, and the bundle’s Facebook page.
 


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About the Author

Considered one of the most prolific writers working in modern fiction, USA Today bestselling writer Dean Wesley Smith published far more than a hundred novels in forty years, and hundreds of short stories across many genres.

At the moment he produces novels in several major series, including the time travel Thunder Mountain novels set in the Old West, the galaxy-spanning Seeders Universe series, the urban fantasy Ghost of a Chance series, a superhero series starring Poker Boy, and a mystery series featuring the retired detectives of the Cold Poker Gang.

His monthly magazine, Smith’s Monthly, which consists of only his own fiction, premiered in October 2013 and offers readers more than 70,000 words per issue, including a new and original novel every month.

During his career, Dean also wrote a couple dozen Star Trek novels, the only two original Men in Black novels, Spider-Man and X-Men novels, plus novels set in gaming and television worlds. Writing with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch under the name Kathryn Wesley, he wrote the novel for the NBC miniseries The Tenth Kingdom and other books for Hallmark Hall of Fame movies.

He wrote novels under dozens of pen names in the worlds of comic books and movies, including novelizations of almost a dozen films, from The Final Fantasy to Steel to Rundown.

Dean also worked as a fiction editor off and on, starting at Pulphouse Publishing, then at VB Tech Journal, then Pocket Books, and now at WMG Publishing, where he and Kristine Kathryn Rusch serve as series editors for the acclaimed Fiction River anthology series.


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Adding a Goodreads books widget to your author website

This is a simple way to add a Goodreads widget to your author website.

Prerequisites

You already have a Goodreads author profile, and have at least one book associated with your profile.

JavaScript must be supported by your website’s software.

What’s so great about this widget?

The HTML is already formatted, so you get a nice-looking set of mini-book covers and links to your books on Goodreads. Both the cover and title of each book go to that book’s page on Goodreads.

You could create this on your own, of course, but it’s nice to have the tiny version of the image (50×75 px) created for you, the links are already set up so you don’t have to go look them all up, and everything is nicely formatted so the covers are left-aligned and there are horizontal line breaks in between the entries.

Another nifty thing is that whatever color you have set for hyperlinks (I use a light green on my author website) will be applied.

How to add a Goodreads books widget to your author website

  • Log in to Goodreads and go to your author dashboard.
     
  • Click on ‘Author Widgets’ in the right sidebar.
     
  • Scroll down until you get to the ‘Books Widget’ section.
     
  • Customize the parameters, and hit enter. The result will be displayed to the right of the HTML box.
     
    Note that if you change the number of books the example that is displayed will match the number you selected, but the HTML in the text box will not. Information on how to get around this is in the ‘customize’ section further down in this post.
     

     
  • Copy the HTML in the text box, and paste it wherever you want it on your website.

Exactly where you want this text to go will depend on what software you’re using for your site, how that software is organized, etc.

In my case, I’m using WordPress and have several custom sidebars set up, so I added my books HTML to one of the sidebars, then have a plugin set up so that my other sidebars reuse that chunk of code so it’s only in one place.

Are there any issues to be aware of?

There are several issues with using this widget.

  • The Goodreads site implies that you can set the number of books that will appear in your widget, but this doesn’t appear to be working. My widget code contains information for only 5 titles. When you increase the number the correct number of books appears in the example on the Goodreads site, but it doesn’t appear in the HTML they provide to you.
     
  • There’s a note on the Goodreads page stating “Books are ordered by popularity on Goodreads,” which makes sense. However, one of the five books that appears in my generated HTML hasn’t been released yet, and several others that have been released and have reviews don’t appear in my HTML.
     
  • The text you’re copying/pasting is fixed, including the reviews and ratings – so if these change you need to re-generate the HTML on Goodreads.
     
  • The generated HTML contains a link to your Goodreads author page, and looks something like this:
     
    Jamie Ferguson’s books on Goodreads
     
    There’s nothing wrong with this, but it might not fit the way you want your website to look. For example, this came out as much larger font in my sidebar than I wanted.

But never fear! You can customize your HTML!

How to customize your HTML

This requires either a trivial knowledge of HTML, or a bit of bravery on your part. 🙂

Here are examples of a few things you might consider doing.

  • Remove or modify the link to your Goodreads author page.
     
    If you look at the generated HTML, you’ll see something like this.
     
    <a style=”font-size: 1.3em; color: #382110; text-decoration: none;” href=”https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3285253.Jamie_Ferguson?utm_medium=api&utm_source=author_widget”>Look at my books!</a>
     
    You can remove this entirely, customize the text, font, etc.
     
  • Add more books to your HTML.
     
    Presumably the 5-book limitation is a bug and will eventually be fixed, but here’s how to add more books to your generated HTML.
     
    Change the number in the settings on Goodreads’ page to something larger so that the book(s) you want to put in your widget are listed. Then look at the page’s HTML, find the <div class=”gr_book_container”> section for the desired book(s), and copy/paste it into the HTML on your site.
     
    Here’s an example of one of my books using Chrome’s developer tools to look at the source.
     

     
  • Remove the reviews and ratings.
     
    You can leave these in if you’d like, of course, but you might want to take them out if you don’t like the fact that the numbers are fixed until you copy/paste the next version of HTML from Goodreads.
     
    For each book, remove the section that looks like this:
     
    <div class=”gr_review_stats”>
    ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)
    </div>
     

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Bundle story: “This is the World Calling” by Dayle A. Dermatis

Tansy and Ki come from two of the most powerful witch dynasties—and the feud between their families puts the Hatfield and McCoys to shame. So why, then, did their parents not care when the two would run off and play as children, lost in their own little world?

When they meet again as adults, Tansy and Ki’s mutual attraction makes it vitally important that they find the answer to that question.
 

“This is the World Calling” is also part of Uncollected Anthology, Volume 3: Heartspells.

“This is the World Calling” is in the Witches’ Brew bundle. You can learn more on BundleRabbit, Goodreads, and the bundle’s Facebook page.


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About the Author

Called “one of the best writers working today” by bestselling author Dean Wesley Smith, Dayle A. Dermatis is the author or coauthor of seven novels and more than a hundred short stories in multiple genres, including the first seven Uncollected Anthology anthologies and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel Ghosted. She is a founding member of the Uncollected Anthology project.

A recent transplant to the wild greenscapes of the Pacific Northwest, in her spare time she follows Styx around the country and travels the world, which inspires her writing.


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