Pixels and Policy looks at how one disabled gamer is suing the developer of Everquest for alleged discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Does the Americans with Disabilities Act Apply to Virtual Worlds?Alexander Stern is suing Sony, the developer of Everquest, under a new interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Act prevents those with disabilities from being discriminated against by mandating accessibility standards in everything from telephone communication to hotel accommodations.
Now Mr. Stern argues that the ADA protections against discrimination extend to accessibility in virtual worlds. As Stern's legal filing argues, Sony is holding out on the disabled:
Sony is denying persons with disabilities equal access to the goods and services Sony provides to its non-disabled customers through each and all of Sony's computer game software products and each and every upgrade, sequel, and patch.
In Stern's opinion, every patch and upgrade to Everquest and other online games that doesn't include explicit accessibility features for the disabled constitutes a willful violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an AllGov.com write-up of the Stern filing points out, this case provides an interesting legal opporunity - the Americans with Disabilities Act was authored in 1990, before the widespread availability of virtual environments.
Does the ADA apply to virtual environments? Tough call. Title IV of the ADA governs telecommunication, which is where virtual worlds are likely to fall. This is the section that mandated accessibility of telephones to those with hearing disabilities. Phone companies responded by creating telecommunications relays - real people mediating calls for those hard of hearing.
Employing a real person to play an avatar for a disabled user would be a considerably more complicated hurdle.
What Stern's Lawsuit Could MeanIf a court agrees with Stern, big developers may have quite a bit of work to do. As we've seen, developing worlds for the blind meant radically reconsidering what constituted a "virtual environment," but worlds like Second Life have shown admirable flexibility in integrating the disabled community into regular gameplay.
The lawsuit could also mean that the federal government could soon be taking a much closer look into the operations of virtual worlds. If the Stern lawsuit becomes a public issue, legislators will feel pressed to stake out a position on just how far into the Metaverse the tendrils of government can reach.
Washington already has a small interest in the regulation of virtual worlds – if a claim for Americans with Disabilities Act protections hit the headlines, politicians would almost certainly ramp up their schedule of technology-related hearings. As attention to the issue grows, so will the potential financial downside to developers like Sony and Blizzard.
Pre-empting a possible fervor by working on a series of best practices related to ensuring access to virtual worlds for all potential users would be a smart move. Will developers respond?