Alex James Ryan (AJ) has always been unique. He grew up playing video games, watching Cartoon Network and Pokémon, normal interests for a boy growing up in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Unlike most children, he grew up relying on his feet to do the things a person’s hands normally would. Disabled from birth, AJ had to overcome this adversity and learn to live his life differently than most.
The 22-year-old AJ is now unique for his list of accomplishments. Winner of the AbleGamers Fellowship award, AJ has become an accomplished game developer that is making a conscious effort to spread awareness of the need for accessibility in game design.
AJ was born with Arthrogryposis, a condition that gave him weak or missing muscles and nerves throughout his body. This resulted in, among other things, the inability to use his arms. AJ learned how to type and play video games using nothing but his feet.
“To put it simply, I kind of have extra strength in my feet, and then I’ve also kind of adapted to use my feet as well,” said AJ. “So while I lost a lot, I gained a little bit.”
Even without the use of his hands, AJ has no problem playing video games. While he enjoys games like Super Metroid and space combat simulators, fighting games like Street Fighter 2 and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 are titles he’s especially proficient in.
“Actually, I don’t have any friends that can keep up with me in fighting games,” AJ said with a laugh, exuding confidence.
Confidence is a theme with AJ, who graduated this year from Northern Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Informatics, with a focus on game design. However, it wasn’t until late in high school that he decided to take up coding.
AJ’s original plan was to become a video game journalist. Concerns with the position, one of them being the travel requirements, led him to rethink what he wanted to do. Intent on pursuing something in the game industry, it wasn’t until he met an accomplished programmer did he decide game design was the path he wanted to follow.
“In high school, I met a programmer that made a lot of games I liked as a kid,” AJ said. “I’m like ‘you know what, I can do this,’ and he really inspired me to learn how to code and learn how to make games.”
That programmer was Jay Moon, best known for Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and NBA Jam for the Super Nintendo, the latter of which he’s featured as a secret character, along with the likes of former NBA All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Juwan Howard.
While AJ did go to school for game design, most of his knowledge of coding was learned during his own time. During college, he worked as a mobile developer at the Center of Applied Informatics at his University, taking part in the development of games such as Foster Jump and Slam Flash. According to AJ, most of his practice and methodologies came from his time with the program.
AJ relied on his passion for retro gaming and accessibility, combined with his experience developing mobile games, to take on his next project. Earlier this year, SEGA announced that it will officially support mods for SEGA Genesis on Steam. Being one of his favorite consoles, AJ decided to test his skills by creating accessibility mods for classic games he loved as a child.
What AJ did was create “Chill Edition” mods for games such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Golden Axe. These mods included infinite lives, extra time and tweaked elements of the games to make them easier, with the goal of allowing gamers to experience them at their own pace without fear of failure, a mode of play he also refers to as “God Mode.” While accessibility was at the forefront of his decision to publish these mods, the response he got was overwhelming.
“I thought I’d put a few out there and they’d get 10 downloads a piece and that would be the end of it,” said AJ. “I did a count and all of my mods have like, 10,000 downloads on them in total, and that was a few weeks ago.”
Interestingly enough, while the disability community embraced AJ’s “Chill Mods,” many other people took advantage of the eased difficulty to experience these games in full for the first time.
“The thing is, they’re not only for people with disabilities I found out,” said AJ. “A lot of the comments I get are like ‘Hey I can play with my son’ or ‘Golden Axe is way too difficult for me, even now as an adult.’”
AJ has his own ideas when it comes to accessibility, which he hopes to one day bring to a large development team to further accessibility in the industry. Among his ideas, AJ sees the success of his SEGA “Chill Mods” as a demand the industry isn’t capitalizing on.
“What I found surprising is that God mode isn’t in more games, because you can disable achievements and then just add God mode,” AJ said. “It’s not a really hard thing to add in, and I’m really surprised that it’s not in more games.”
While AJ admits Nintendo and their console UI designs feature too little accessibility, he pointed out the newly released Star Fox Zero as a game that includes a form of God Mode and is better for it.
Accessibility, AJ states, was one of the reasons he wanted to learn to code in the first place. He believes that while console accessibility has improved since options like controller remapping have been added to the Xbox One and Playstation 4, accessibility has taken a step backwards when it comes to the games themselves.
“I wanted to make sure that when I talked about accessibility in gaming, I could do it too,” said AJ. “A lot of these large companies think accessibility costs millions of dollars, nobody is going to use these features, all of these things.
“Really it’s not that hard, it can help out a lot of people, and I want to prove that to them.”
Now that he graduated college, AJ is focused on continuing work on his “Chill Mods,” taking on other small projects and padding his portfolio in hopes of landing a job with a big development studio in the industry. While he enjoys working at his own game studio, the accessibility focused Inclusive Games, he always has his eyes set on bigger things.
AJ was “ecstatic” when he found out he won the AbleGamers Fellowship award, which is funded by the AbleGamers Charity and aimed towards increasing diversity in the field of game design. AJ hopes the Fellowship will help him stand out to potential employers, doubling down on his desire to be unique among game designers.
“In what way can I make myself unique?” AJ asked himself. “Accessibility is what I picked, and I stuck with it. It turns out that a lot of people appreciate accessibility like I do.”
“There’s a lot of things other than the money that the Fellowship comes with. I’m really excited to meet all these great people and work with them on cool stuff.”
Champions of accessibility are few and far between in the game industry. AJ is unique because he sees accessibility as more than optional, but as an essential, positive force that helps millions across the globe enjoy video games. Alongside AbleGamers and their supporters across the industry, AJ is striving to change the conversation around accessibility and help make gaming a more inclusive hobby for all.
“They help so many people enjoy games who otherwise could not,” AJ said, speaking of AbleGamers. “Their work and reach definitely inspire me to make my games accessible to make AbleGamers’ job as easy as possible.”
One thing is for certain: not only are the things AJ works on “cool,” they also have a profound impact on thousands of people and their enjoyment of video games, from both the disability community and otherwise. With the AbleGamers Fellowship in hand, AJ is primed to enter the game industry as a champion of accessibility and the AbleGamers mission, helping to change lives and serving as a positive force from within.
We wish AJ the best of luck with all his future endeavors and heartfelt congratulations for winning the AbleGamers Fellowship. We look forward to seeing how he shapes the future of the industry in the years ahead.