Susan Paley, former CEO of Beats by Dre, founded the tech company DropLabs in 2019 with a first-of-its-kind sneaker that lets people feel sound. The innovative tech company partners with people in the gaming community, with a particular focus on meeting the needs of gamers advocating for greater accessibility and representation.
“We’ve worked a lot with the Deaf Community,” Paley said. “Everyone needs access. If you are getting immersed in a game and you can’t hear gunshots or footsteps, what does that do to your experience? Even PC players, they have to use voice if they have issues with their hands. How do you give people access and then democratize that access?”
Over the past decade, the gaming industry has confronted its deficiencies in both accessibility and representation. For gamers with accessibility issues—ranging from impaired vision or hearing to motor control—game developers are beginning to address ways to include accessibility options that allow everyone to play.
When developing their technology, Paley and DropLabs consulted with FaZe Ewok, a Twitch gamer and advocate for accessibility in gaming. “Being a deaf gamer, it’s hard to type to my teammates during the action,” Ewok said, “especially in a game like Fortnite. Pinging stuff is limited and I would like to see more options to quickly communicate stuff like target here (not just danger or warning), splitting mats, shields (not in an emote carousel but a quick button or hot key or something), and the ability to draw a route on the map so I could lead my squad and strategize better.”
“I am excited that companies like DropLabs are working to provide better accessibility for deaf gamers through the conversion of audio cues, like footsteps, into vibrations that you can feel,” Ewok said. “By working directly with the DropLabs team, I can start to shape the gaming experience for the Deaf and HOH gamer community.”
This kind of mutually beneficial collaboration is exactly what Paley hopes will drive changes in the gaming industry. “With Ewok it was a pretty incredible experience,” she said. “When we first gave the demo, I said to Ewok, do you want to listen to music, and there was no response because it was such a foreign concept. Then when we put the shoes on it was like, I can hear music. I can feel music. We were all in tears because we were enabling Ewok to connect into something that he thought he didn’t have access to.”
For Paley, consulting with people like Ewok is a two-way street; rather than Ewok helping Paley with their product, Paley sees it as how can he help gamers like Ewok. “We had an interface that we’d created, and what Ewok wanted to express was that he was looking for audio information in a 360-degree dimension. We only had sound in stereo. That’s the magic of giving someone a platform that they can then tweak. To see Ewok’s fingers on the keyboard was like looking at a jazz pianist. It just happened to be inputs. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen. It was musical.”
Many young gamers enter the gaming community and can quickly become overwhelmed. Paley and Ewok both said that mentorship is vital, not only to support individuals but as a means to changing the landscape of the games industry. “I think that a lot of young people in the gaming industry could use mentorship,” said Ewok. “We all make mistakes. However, with more guidance and shared knowledge we could make better choices. Our younger generation needs to be more mindful of what we say or do because it has an influence on others, especially on social media. Because mentors help improve our chances of success, the better chances we all have to represent ourselves. Also, they help improve the atmosphere in gaming, making it less toxic, and with more respect there is more room for embracing diversity.”
Paley sees mentoring—in particularly giving women a platform—as a crucial part of her role as a leader in tech. “I think it’s hard when you feel like you’re the only woman in the room or there are very few women in the room,” Paley said. “You feel that you have to prove yourself not just for yourself but for women in general. Women put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to not only succeed but to overachieve to clear a larger path for others.”
Mentorship in itself
Mentorship need not be a person-to-person engagement. Greater visibility in representation can be a kind of mentorship in itself. “People need to see representation,” Paley said. “For companies that really want to walk the walk and talk the talk, they need to look at their HR and hiring processes and making sure they’re open and accessible to everyone. And that they’re actively recruiting. It really starts with hiring policies and how you recruit and promote jobs.”
Simply bringing diverse people together in a room isn’t enough, Paley said. “If you try and fit everyone into the way things were done in the past but now you have more diverse faces there, you’ve missed the opportunity to rethink your entire process.”
“I am excited that gaming has brought people together from diverse backgrounds, and I feel that the more representation comes in the picture, the better we can tolerate each other,” said Ewok. “Not only tolerate but actually embrace and celebrate it. I want them to see that diversity makes it more interesting, and prove it to them that the experience, content, and everything are enhanced.”