When Twitch streamer DrDisrespect won the Trending Gamer prize at the 2017 Game Awards, there was a tiny riot on Twitter. There's always a buzz of hashtag activity after a winner is announced as people congratulate or disagree with the pick, but this time around, there was a small yet clear consensus: Steven Spohn should have won.
As the Chief Operating Officer of AbleGamers, a charity working to make video games more accessible to people with disabilities, Spohn was the face of positive change in the industry. He regularly shared insightful affirmations on Twitter, as well as deeply personal stories about the realities of living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a disease that was progressively destroying his motor neurons and muscles. Meanwhile, DrDisrespect was best known for wearing a mullet wig and mocking his teammates with racist accents in Fortnite streams.
Spohn tells the story of a memorable moment at a New Jersey abilities expo, when he was surrounded by thousands of people on the hunt for new tools to improve their lives. A mother approached him and asked how she could get her son on a path like his, with a C-suite job and respect in a major industry.
Spohn replied, “Well first, thank you for the compliment. But second, what does he do?”
According to Spohn, the mom then said, “Well, he toils away in his basement and he uses these little electronic things and makes music or whatever. It's totally useless and he needs to be doing something like you're doing.”
Spohn rushed to stop her, saying, “Listen, he is making a contribution to this world. He's making music. Music is very important to this world.”
The mother didn't understand. “She was incapable of seeing that that was something that would contribute to society,” Spohn said.
The following year, The Game Awards split up the Trending Gamer category to recognize content creators and thought leaders separately, and Spohn was officially recognized as a Global Gaming Citizen at the show. Twitter lit up with praise and Spohn was able to share AbleGamers' mission with more folks than ever.
It's been the honor of a lifetime to be a @thegameawards Global Gaming Citizen
Growing up with a disability comes with a very unique set of challenges
My goal on this earth is to live as an inspiration to those with disabilities that not only can you survive, but you can thrive pic.twitter.com/K9Y4cg3vO0
— Steven Spohn (@stevenspohn) December 7, 2018
In 2020, Spohn's reach has extended beyond the video game industry to infiltrate mainstream conversations. SXSW chose Spohn to receive this year's Game Industry Champion of Change Award, and he was slated to deliver a speech at the show in March. However, the city of Austin, Texas, canceled SXSW just days before it was scheduled to begin, as the world went on lockdown amid the coronavirus epidemic.
“What I really wanted to do was get on-stage and make a three-and-a-half minute speech about allowing people to become empowered, no matter their abilities,” Spohn said. “And it very much made me sad that I won't get a chance to make that speech right now. I hope that I'll have the opportunity in the future, but it's going to take a big stage. It's going to take opportunities like that one for me and for others to really start pushing that narrative into society, that just because you're disabled doesn't mean you can't do anything but play video games for the rest of your life.”
Today, tied to the announcement of SXSW's Gaming Awards winners, Spohn launched a biweekly YouTube series that he'll populate with inspirational, honest stories about living with terminal illnesses and disabilities in an able-bodied world. The first video is titled Let Me Die, and it presents a powerful message about mortality, loneliness and finding inner strength in the worst scenarios.
Spohn is a fierce advocate for the power of video games to change lives, connect people and present new worlds of play. He passionately argues against the notion that playing video games with friends is less socially fulfilling than playing a round of cards, and he consults with companies like Microsoft on new accessibility products like the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
However, his daily work with AbleGamers encompasses more than pixels and gamepads. He's a one-man emotional support team, helping people with disabilities feel safe and empowered as they navigate the world, on- and off-screen.
“I realized that a lot of what I was doing is actually helping people outside the realm of video games,” Spohn said. “So it took my vice president and coworker at AbleGamers, Chris Power, to sort of let me know that what I really was doing all along was peer support counseling.”
“'I want to play video games, but also it's super scary for me when no one else is in the house.'”
Spohn said the questions he handles often sound like, “Hey, I want to play video games, but also it's super scary for me when no one else is in the house and I don't have any way to contact the outside world. All I have in my hands is the video game controller. What if I fall out of my chair? Or what if I can't get up off the couch and go ask for help?”
In these cases, Spohn outlines how tech-based products like voice assistants and IoT devices can help, offering comfort, solutions and what he calls “real, actionable positivity.” He doesn't trade in over-the-top platitudes or “be happy no matter what” affirmations, instead stressing the importance of kindness and viewing the world through an inclusive humanitarian lens.