Here’s How Video Games Are Opening Up To Gamers With Disabilities
Video games are for everyone, or at least they’re supposed to be.
Throw a rock at a random person on the street, and not only would you be a jerk for throwing rocks at people, but you’d probably hit a gamer. The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association and Bond University’s Digital Australia 18 report showed 67 per cent of Australians play video games. That’s a lot of people — roughly 16,597,405 of them — which gives you excellent odds in your ridiculous rock-throwing sport.
But not everyone can play games the same way.
While many of us have the same basic components (eyes, limbs, joints, etc.), no two people experience the world exactly alike — and all our abilities crumble with time. It’s what makes us humans beautiful. But it also means that expecting everyone to be able to use a specific shape of controller, or be able to solve a puzzle in a certain way, is going to exclude people whose abilities are different to the assumed norm.
One of the more common examples of a condition that changes how people can play is colour blindness, which affects 1 in 12 men and roughly 1 in 200 women, according to the West Australian government’s health website. So, one person’s simple red/green colour scheme to help distinguish foes from friends is another person’s grey nightmare of confusion.
Motion sickness is an even bigger problem, particularly with first-person shooters and Virtual Reality games — where looking through your character’s eyes can confuse your inner ear. While there aren’t solid statistics on who suffers from motion sickness, US research on military flight simulators suggests half the population is affected, and this gets worse as you age. Remember how fun it was to roll down a hill as a child? Try that as an adult, and you’ll feel sick for the rest of the day.
Motion sickness sufferers and those with a sensitivity to flashing lights share the joy (and ultimate failure) of trying to strategically blink so they can enjoy certain games without feeling awful.
Then there’s the holy trinity of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people for whom English (or the language of the game) isn’t their first language, and those with sensory issues (like folks with ADHD or people on the autism spectrum), who all need quality subtitles.
Beyond those common differences, according to a 2015 ABS study into disability, ageing and carers, 16 per cent of the population have a disability with specific limitations and restrictions.
When most people think about “accessibility”, they only picture wheelchair users. But, chances are, the person you just hit with a rock would probably benefit from accessibility options in their favourite games either now or in the future.
The good news is, the video game industry has improved accessibility. Groups like Special Effect, Able Gamers, and the in-house Microsoft team have done a fantastic job of lobbying and educating people at all levels in the industry.
Twitch and Youtube streamer Hand Solo, aka Brendon Pratt, had his left hand amputated after a workplace accident, which limited his game choices.
“I predominantly play Rocket League as it was one of the games I really enjoyed and it allowed for me to change the key binds,” he says. “I also love playing racing games like Forza, as they seem to be the easy games that don’t need controller remapping but still allow for it if needed. And the occasional Battle Royale, but that’s limited due to most not allowing custom controller mapping.”
More games than ever before allow controller remapping (where you can program the buttons to be different to the default, so accelerate is on the left trigger instead of the right, for example) and Xbox now allows it from the operating system, rather than requiring individual games to implement it, but the most significant help for Pratt recently was the new Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Before the XAC, he had to get a little creative. “Some games I would use a standard PS4 Dualshock, and others I used a standard Xbox One controller, both with a blob of Blutak on the left trigger to make it easier to press it on my left leg.”
“I was limited to whatever games I could get my hand around,” Pratt explains. “Now with the XAC it has not only changed how I game but also opened me up to wide variety games that were previously unplayable.”
There’s a bunch of organisations, including AbleGamers, that modify controllers for gamers with different needs. But the Xbox Adaptive Controller is the first first-party, major controller designed to be used with different third-party switches, triggers and other tools for people who have difficulty using the standard controller setup. For the first time, it’s something you can pick up at JB Hi-Fi rather than having to expensively modify a standard controller.
Plenty of games and apps, too, are improving with colour blindness. Most now offer ways to change the colours or identify coloured cards with a differentiating symbol as well, like Ticket To Ride.
Motion sickness in games is a tough problem to solve. VR titles like Resident Evil 7 allow for turning on degrees rather than the smoother, more natural turning, which helps some. Other games, like the high seas pirate adventure, Sea of Thieves, eventually put a little dot on the horizon to focus on. Before a real fix can happen, a lot more research is needed.
Games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider have been going above and beyond to make sure anyone can play them. Full closed captioning, including musical cues and sound effects, is considered standard for movies. But they’re pretty rare in video games, so it’s nice to see them implemented alongside options of subtitles with or without colour.
The option of holding down a button instead of pressing it repeatedly to open something, or of using only one stick to control movement, sound minor when you have full control of your hands. But for someone with cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s or arthritis, it can be the difference between playing the whole game and requiring an able-bodied minion to help you play.
There are so many games out this year have good accessibility options that I don’t have space to list them all, and that is a wonderful thing. There are plenty of resources for finding accessible games — the DAGERS review website is excellent. There are also resources for developers to discover how more people can enjoy their game, like the Game Accessibility Guidelines.
The bad news is, the games industry as a whole is way behind other entertainment for basic accessibility features.
The games industry will get better, but only if we tell them what we need and how we need it, call them out when they get it wrong, and congratulate them when they get it right.
Alice Clarke is a journalist, game reviewer, presenter, scriptwriter, TV lover, PAX Aus Diversity Lounge co-curator, & frozen pea fan. You can find her tweeting here.