Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller allows players to customise buttons and joysticks
Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller allows players to customise buttons and joysticks

Games are for everyone, we are told. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you can switch on a game and experience a life without physical, economic, or social limitations. Games promise liberation for all — except the estimated 15 per cent of people in the world who live with a disability and for whom some games are simply unplayable.

Within the past year, the industry has turned a corner. The Last of Us 2 introduced sophisticated menus which allow players to tweak more than 60 elements of the game in granular detail, from changing the function of each button to outlining enemies in bright colours or offering aim-assist for weapons. Yet while the increased attention on accessibility has been welcomed, how far have we actually come? And why has it taken so long to get here?

There are a number of common game features which disabled gamers find exclusionary. “Quick-time events”, cinematic scenes in games which require button mashing and quick reflexes, are prohibitive for players with joint pain or cognitive impairments that delay reaction time. Audio cues, such as a baddie spotting you and saying “He’s over there!”, are lost on players who are deaf or hard of hearing. The arrival of high-definition TVs meant that developers could present more information on our screens, but their zeal to cram in more features resulted in subtitles taking up ever less real estate, bringing on the problem of minuscule fonts we suffer today.

Gaming history is peppered with a handful of unusual provisions for disabled players. The 1977 Atari 2600 offered a setting to slow games down, intended for young children but useful for neurodiverse players or those with cognitive disabilities. Nintendo released a hands-free controller for its mid-1980s NES console which was strapped to the chest and allowed games to be controlled by a straw moved by the tongue. In 1994, the Sega Saturn required all games to have remappable buttons and hosted an “audiogame” for blind and visually impaired players called Real Sound: Kaze No Regret, an interactive radio drama with instructions provided in Braille. 

These innovations were few and far between — for the majority of gaming history, disabled players had to improvise by hacking custom parts for their controllers, or learning to use controllers on their own terms. BrolyLegs, a competitive Street Fighter V player with arthrogryposis, a condition which means he cannot use his arms or legs, expertly manipulates buttons using his nose and cheek, regularly beating able-bodied opponents. One of his tweets puts it succinctly: “No legs, no hands, no excuses.”

‘The Last of Us 2’ allows players to customise many elements of the game
‘The Last of Us 2’ allows players to customise many elements of the game

New features over the past decade show that developers are gradually realising that the onus is on them, not their fans, to make games accessible. Specialist consultants are being hired by studios and a number of organisations have increased the visibility of these conversations, including AbleGamers, who held the first Video Game Accessibility Awards last month, and Can I Play This, which publishes multiple reviews of a single game focusing on playability for people with different impairments.

The big three game companies have taken different approaches to accessibility. With titles such as The Last of Us 2, Sony has concentrated on software, adding fine-grained options to its first-party games. Microsoft has focused instead on hardware, releasing the Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018, which allows players to customise buttons and joysticks to suit their specific needs. Nintendo has lagged behind in providing accessibility options, which is curious considering this is the company that leans hardest into the “games are for everyone” image in its marketing. It is starting to catch up, though, finally making button remapping available on Switch consoles earlier this year.

The big barrier to accessible gaming has always been that these features remained an afterthought during development. Only when a game neared completion would companies start thinking about accessibility options, and anything too ambitious would be ruled out as time-consuming, expensive, and likely to delay release. The issue today is not that the technology isn’t available — it’s that developers need to bake accessibility into game production from the very start.

Accessibility features in games don’t just benefit disabled people. A design principle known as the “kerb-cut effect” refers to the wedges cut out of elevated kerbsides on roads, which, while originally implemented to assist wheelchair users, ultimately also helped parents with pushchairs, people carrying heavy bags, or even skateboarding teenagers. Features that make the designed world more accessible for disabled people actually benefit everyone, and statistics have shown that the number of players using accessibility features in games, from subtitles to one-handed control systems, far exceeds the number of disabled gamers.

EyeMine software enables gamers to play Minecraft using their eyes
EyeMine software enables gamers to play Minecraft using their eyes

In recent years gamers have seen the introduction of an auto-accelerate function in Mario Kart and a version of Minecraft which can be played using only the movement of their eyes. The problem is that these features, and even the dozens of options in The Last of Us 2, still only provide for a small proportion of the accessibility needs that players might have. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a game that would prove truly accessible for everyone.

That doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t strive to make one. Games have the potential to offer disabled players so much: the chance to exist socially without the stigma of a visible disability, or to experience an effortless movement through space which might not be possible in real life. The industry is still only at the foot of the accessibility mountain, but its attitudes are certainly changing, which is a valuable start.

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