The gaming industry has exponentially expanded into mainstream media in 2020, yet despite this growth and expansion in the public eye, many disabled gamers face unnecessary barriers preventing them from enjoying games due to the lack of accessibility support.
I’m a disabled gamer and accessibility consultant living with the muscle-wasting condition called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and I’m a full-time wheelchair user. Gaming has always been an integral aspect of my life.
There’s a misconception amongst some gamers who believe that including accessibility features is an ‘easy mode’, and that developers don’t need to cater to all gamers
Growing up, I used gaming as an opportunity to escape my challenging reality especially when experiencing loss of muscle function. In the PS2/PS3 generations, I didn’t require accessibility assistance; the only issue I faced was not being able to quickly click the analog sticks on the controller.
Can you imagine having to make the decision to stop gaming because you couldn’t physically play games anymore? Well, that was a decision I had to make 5 years ago when transitioning from the PS3’s DualShock 3 to a PS4 DualShock 4 controller. The PS4 controller shape was quite different, I couldn’t access the touchpad and it was too heavy for me to constantly hold. Fatigue ruins immersion – especially when you die due to accessibility barriers.
Time to drop a science metaphor: Chaos Theory informs us that a tiny butterfly flapping its wings can create ripples that cause a tsunami on the other side of the world. For many disabled gamers, their hands have formed into the shape of their preferred controller so seemingly minuscule changes have big consequences. Accessibility provides disabled gamers the freedom to spread their wings.
My gaming setup is different from the average gamer; it’s aimed at optimising my limited physical abilities. The only muscle function I have left now is in my hands and fingers, so finding the right solution to make gaming work for me took time and effort – it’s not an instantaneous process. Thankfully, the gaming charity Special Effect assisted me in creating a perfect setup. My adapted PS4 controller has easier to press buttons, high analog stick sensitivity, and it rests on a 3D-printed stand. These adaptations allow me to play for longer periods despite my limited energy levels and fatigue. I also use a Titan One adapter which enables gamers to use their preferred controller on any console. The adapter also allows you to write scripts to create your own accessibility features, such as button remapping or assigning buttons to analog stick directions. I now sprint in games by pushing the left stick fully forward instead of clicking L3 (perfect for super awesome slides!)
The Xbox Adaptive Controller revolutionised controller accessibility this generation. Xbox created this platform for disabled gamers to own their gaming experience. The Adaptive Controller has 19 switch ports corresponding with each button on the controller, and two ports for either stick input. You can use an Xbox One X Controller with a few switches or completely change input methods by using multiple joysticks. The Xbox Adaptive Controller doesn’t completely solve accessibility though, as game developers still have their role to play in supporting accessibility.
Developer Naughty Dog revolutionised accessibility features with their masterpiece The Last Of Us 2 this generation. Other games such as Gears 5, Avengers, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, God of War have added full button remapping, changing rapid button taps to holds or toggles for aiming so you don’t have to hold aim whilst shooting.
However, The Last Of Us 2 raised the accessibility bar to hitherto unseen heights by adding even more settings. Naughty Dog’s design process included input from accessibility consultants with different disabilities, which should be done as standard for triple-A games. My favourite options were the ability to turn on slow-motion whilst aiming, and adjusting gameplay aspects such as damage taken, resource limitation or enemy detection.
There’s a misconception amongst some gamers who believe that including accessibility features is an ‘easy mode’, and that developers don’t need to cater to all gamers. However, there is a distinct difference between accessibility and difficulty: accessibility means avoiding placing unnecessary barriers that come between the player and the intended experience, and difficulty is relative – it’s the balance between personal ability and the obstacles the game presents.
Personally, I enjoy challenging games that give me the adrenaline rush of overcoming seemingly impossible foes. In God of War, an alternate option of sprinting (by either tapping X or clicking L3) and activating finishing moves (by pressing Circle instead of R3) removes the barrier for disabled gamers who cannot click analog sticks. Difficulty hasn’t been tampered with in the slightest, but an unnecessary barrier has suddenly vanished.
Control by Remedy is a great example of a game that was originally inaccessible to many disabled gamers until the recent AWE update introduced more accessibility options. The level of difficulty wasn’t altered, but gamers were given the choice to adjust damage taken, fiddle with energy and ammo recovery, or have your aim automatically snap to targets. These choices enabled me to finally experience the Control universe, a year after it was released.
The future of gaming lies in inclusion. Accessibility is much bigger than the gaming industry, there’s no restriction between the boundaries of Xbox, Playstation, or Nintendo. I hope the industry continues making strides to make gaming more inclusive in the next generation and beyond.