Disability in Gaming: The Battle for Accessibility
Accessibility describes how easy something is to access – whether it’s a location, a product or a service. For people without a disability, most places, products and services are simple enough to access. This is for a very specific reason. They were designed with the so-called ‘average’ person in mind. This is likely because they were designed, built and tested by people with no accessibility issues. That is to say, people without a mental or physical condition that limits their ability to do everyday tasks.
That’s the technical definition of disability – and current statistics indicate that 15% of the global population have such a condition. Disability affects everyone differently. It can be visible or invisible, it can be intrusive or have a minimal impact on your day-to-day life.
The main challenge that people with disabilities face, regardless of the nature of our disability, is that we live in a world that is not built for us. This often brings challenges – which might be physical (e.g. finding transport if you use a wheelchair), or mental (e.g. making a phone call if you have autism). Everyday tasks can become mountains, and accessibility is the deciding factor as to whether we can climb them.
Accessibility doesn’t just affect our ability to live day-to-day – it affects our ability to enjoy ourselves. Many items of technology, e.g. phones, computers, consoles, are built for people who don’t have a disability. Unfortunately, this restricts the degree to which some people with disabilities can use them. We often have to purchase additional accessories or adaptive devices just to be able to access them.
This is particularly true for gaming. For many people with and without a disability, gaming is simple. Turn on the machine, interact with the controller/keyboard, play the game. For some of us, the controller or keyboard itself is part of the problem. For others, it’s the game interface (e.g. subtitles) or mechanics that require a fast reaction time that impede us. This often restricts our ability to play games, or specific types of games.
Despite the challenges, many of the disabled community are active gamers. Accessibility has become a greater focus in recent years thanks to the tireless efforts of disability campaigners and accessibility charities. Special Effect and Able Gamers in particular contributed to the development of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device designed with and for gamers with physical disabilities.
This is a fantastic step forward, and a testament to what can be achieved when the community are involved in product development. Despite this, there is still a lot of work to be done to make gaming fully accessible. Accessibility shouldn’t just be an afterthought or an add-on – it should be an integral part of the design process. Even game developers and publishers are coming around to this conclusion. A recent example; EA’s FIFA 18, included additional accessibility options after a collaboration with Special Effect. These options allow gamers to re-map controls to make them easier to use.
To get a better understanding of the current state of accessibility in gaming, I reached out to other members of the disabled community to look at what can be done to improve access to gaming.
We had a lot of great responses from the community, so we’ve picked five to share with you:
Which games are you playing at the moment?
Smirgutt: Mario Odessy, Animal Crossing (on Switch Lite), old skool Runescape and recently quit FLYFF.
Cristal1337: CS:GO, Dota2, Valorant, SFV and some clicker/idle games. From time to time I’ll also play RDR2, Skyrim, FO4, Minecraft, MTG and Pokémon TCG Online. My main focus lies in esports games, but I consider myself to be a well-rounded gamer.
SwiftlyGregory: I really like sandbox games like The Sims series, but I play a lot of RPGs as well like the Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy series, and I still play the older generations of the Pokemon games.
WhyAllTheGoo: Currently Hollow Knight, and Binding of Isaac
zombiearchivist: I have been playing a lot of Fire Emblem: Three Houses recently. I don’t do so much video gaming as much anymore. I do a lot of miniature and board games.
Does your disability affect the type of games you can play?
Smirgutt: Yes, unfortunately it does. No more pc games for me.
Cristal1337: I was born with a muscle illness and have been a gamer my whole life. My disability does not affect the type of games I can play. However, I have a strong preference for using a keyboard and mouse. Over the years, controllers have become more difficult to use. What happens is that my hands cramp up.
I play SFV using a keyboard. Now I know this is, in itself, rather unconventional, but it works for me. I configured the WASD keys for movement and the Numpad for the rest of the keys. There are some limitations to my ability to press multiple keys at the same time, so that does have an impact while playing. Nevertheless, I feel like I can easily keep up with the average player. However, to circle back to the question, it does have a slight impact, but I don’t feel like I am held back significantly.
SwiftlyGregory: Absolutely. PC games usually feel more accessible to me, because I just can’t hold a controller for very long without pain. This kinda sucks because a lot of games I’d really like to play are only available on console (looking at you, Square Enix). But I also find a lot of fast-paced games overwhelming because I struggle with brainfog and focus, and my hand don’t always do exactly what I tell them to do so I die a lot in those kinds of games.
WhyAllTheGoo: Yes, certain cartoon styles give me a headache and severe red eye. I also can’t see 3D so I have a 2DS instead.
zombiearchivist: I have most of my right hand missing an absolutely consider myself a gamer. I struggle with FPS and games that require me to use button combos. I use an Xbox style controller for both my PC and my Switch Lite.
What can the industry do to make games more accessible to gamers with disabilities?
Smirgutt: Being able to switch the controls would help me as my left hand is stronger. Being able to automate gestures of actions (on PC) stuff like that would help me a lot. I do miss PC gaming a lot as it was my main way of interacting with people.
Cristal1337: I think that creating certain standards would drastically improve game accessibility. Developers need to come together and create a list of accessibility features and tools that should always be implemented. While developing a game, this list can be worked through, making sure that what is produced, has a certain level of accessibility. To accomplish a well-rounded list, like I mentioned, one needs to tackle the problem systematically, because there is more than Motor Disabilities. This needs proper research. However, if I were to give a suggestion, look at what people with disabilities use in their daily lives. Many have joysticks for their wheelchairs and these joysticks can be connected to a computer. Drivers that allow these every-day controllers to be used in games would be a game-changer!
SwiftlyGregory: This is sort of specific, but I recently bought a PlayStation just so I can play the FF7 Remake, and I can’t read the text unless I’m right next to the screen. There’s not options to change the contrast or font size to make it easier to read, either. I can’t play the game unless my husband is in the room to help me read the instructions and stuff, and that was really disappointing. In contrast, The Sims 4 had an update last year (I think) that added accessibility options that allow you to change the size of the UI so it’s easier to navigate for people with visual impairments.
A lot of people with disabilities are gamers, and some of us have a lot of time on our hands to game. I think if companies realized this more, they’d be more willing to design games that are more accessible for us!
WhyAllTheGoo: I would like to see more options available so many people who have other more severe prosthetics could game safely and cheaply
zombiearchivist: Control Mapping is my number one issue. I stopped playing Vermintide II for PC and emailed the game designers calling them out since I couldn’t actually play with any enjoyment because I couldn’t map controls to my preference (Southpaw is my default) and then because I hit more than 6 hours I couldn’t get a refund from Steam, so I was out $60 and the only response was, “Maybe we’ll get to that.” I left a poor review so fast on Steam and have never wanted a company to go under so much. This was also why I had to buy a controller for my Switch Lite with Marvel: Ultimate Alliance III since the team power up abilities are all on the right bumper and trigger.
It was really interesting to read everyone’s responses. As some of you may know, I’m autistic myself, so my experience of disability is very different from other people’s. My dyspraxia prevents me from using a keyboard to play games effectively. Most of the time, I end up mapping an Xbox controller to play PC games. I’m also very light-sensitive and certain frame rates/first-person views make me feel nauseous as hell, so I can only play some games for a short period of time.
Looking at people’s responses for how the industry can improve – we had some really detailed feedback and great suggestions. There is definitely a need for a wider range of adaptive controllers, particularly affordable options. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is one of the main options on the market at the moment (and there are some Logitech accessories to go with this), but is a little bit pricey at 74.99 GBP/99.99 USD.
There are also limited options for in-game accessibility. A couple of EA games seem to be the most forward-thinking in this regard (although there may be some others that I’m unaware of). However it would be good for all new games to have an accessibility mode as standard that includes a wide range of accessibility options like text adjustment/control mapping/animation speed adjustment (e.g. for QTEs/parrying etc.)/character damage reduction based on the type of game.
In conclusion, the gaming industry is definitely moving forward in terms of accessibility for disabled gamers, but there’s still work to be done to ensure video gaming is as inclusive as possible. As mentioned earlier, accessibility needs to be a priority during console and game design to ensure that as many people as possible can play the games they love.
We’d like to thank everyone who responded (and sorry if we weren’t able to include your response in the article!).
This article is part of an ongoing series about improving accessibility in gaming. If you have a disability, and you’d like to contribute to this, or have anything you’d particularly like us to write about, drop us a message below or on social media.