All together now: how accessibility in games is giving everyone the chance to play

Matthew Jarvis
All together now: how accessibility in games is giving everyone the chance to play

Using the analog sticks on a controller is an action that might seem simple to many gamers.

However, for Mark, whose Duchenne muscular dystrophy causes reducing muscle strength, something so apparently simple can be a huge barrier.

But through the use of a smaller Xbox controller, modified to include an extension to the right stick and repositioned buttons, plus additional voice controls, Mark was able to complete GTA V.

Mark is one of thousands of disabled gamers who have been granted a new way to play through the development of new accessibility technology.

When we're working one-to-one with someone with a physical disability like Mark, it's the details that become important,” says Mark Saville, communications at accessibility charity SpecialEffect, which provided Mark with the equipment.

Finding the right grip material for the tip of his analogue stick extension, for example, was important for him to be able to use the controller properly. For people with extremely limited movement, if a gaming setup slips by a few millimetres, it'll be unusable.”

Including support for technology like this might mean nothing to most players, but it can mean everything to those affected by disability.

The good news is that accessibility technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in the games industry. From screenreaders and eye-tracking technology to switches that allow sip-puff tubes and blink detectors to be registered as key or button presses, the amount of hardware designed to let everyone play is growing.

It's not just technology that's providing new routes for disabled gamers – changing attitudes among gaming communities are also playing a big part.

Five years ago, gamers with disabilities posting on forums about barriers they were encountering were met with a huge amount of vitriol from other gamers and told that their concerns weren't important, that they were ruining everyone else's fun and that they should go find another hobby,” recalls Ian Hamilton, an accessibility specialist and writer of the Game Accessibility Guidelines, which suggest ways games firms can be more inclusive.

Now, it's completely the opposite. The same things posted in 2014 saw almost unbridled support from fellow gamers, endless offers of help and getting behind feature requests.”

"When working one-to-one with someone with a physical disability, it's the details that become important."

Mark Saville, SpecialEffect

With accessibility tech better than ever, you might think that the latest generation of console hardware has similarly opened up the way for a more diverse audience of gamers.

It's actually the opposite; they've introduced more problems than they've solved,” retorts Hamilton.

Lack of backwards compatibility means that the previous generation's various custom controllers are no longer usable. The Xbox One has also removed the ability to turn off vibrations across the entire system, meaning that games that don't allow for vibration to be turned off are now inaccessible to people such as RSI sufferers who haven't been excluded in the past. And the expansion of voice controls through Kinect and the PlayStation Camera has meant the introduction of commands that can only be executed by voice, with obvious implications if you have any difficulty speaking.

It's not all bad though,” he adds. The option of voice commands can be quite a boon for players who find navigating complex menus difficult for any number of reasons, including vision, motor and cognitive impairment.”

Saville agrees that features such as voice recognition could be used to assist those with disabilities if implemented correctly, but to date have only introduced more obstacles.

There is potential there,” he comments. It's great that you can use voice controls with the new Kinect, but we often find that, due to someone being on a tracheotomy or the way that their disability has affected their mouth, only some words are recognised reliably by voice control software.”

He adds that other modern additions to control schemes have thrown up problems.

There are some adaptors that allow you to use differently-shaped controllers on a PS4, but at the moment they have no way of replicating the new touchpad movements of the DualShock 4,” he explains.

It'll be interesting to see how developers and ourselves can tackle accessibility on the PS4's trackpad when titles start to rely on it for critical controls.”

THINKING OF OTHERS

Thomas Westin, a PhD student and lecturer in digital culture and accessibility in computer games at Stockholm University, highlights the restricted ecosystem of console hardware as a primary barrier to developers of accessibility software.

Consoles are generally very closed systems which makes adaptations harder,” he says.

Furthermore, modifications made by the accessibility community on one generation are often not usable on the next gen.”

Hamilton suggests that console platform holders should take a leaf from mobile's book.

If you look at an iPhone or Android device, the levels of accessibility are staggering,” he states.

There are zoom settings, subtitle preferences, high contrast modes, assistive touch and so on.

These firms are making really strong efforts – not just through altruism, but also because they understand the powerful business case.

"The state of accessibility in consoles is pretty bleak by comparison, and it's something that really needs to change.”

While a few accessibility options require highly specialised additions, Lynsey Graham, senior designer at Midoki, argues that the majority of disabled gamers can be catered to with minimal effort – it just takes a little extra consideration.

A lot of issues can be remedied by solutions that are actually fairly easy to implement if planned for in advance,” she states.

Graham picks out one recent franchise as a prime example of how to address this wider audience.

Most developers who don't take accessibility into account aren't ignoring it because they don't care – it's because they simply haven't thought about it because they've not encountered it themselves or don't know anyone who has.”

The Bayonetta games are a surprising source of accessibility,” she explains.

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