The Current25:57Making video games more accessible for disabled players
Paul Lane was injured in a car accident in his 20s, leaving him unable to use his fingers.
“I remember being in a hospital and my next door neighbour, she bought a Game Boy for me as a gift,” Lane told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
“I was so happy to get it, but I couldn’t play it. And the reality set [in] that I’ve lost everything that I loved to do, and gaming was part of it.”
Over 20 years since the accident, Lane has learned to use his chin, cheek and lip to play games using a standard video game controller. But the number of options for disabled gamers like him is growing — albeit slowly.
Sony launched the Access Controller, an accessibility-focused controller for the PlayStation 5 this past October. Its main component is spherical with large, lever-like buttons that are easier to press and more customizable than a traditional controller. Sony developed the controller with input from Lane and other accessibility consultants.
“When I found out [about] this product they were going to tackle, I was like, Wow, it’s about time. Let’s do it,” he said.
The Access Controller is the latest in a growing number of products aimed at making traditional video games easier for disabled gamers to play. Microsoft released the Adaptive Controller for Xbox systems in 2018.
Gamers and disability advocates’ reception to these devices has been mostly positive, as they’ve been calling for products like these for years.
Widening the audiences that can play games is also good business, they add — and it would seem the major games publishers agree.
Xbox has continued to partner with accessibility organizations and initiatives since launching their Adaptive Controller in 2018. In a recent blog post, they estimated there are over 420 million players with disabilities.
“It is our responsibility to create a place where everyone feels welcome, safe, and included to experience the joy and community of gaming,” Xbox’s accessibility director Anita Moraloni said.
WATCH | Sony unveils new video game controller for disabled gamers:
Games increasingly more accessible
Steve Saylor works with gaming companies as an accessibility consultant. But his work grew out of his YouTube channel, Blind Gamer, which originally had him poking fun at himself for not being able to play games well because of his eyesight.
“I have a condition that’s called nystagmus, which basically means that my eyes kind of vibrate back and forth, and I can see light, shapes and colours, but everything else is extremely blurry,” Saylor explained. “So whenever I play video games, I have to sit about a foot-and-a-half away from like a 50-inch TV.”
Eventually, he turned his work toward advocating for better accessibility options in games, and reviewing new games under the lens of how friendly they can be for disabled gamers.
Alex Carey, an accessibility consultant based in Vancouver, says his work broadly breaks disability into eight “barrier areas”: strength, dexterity, blindness, low vision, hard of hearing and deafness, cognitive, emotional and speech-based disabilities.
One person’s disabilities may not be as neatly broken down into those separate categories, however. “It’s sort of like a road map,” said Carey, who has spinal muscular atrophy — a condition that gradually weakens his movement and currently requires him to use a wheelchair.
Saylor garnered attention in 2020 from a video where he openly cries while reacting to the accessibility options in Sony’s The Last of Us Part II.
He told Galloway the critically acclaimed game’s 60-plus accessibility options allowed nearly everyone to play it, across all eight of the main disability categories Carey mentioned.
The options included subtitles, text-to-speech, combat vibration cues, screen magnification and a high-contrast mode for visually impaired players to help distinguish characters from their environments.
“It kind of hit me in the sense of like, all of the work that we’ve been pushing towards … for so long. It was seeing that kind of finally come to fruition and seeing a studio that really dedicated themselves to making one of the most accessible games ever,” Saylor said.
Both Saylor and Carey stressed, however, that making a game more accessible isn’t about making it an easier or watered-down experience — it’s about letting more people enjoy games in a way that a traditional controller might prevent.
“We just want to be able to play the same games that our friends are playing and enjoy [them], and just kind of jump into a game and just say like, ‘Hey, let’s just have some fun,'” said Saylor.
Good accessibility is good business
Ameliane Chiasson, games accessibility lead at Player Research, a user experience research firm in Montreal, says it’s also good PR for the companies.
“We’ve seen games in the past that have done bad [accessibility] practices that got quite, you know, bad coverage in this day and age. I think we’re a little bit more sensitive about diversity and inclusion issues,” she said.
Whether that bad press eats into the industry leaders’ bottom line is less certain.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 for the PlayStation 5 launched with accessibility options deemed “incomplete” by Eurogamer — at least until announced updates later this year implement more. And Microsoft’s Starfield was described as “an accessibility embarrassment” and “a giant leap backwards for accessibility” in the games press.
Both still topped sales charts, selling millions of copies within weeks of their releases.
Regardless, Chiasson stressed the games industry’s need to recognize disabled gamers are a part of their core audience — not a separate category.
“People should be able to choose what games to play based on their interest, not based on if they’re able to play it or not,” she said.