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Accessibility finally matters to the game industry — but it needs to do better

Globally, 2.6 billion people spanning across geographical regions, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds take part in digital gaming. This is a big portion of our world’s population, so unsurprisingly, it doesn’t — and shouldn’t — stop at players with disabilities. In fact, approximately 92% of people with impairments play video games, and there are more than 33 million gamers with disabilities in the U.S. alone.

Undoubtedly, no game developer or hardware designer would shun the idea of making sure that everyone who wants to can play their video games. Yet despite this, making games and hardware more accessible has really only just laid its foundations firmly on the radar of many of the big game developers and manufacturers.

Until now, gaming hardware has been made with the assumption that the player has certain bodily capabilities – an assumption that is being rightly disrupted by disability advocates in the gaming world. As for the games themselves, developers are increasingly taking into account potentially exclusionary elements and adapting them for inclusive use.

Controllers manufactured with full hand functionality in mind have long been an issue for players with physical disabilities, particularly conditions that affect motor movements. For example, simply having the option of holding a button down instead of pressing it repeatedly, or only having to use one stick to control movement, makes a huge difference to players with conditions like cerebral palsy or arthritis.

When it comes to the games, many players with visual impairments struggle to read text in the game due to font size, and some even lack in subtitles for gamers that are hard of hearing. Even viral games like Pokemon Go are exclusive in nature: its motion-based controls are one of the games main features, and present a number of accessibility issues.

Custom solutions

Accommodating disabled players has historically not been an issue on the forefront of gaming hardware manufacturers’ minds, resulting in many disabled players coming up with their own solutions. For example, the Nintendo Switch has been widely criticized for not being accessible for those with physical impairments. With no action from Nintendo to make the Switch more inclusive, some talented young gamers invented their own solutions so they could use the console, including a soft keyboard and a controller that can be used with the player’s feet.

Other examples of players with disabilities taking matters into their own hands include this awesome Rock Band accessibility kit for wheelchair users, and The Controller Project, an organization which helps players create their own controllers tailored to their needs.

This has also meant a surge in advocacy groups fighting for more inclusive gaming and providing solutions. For example, AbleGamers creates custom gaming setups for people with disabilities, including modified controllers and special assistive technology, and the UK-based Special Effect also leverages technology to help people play to the best of their abilities.

Shifting responsibility

However, accessible gaming cannot continue to be exclusively powered by fringe groups and the gamers themselves. Inclusivity should be a consideration taken by mainstream gaming hardware producers. Fortunately, in the last three to four years, we have begun to see progress in this front.

Last year Microsoft launched its Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed for people with limited mobility. The controller has large programmable buttons and connects to external switches, and enables people who don’t have thumbs, fingers, limbs, or good motor control to play games that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

In order to build the product, Microsoft adopted an approach of “just listening” to people from community-focused nonprofits that support gamers with disabilities, along with the players themselves. However, some in the industry have noted that purchasing the controller, along with all of the extra input devices needed to play many games, can work out to be pretty costly.

Another impressive example of disability-accommodating tech comes in the form of Tobii, an eye-tracking peripheral that allows players to control digital interfaces with their eye movements, which is supported by over 120 games. Players essentially move the camera and controls with their eyes, and while there are still some slight inaccuracies, Tobii is continually working to make trackers faster and add more tricks that feel natural. This kind of technology is a huge step in the right direction to make gaming accessible for everyone, no matter their disability.

Meanwhile, Sony has been quietly becoming increasingly proactive in the space since it included a number of accessibility minded functions in a 2015 PS4 system update, including text-to-speech, button remapping, and larger font for players with visual and auditory impairments. The gaming giant has also made reforms in its game design, such as only requiring disabled players to hold down a button rather than repeatedly press it (a very common requirement in games a generation ago). However, the gaming community is yet to see adaptive, accessible hardware from Sony. For now, Microsoft is still leading the way.

And it’s not just electronic hardware that can better cater for gamers with disabilities. For example, my company nerdytec‘s Couchmaster Cycon, a gaming lapboard, not only enables all players to play PC games from their couch, but it also acts as a solution for wheelchair-using players too. The Cycon’s disabled users have described the product as an “ingenious solution” as it allows for a more ergonomic posture thanks to not having to rest on the player’s lap.

Software and hardware need to go hand-in-hand

While efforts are becoming more and more visible on both sides of the gaming accessibility coin, neither hardware makers nor game developers should be relying on the other to take care of the issue. There needs to be a full awareness of accessibility needs at both the design level when it comes to hardware, as well as during the initial stages of the game development itself.

This means a continuous dialogue between hardware manufacturers, game developers, and gamers is crucial. Ubisoft has recently exemplified this with a new initiative that includes community experts and accessibility advocates in early-stage game development, running an accessible design workshop, and sending review copies to creators with disabilities and accessibility sites.

And building on the immense work of the groups and charities already in action (in addition to those already mentioned, Can I Play That?, GameCritics, and DAGERSystem also deserve a mention), increasing involvement of the gamers themselves will feed into the demand for more disability-friendly gaming in general. Platforms like Twitch are also raising awareness of disabled gamers’ needs, allowing these players to earn a living from streaming as well as offering a support network and a global community to be part of.

Quality and functional gaming hardware and software will come only from a true inclusion of disabled players at the design and testing stages, ensuring they give feedback directly by taking part in research samples, alpha and beta feedback, or even offering input on social media. By addressing how everyone will play the game from its conception and deliberately including those players with more specific needs into all stages of the process, manufacturers and developers will help widen the scope further for every gamer to be able to take part in an activity they love.

Chris Mut is the founder and CEO of nerdytec, a hardware development company and inventor of Couchmaster products. 

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