There is a quote by Michaelangelo that I am rather fond of.
Video games are, in theory, a great equalizer. In order to play, we each have an avatar that is, perhaps, based loosely on us, accentuating the best parts of ourselves or highlighting the characteristics we would like to exhibit more consistently. They can let us be someone completely different than the person we are, or tell the story we want to tell. To a game, we are all the same.
Did you know that there are currently no industry standards for making games accessible to folks outside the biggest portion of the “typically-developing” bell curve?
Most people, when faced with the term “accessibility,” will immediately think of individuals with some sort of congenital diagnosis like cerebral palsy or intellectual disability. Less often, people think of folks with spinal injuries. Even less often, people think of color blindness and hearing loss (complete or partial).
I used to work at a residential hospital for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Some of the people who lived there were fans of video games, but holding a controller could be a nightmare. I’m thinking of two folks in particular: one had cerebral palsy and could use the thumb on his one hand and his index finger on the other, and otherwise would roll his left fist around the controller the best he could to hit buttons with his knuckles. He became visibly frustrated when his actions weren’t accurate, especially because he liked to play the FIFA games online.
I told that story once and the person I was speaking to actually laughed and rolled his eyes.
Another individual, for a variety of reason, needed to have his controller attached to a laptray. One of the occupational therapists jury-rigged a device for him with a large trackball and two buttons, and for games with a lot of controls, he had to navigate through menus in order to use the eight buttons on a “standard” controller. He did fairly well with it, even though it was cumbersome and he resigned himself to not always being able to complete an action he wanted to do.
Other rigs that I’ve seen across the internet have been beautiful works of large buttons, other electronic equipment, and, to be blunt, would cost quite a bit of money and time to put together and program.
In that same conversation, the person I was speaking to said, “Well, if you’re disabled and you want to play a game, that’s how it goes.”
That’s how it goes.
Well, that’s not how it goes, my friends. At least, that’s not how it should go, and it’s not how things are moving anymore.
Benefits for One, Benefits for All
We’ll return to physical modifications in a moment, but I want to return to the examples I gave above about the more “invisible” disabilities: color blindness and hearing loss. There are, of course, other things that people can quietly have going on, but there are the two that I think most people will be able to visualize the best.
Sometimes, when making things accessible, the more typically-developing among us might worry that “accessible” is synonymous with the concept of “dumbing down.”
This is not true.
There is something called the “curb cut” effect. A curb cut is that little indentation in the sidewalks that allow people in wheelchairs easier access to the sidewalk from the street. But they aren’t the only ones who benefit, are they?
Parents with strollers, street vendors, people pushing carts, and even skateboarders benefit from these handy points of accessibility. By making the world more accessible, we not only accept more people “into the fold,” as it were, but also help more people than the intended audience.
Let’s look at a few examples and think of how many people it could benefit.
For the Visually Impaired
Why would someone who is visually impaired want to take part in a medium that is predominantly visual? one might ask.
Well, because it’s fun. Just because one can’t see well, doesn’t mean that person doesn’t want to be able to see things. As a personal example, my eyesight is so bad that without my glasses I’m legally blind. Even with my glasses my eyesight isn’t corrected to 20/20 because it can’t be.
Well, there are subtitles, Athena.
Yes, there are, but you know what would be even better? Subtitles for which I could adjust the text size. For virtual card games (or any game, really), that text could be scroll-able – as controlled by the player – so the text could be a good size and the words would go by at a speed that the person could see and process them.
But what about people who can see clearly, but are colorblind?
For that, I would recommend utilizing different color schemes. There are a few types of color blindness, with red-green being the most common, followed by blue-yellow color blindness, and complete color blindness. Within the first two categories, there are a few subtypes* but having options for the main types of color blindness could make a gaming experience accessible – and sometimes, simply possible – for other players.
The more options that can be worked into the programming early on, either for color blindness, brightness, text size and scrolling, the easier it will be to code in, and the more people who will feel welcome to playing your game.
For Hearing Impaired
Hearing loss is sometimes misunderstood as something that makes sounds muffled or quieter. This isn’t the case. Without getting into ear anatomy, the inner ear it set up to hear certain frequencies and not others (about 20 to 20,000 hertz (Hz) is the standard). However, it’s possible to lose the ability to hear certain frequencies, either on the low end or on the higher end of this number. While it might seem like not a big deal, because sounds in our world exist with many frequencies smashed all together (basically) to create the rich sounds that folks with typical hearing experience, if some of those frequencies “go out,” it greatly alters the sound. It can even make it hard to pick out sounds from a “crowd” of sound (think of listening to one person in a crowded room).
To be clear, this sort of auditory discrimination can be either caused by something physical within the ear, or something neurological, but the effect is the same: if all sounds are presented at the same time, picking out what is important can be hard.
There are a few things games can do to combat this. One of the easiest ones, and one that is already seen in games, are the volume sliders that allow a player to adjust voice volume, music volume, and sound effect volume. This is especially helpful because, unlike in the physical world, looking at the sound source (e.g., the person talking) doesn’t have that magical effect of making them seem louder than they are, so the volumes themselves need to be adjusted.
I would again suggest always having a subtitle option (which is something that most games have), and, for some more food for thought, what about always having a visual cue for a sound effect, especially important sound effects? For someone who has a hearing impairment or any sort of auditory difficulty, having an extra cue amidst all the sounds of the game could be the difference between being able to respond to the situation quickly, or winding up in a game over screen.
One Final Note About Physical Disabilites
Remember the two people I talked about above who I worked with? Do you want to know one of the things that they absolutely hated? Quick time events.
I mean, I think they are in good company, but where most of the people I’ve heard complain about quick-time events have mostly complained about how uninteresting they are (at least), they complained about physically not being able to complete the task.
It made me take a look at quick time events in general. Sure, the whole point of them is to push certain buttons when cued on the screen, and do so in a fairly timely manner, but one thing I noticed was the idea of rapidly pushing a single button. Why is this necessry? Usually the character is doing something like hanging on to a ledge or doing some sort of “sustained” activity. If a quick-time event is necessary, in my mind it could be holding a button while watching a bar fill up. Rapid button-mashing isn’t generally necessary, as it’s the rare occassion that, erm, it actually matters. I can honestly think of only one time where the game obviously measured how fast you were pushing the button and it was “necessary” in terms of the gameplay itself.
I’m not sure why, but out of all the quick-time events I’ve had to mash through, this is the only one I found “acceptable” in terms of “why am I mashing this button right now??” But I’m sure even that could be debatable.
Where We’re Heading
Microsoft are making waves with some recent (sort of) program updates, and an even more recent adapted controller. You might not know this, but Xbox now has a co-pilot mode, made available this past January. What this means is that the controls for a game can be mapped across two controllers. This is great for a number of reasons that I’m sure you can already imagine. For one, button tasks that require more motor planning or dexterity can be split between two people. For another, imagine wanting to share a game with someone who doesn’t play much: a younger sibling, and older parent or grandparent, or a significant other who is maybe humoring you for the first time. Imagine giving them some super powerful, screen-clearing attack, and then, when all is lost, they come in and save the day. It makes gaming accessible not just for people with a disability, but people who might be new to games. And can you imagine the let’s play/streaming shenanigans that could result from this?
More concretely is the new, above-mentioned controller. It has two huge buttons, a directional pad, and a whole panel of inputs so it can be further adapted by devices the individual might already have, in order to have easy access to the shoulder buttons and other buttons that a typical controller has.
And it even has a mount on the back so it can be attached to a stand for people who might need it positioned a certain way (for instance, around the parts of their wheelchair). My heart actually jumped a little when I thought about how enthralled my former clients would have been with this. Instead of having to “make due” with something jury-rigged, they’d be able to have a real controller set-up that works for them, just like most players have for themselves. To that, I tip my hat to Microsoft.
When it comes to the programming end of things, the more that can be accounted for (read: planned for) at the beginning of the project, the easier it will be to work things in to the gameplay. I might not have the most programming experience in the world, but I do know it’s a lot easier to create than to go back and “retrofit” something into an already-established code. Oh, and one more thing, while we’re talking about programming. It would be really great if the options menu is the first thing that comes up, even before that cool cutscene that will start the game. You never know who might appreciate the modifications in order to get the most enjoyment and benefit from it!
One Final Thought
While we’re on the subject of accessibility and accepting as many people into the gaming community as want to be part of it, let’s talk about language.
Can we all agree to stop calling the first difficulty setting something insulting like “casual” (whicih isn’t inherently insulting but seems to be an insult in the overall Gaming Community nonetheless), “super-easy,” or “baby mode”? Why alienate people who might just not have the time? Maybe, at one point, the person playing on “baby mode” was a “hardcore” gamer, but now has a spouse, a full-time job, and two children to think of, but they still want to feel like a hero at the end of the day without banging their head against the wall. Maybe it’s a person who doesn’t have typical motor control, and do you seriously want to make them feel bad because of that? What if the person is a returning veteran who lost a hand? A person in a car accident? Why perpetuate elitist culture and exclude or antagonize potential gamers? Isn’t it more more fun to include people in a fun activity?
One final thought. We talked about the curb cut effect. So, who might all of these accessibility changes benefit?
- The college student who rigged up a small or old TV and wants to play modern games on it
- New gamers or children who don’t have the reflexes or experiences to keep up with their siblings or friends
- Parents or busy adults who have limited time but still want to enjoy their hobby
And I’m sure you can think of more!
Like I said, the earlier in development these are taken into consideration, the easier it will be to work these ideas into your program. But the benefits of being an inclusive society are worth it, aren’t they?
What do you think? Are these reasonable requests, or should folks just deal with it because “that’s how it is”? Is there any modification you’d like to see in games? Who else might benefit from these sorts of changes? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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