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Gaming For All: How The Industry Is Striving To Accommodate Disabled Gamers

by Javy Gwaltney on Jul 03, 2017 at 02:00 PM

“I like proving people wrong,” says Michael Begum, one of the best Street Fighter players in the world, unable to help flashing a cocky grin. I can’t blame him. Begum, a.k.a. BrolyLegs, has more than earned it, making a name for himself and rising to the top as the number-one ranked Chun-Li player in Ultra Street Fighter IV. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Begum achieved that ranking by only playing the game with his mouth.

Born with arthrogryposis, a condition that prevents muscle growth, Begum spent most of his gaming life learning how to play with controllers not built for people with physical disabilities. “My first game was Super Mario Brothers 3 for the NES,” he recalls. “I put my wrist on the d-pad and I could move my hand to use the directional pads and I could put my chin on the buttons. As long as the television was on the floor, I could see the screen and play.”

Begum’s not alone in his struggles with having to rig controllers or devise strategies to play video games. A recent study revealed that one in five Americans are physically disabled. How is the gaming industry accommodating this portion of the population? We chatted with players, developers, and advocates about progress in accessibility and video games to learn more.

Understanding The Obstacles
When I put out a public query to our readers, asking them about their disabilities and how it affects their gaming lifestyles, my inbox received more than 300 emails. Many detailed how conditions like blindness, cerebral palsy, missing limbs, and deafness get in the way of enjoying games. It soon became clear that the number of disabilities capable of impeding someone’s enjoyment poses a daunting problem for those who want to make video games more accessible.

Luckily, people are willing to take on that challenge.

The Ablegamers charity began life in 2003 as a blog for EverQuest. The organization has changed a few times over the years, going from an info dump for the disabled to its current form as a charity and nonprofit-consultant organization for developers. “We bridge the gap between the desire to play video games and the abilities that people have,” says COO Steven Spohn. Born with spinal muscular atrophy, Spohn wears a modified head array that allows him to throw his head around to control actions in games.

“Every single week we get inquiries from developers asking us how to make their games more accessible,” he explains. “All of these companies – Paradox, Harmonix, EA, Activision – they come to us and ask us to help.” The willingness for developers to work on accessibility is what Spohn considers to be the biggest improvement in accommodation in games over the past decade. He recalls how Ablegamers took a camera crew to GDC in 2009 and asked more than 200 developers if they thought about disabled people when making games. Only three of them said yes. One person even laughed and walked away. “It’s been a great improvement in attitude since then,” he says. AbleGamers isn’t the only consulting group either. Former Game Informer intern Joshua Straub runs DAGER System, a website that rates games by accessibility and also consults with developers.

Cathy Vice, a popular game critic and accessibility advocate who writes under the pseudonym IndieGamerChick, has epilepsy and is also appreciative of how far the industry has progressed. “Five years ago, it was uncommon to see developers, indie or otherwise, include accessibility features. Since then I've spoken with hundreds of developers, including directors at major third-party studios, about accommodating players like me.”

Vice believes that it’s her responsibility to manage her epilepsy and not place that bur den on developers. However, she also thinks that accessibility features are becoming more natural: “These days, most developers have accessibility in mind from the drawing-board stages of creation… [Accessibility options] feel like they were meant to be there, not grafted on years after the fact.”

The Road Ahead
While a lot of progress has been made on the front of accessibility, there’s still room for improvement. Karen Stevens, who’s been working as EA’s accessibility advocate since 2013, is one of the people working at a major publisher seeking out how to improve accommodations for disabled gamers. Stevens has played a critical role in getting accessibility features in Madden NFL 17, which include brightness options and colorblind support. Other EA titles that include notable accessibility features are Battlefield, SimCity – both have colorblind settings – and FIFA, which lets players customize their controls.

EA allows people to send accessibility-related feedback to a public email address. “What I’m using the feedback for is to see what would make sense to happen next,” Stevens explains. “That doesn’t necessarily mean any feedback I hear will happen next. It just means that feedback is already on our radar, and that’s a step in the right direction.”

Other developers have taken up the mantle of accessibility advocacy recently as well. The number of accessibility options in Uncharted 4, which let players choose their targeting preference and let them hold down a button during quick-time events instead of rapidly pressing it, were heralded for how considerate they were. At the behest of fans’ requests, NetherRealm Studios patched in an accessibility mode for Injustice: Gods Among Us that filled the game with audio cues to help visually impaired players during battles. Begum notes that Street Fighter letting him remap his controller is what lets him play to the level where he can compete in tournaments.

In spite of all the progress made, new technology integrated into gaming brings new problems. Virtual reality is an experience that’s closed off to a large number of disabled gamers. “VR for people with disabilities is amazing – except when it sucks,” Spohn says. “If you’re somebody who has one hand or limited vision, you’re not going to be able to participate in a lot of what VR has to offer.” He also has concerns about the Nintendo Switch, which doesn’t allow third-party modifications yet, keeping people with disabilities from playing the console. “We get so many people asking us, ‘Hey, can I play Switch if I need assistive technology?’ and every time I tell them no.”

Still, as noted by disabled gamers, critics, and developers: it’s hard to deny the genuine improvements the industry has made over the past decade. From colorblind options in menus to controller modifications and studios explicitly seeking out how to make games more accessible, disability advocates seem prepared for the long haul and ready to strive for a world where everyone everywhere can play video games.