Opinion – The Value Of "Inaccessible" Games

by Game Informer Editorial on Oct 11, 2017 at 08:00 PM

It's physically excruciating for me to play Crash Bandicoot. I love Crash Bandicoot. Am I a sadist? No. I have cerebral palsy, and I hate it.

The reality of cerebral palsy dominates the lives of thousands of gamers like me. It's a bit like being caged. Accessible video games can offer a key that opens that gate for a short time, but at the end of the day, the door swings shut, and we're back where we started. Sometimes the best way to escape from the cage is not with a key but with a battering ram, not with accessibility but with inaccessibility. I enjoy inaccessible games.

I enjoy games that are not designed for the disabled, such as old-school Mario, Punch Out, and, of course, Crash. I enjoy them for similar reasons that able-bodied players play Bloodborne and Dark Souls: the challenge. The difference is I’m not fighting Cortex or Bowser. I’m fighting cerebral palsy. Inaccessible games give me the opportunity to go toe-to toe-with my own physical limitations and contend with them until one of us breaks. It doesn’t matter if a game hurts my fingers, or if it takes me an hour to progress through a five-minute platforming sequence. I will not break. These experiences give me a challenge to conquer and allow me to feel like I’ve bested my own worst enemy. 

I don’t say this to give the game industry a pass on accessibility. Every disabled player should have the privilege of finding a game that is accessible to their needs. But there’s value in inaccessible games. One of my closest friends in the game industry tells me that he feels like he wasted the first 15 years of his career as a producer for an AAA studio because none of the early games he worked on are even remotely accessible. All he sees is the gap between the standards that I have talked about in previous articles for good accessibility and the work that he has produced. He doesn’t see that when I get overwhelmed by my disability, I use his games as an arena to fight through my own limitations. 

My disability says my reflexes are too slow. I force my hands to move faster. As the pain intensifies, I just try harder, because I’m determined to not let my disability dictate what I can and can’t do. At the end, either I’ve reached my goal, or I’m exhausted. Either way, I’ve bested my own worst enemy. It’s a feeling akin to finally standing up to the neighborhood bully that has pushed you around all your life.

In my experience, advocates for game accessibility tend to make qualitative judgments that call an inaccessible game categorically worse than an accessible one. I don't think this is true. The game industry thrives on diversity, and part of that diversity makes room for games that are, by nature, inaccessible. 

Those inaccessible games can provide value to disabled gamers. It's very hard to explain but the rush that I get from beating a boxer on Punch Out for NES, or a stage in Super Mario World, can’t really be matched by anything that I experience in the real world. It makes it worth the cramps, the pain, the frustration, and it puts my disability in a new light. Something that isn't just a jailer. Something that can be fought. Something that can be contended with. Something that can ultimately be conquered. I don’t expect many disabled gamers to agree with me, but for me, inaccessibility has value.

Josh Straub is the founder and editor-in-chief at DAGERS, the leading game journalism site for disabled gamers, featuring disability game reviews and perspectives on video game accessibility. He also was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of 1 and has been wheelchair bound all his life. Through his company DAGERS he has developed an accessibility consulting firm to help developers understand how to make games more accessible. Straub is also pursuing a Ph.D in Human Factors and Ergonomics at the University of Minnesota.