Disabled gamers move to the forefront: The importance of accessibility settings in video games
“Most people take it for granted but being recognised is a very awesome feeling for people like me,” says Keelin Foley, a gamer with a disability from Melbourne.
Ms Foley is a 22-year-old wheelchair user with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2. She is part of a massive community of gamers with disabilities both in Australia and globally.
The CDC estimates 61 million American adults live with a disability in the United States. With such a large audience unable to play, it’s no wonder developers and studios are finally starting to take notice.
Many people have turned to video games to overcome social isolation and escape reality during the pandemic but for disabled gamers, the opportunity to do the same has been a decades-long journey.
The shift of focus to virtual stories and experiences is shining a spotlight on just how many people are shut out of gaming by lacklustre accessibility options in hardware and software, but many game studios and charities are working to change this.
Ms Foley says she has “found comfort in video games … [when she has] not been able to participate in things able-bodied people would do.”
“Playing video games is where I feel the most ‘normal’. I like to really get into character and imagine myself as that person, living in that fictional world.”
Key remapping—changing the button or keyboard control layout to make abilities or controls easier to use—is an important feature for Ms Foley and one she says is becoming more commonplace. She says her favourite game World of Warcraft “just gets more and more accessible” with each year she plays.
I feel like when I use these features my gaming improves a lot, and I feel more confident in myself.
Ms Foley says one of the main things game developers still assume is that their audience has a full range of mobility and strength, and as such don’t have options to change settings.
In the past, she has had to return games that require a lot of motion control because she couldn’t play the game, describing it as a “huge waste of money … all due to one mechanic”.
The Last of Us Part II cleared the board in the accessibility categories of various game awards. Credit: Naughty Dog
Astra Gaedicke is a non-binary autistic person from Melbourne who also feels game developers make too many assumptions about their audiences that impact the accessibility of a game.
One of the main things they have noticed game developers continue to do is “assuming that people who have accessibility needs are not good at games or don’t enjoy a challenge … I think that’s something that is very deeply ableist and we need to address”.
Astra uses subtitles to ensure they don’t miss out on anything in game because of their sensory processing disorder. While subtitles are relatively commonplace in game, they’re not always helpful.
It’s not just having subtitles, but good subtitles … a lot of games just chuck them in there because they feel they have to, and then they’re subpar quality.
Subtitles are often too small, don’t contrast against the game’s visuals or are not consistently used for all sounds, leading to background or non-cutscene speech and sounds often being missed by those who rely on them.
The Accessibility in Gaming Awards were held late last year and spotlighted innovation and inclusion in all aspects of accessible gaming. Credit: Alannah Pearce.
The next step
While many games continue to miss the mark, recent games such as Naughty Dog’s, The Last of Us Part II—which has over 60 accessibility options in-built—have shown other developers the way forward for the gaming industry.
The action-adventure title took out the newly introduced ‘Innovation in Accessibility’ category at The Game Awards, as well as winning two awards at the inaugural Video Game Accessibility Awards late last year.
One of the features spotlighted was the extensive voice to text and other options for gamers with visual impairments. Blind gamer and streamer Steve Saylor told CNN in an interview he “couldn’t stop crying for a solid 10 minutes” as he filmed his first impressions of the game.
Ms Foley says making video games as inclusive and accessible as possible will “not only … help with sales of games, but also the self-esteem of people with disabilities.”
Both Astra and Ms Foley say further consultation and feedback from disabled players is needed for the games industry to continue to improve.
“There is no one thing for accessibility, you have to keep looking for different ways people can benefit from different things,” Astra says.
“Developers need to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ with accessibility, there’s always going to have to be multiple options.”