By Michael Rock
Over the past several decades, video games have emerged as a major form of both art and entertainment. Though they are very popular among segments of the disability community, video games are not infrequently inaccessible to them for a number of reasons. Despite such challenges, efforts to better include people with disabilities in game development and access is increasing.
Video games may be inaccessible to people with disabilities for a variety of reasons. Red and green schemes to indicate whether characters are friends or enemies can be difficult for those with colorblindness. Similarly, motion sickness can make first person shooters and virtual reality games very unpleasant. In addition, people with hearing impairments or sensory issues may need subtitles to better enjoy the games that they play.
Some game developers and hardware manufacturers, such as Evil Controllers, have started to produce customized controllers that are more accessible to people with disabilities.
Despite the innovation and usefulness of such controls, they can be very expensive and thus unaffordable to many in the disability community, where limited incomes are common.
Other challenges gamers with disabilities may face are games that, while deeply challenging for most people, are literally impossible for themselves. The lack of difficulty settings in some difficult games, such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, is further exclusionary. Ultimately, the arguments against including such a setting do not hold water on matters of accessibility and inclusion.
Still, there are a number of other developments and initiatives designed to better include gamers with disabilities. AbleGamers, a nonprofit dedicated to disability inclusion in video games, launched Accessible.games, a website that creates online panels where gamers with disabilities may test features designed to help them play and offer developers feedback.
For gamers with impairments in communication, Apex Legends offers a ping system in which players may speak minimally to convey strategies and goals to teammates. Relying on easy button combinations, audio cues, and assorted markers players can place on the battlefields and maps.
The public sector is also becoming to get involved in video game inclusion. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CCVA), signed by then-president Barack Obama in 2010, is scheduled to take effect on December 31, 2019. Under this law, all new video games must take into account and address any communications or UI issues that may impede the ability of gamers with disabilities to play them from early on in development. In order to help guide developers, the law mandates they consult with people with disabilities on design and testing matters.
For children with disabilities marked by social deficits, such as autism and certain learning disabilities, the United States Department of Education is investing in a virtual reality program, called Virtual Reality Opportunities to Implement Social Skills (VOISS). First developed by researchers at the University of Kansas, the program has users interact with avatars in different school-themed settings with whom they can get positive or negative reactions based on factors such as eye contact and asking questions.
For those with such social deficits as well as mobility issues, massive multiplayer online role playing games, such asWorld of Warcraft, can provide the social interaction they would otherwise lack access to. In fact, there are many documented examples of people developing robust and healthy social lives that contrasted greatly with that in their immediate vicinity from such games.
Some players with disabilities may find minor hacks in games they enjoy so they can work around their deficits while playing them. A notable example of this phenomenon is “TJ” who has a talent for Call of Duty despite being blind. Using his ears in place of his eyes, he pays attention to the sound of nearby enemies to better track them. In order to navigate game maps, he shoots his in-game gun ahead and concludes what’s in front of him based on the sound of the bullet. With the aid of lowered background music, surround-sound headphones, and the selection of perks that increase audio feedback in the game, TJ has managed to score over 7,500 in-game casualties.
As video games become increasingly sophisticated, so too will the demands of gamers with disabilities eager to participate in this entertainment form. With existing and new developments and hacks, there is no good reason that they should be excluded.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.