Video gaming has a unique capacity to offer players the ability to explore and escape. Roughly 20% of the casual video games audience is comprised of disabled gamers, according to research by PopCap.

But for as long as gaming has been popular, the community has faced barriers from either inaccessible technologies or video games themselves.

But, things are getting brighter for the industry, says Vivek Gohil, Gaming Accessibility and Assistive Technology Consultant.

Disabled gamers and the video gaming industry

The gaming industry in 2019 certainly evolved by supporting gamers with disabilities through improved accessibility. Several major game publishers have championed inclusive gaming by removing barriers for access so that all gamers can have control over their experience.

Common barriers to access to video gaming:

  • conventional console device design is unusable, for example, for users with motor impairment or limited dexterity.
  • critical feedback from a game provided in only one format. For example, gamers who are colourblind may be unable to distinguish objects or patterns. Or for deaf or hearing impaired users, when game feedback is given exclusively through sound.
  • incompatibility with assistive technologies, like text-to-speech systems not working within video game interfaces.
  • lack of options to customise game controls, known as ‘remapping’ to suit the user’s needs.
  • lack of subtitles preventing the user from understanding the narrative plot and objectives.

There are around 33 million disabled gamers in the United States alone, according to charity AbleGamers. Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo are quickly learning that they can no longer exclude this lucrative group of passionate disabled gamers.

Did you know? 92% of people with impairments play games despite these difficulties, according to Game Accessibility.

Assistive technology and console improvements

In June 2018, Microsoft launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) to much praise. This new, adaptive console removed barriers to gaming for those with a wide variety of needs. A huge step forward, which propelled accessible consoles and adaptive gaming technology to the next level.

Logitech and Microsoft launch revolutionary Adaptive Gaming Kit

The biggest hardware accessibility story of 2019 was the Logitech G (the leading innovator of gaming technologies) announcing their Adaptive Gaming Kit. Designed in partnership with the Microsoft Inclusive Tech Lab and the leading accessibility groups AbleGamers and SpecialEffect.

The kit includes four light-touch buttons, two trigger type switches, and three small and three large buttons all designed to plug straight into the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Thanks to innovative velcro loop pads, it can be easily attached in a wide variety of combinations.

Logitech G addressing the financial barriers to accessible gaming accessories is a triumph. Thankfully, accessibility no longer has to be expensive as the Adaptive Gaming Kit only costs £89.99. Now gamers could fully utilise their XAC setup from day 1 with the Logitech kit. In the past, individual switches cost nearly £40 plus which quickly becomes expensive if your setup relies on multiple switches.

But accessibility in gaming is not just about consoles. It’s about evolving everything from representative storylines to subtitles and being able to customise controls to suit every kind of user.

 

Video games: the winners and losers

Offering options for non-verbal communication

Apex Legends, a multiplayer battle royale game (developed by Respawn Entertainment) landed in February. This fast-paced shooter focuses heavily on teamwork and communication but Apex Legends introduced the highly praised system called “Pinging”.

The ping system allows players to non-verbally communicate with teammates about mission objectives, weapon locations and enemy positions with a simple click of a button. Pinging isn’t designed for accessibility but as a usability feature for all gamers.

It gives people with speech impediments or those who rely on ventilators or breathing machines for example, the option to turn the microphones off and still communicate with others.

This simple feature allows gamers who may struggle with verbal communication or prefer not to talk in multiplayer games to still play Apex Legends whilst still feeling like a member of their team. It’s a perfect example of where inclusive design works for everyone.

 

Games rebuilt from the ground up with accessibility in mind

As with web accessibility, considering accessibility at the start of video game development simply makes more sense. The best standard of inclusive design comes when disabled gamers are involved in the design and development process from the start.

September 2019 marked the launch of the Xbox exclusive Gears of War 5, developed by The Coalition, with a stronger focus on inclusivity. The Canadian video game developer consulted with a variety of disabled streamers and gaming charities like Special Effect and Ablegamers.

From day one, Gears 5 was designed to fully support a variety of Xbox Adaptive Controller gamer setup. It brought levels of accessibility never before seen to the notoriously inaccessible third-person shooter genre.

I can confidently say that for me, the gold standard for accessibility is now Gears 5, overtaking Uncharted 4. As a gamer with severe muscle wastage, I get easily fatigued playing shooter-style games due to the lack of customisable, accessibility options.

Gears 5 understood these barriers and included options to accommodate gamers with physical, visual and auditory disabilities. I have picked my favourite accessibility options but there are many brilliant possibilities that I am yet to explore.

 

Better video game subtitling

Poor subtitling in the video game industry is still rife. Big commercial hits like The Spyro Reignited Trilogy and FIFA 2020 still fail those who need closed captions.

Though Gears 5 has been progressive with its subtitling options. All speakers are identified by name, all voices heard on the radio can be distinguished from those which are not. Emotional context, a backplate to increase contrast and subtitle text can be increased or decreased.

The Outer Worlds, another important 2019 release from Obsidian Entertainment, delivered a small, bite-sized role-playing game (RPG) where you explore alien planets and recruit your own squad. Unfortunately, it was also plagued by very small subtitles. It lacked basic readability; not great for a game with branching conversations and multiple characters. Or one which relies on inventory management.

Screenshot of video game Far Cry New Dawn with directional subtitling
Example of directional subtitling (‘Explosion’) in Far Cry: New Dawn

But there were other video game subtitling wins. When Ubisoft launched Far Cry: New Dawn in early 2019, game subtitles were on by default for all players. And around 97% of players did not turn them off. Ubisoft has been praised for their modern subtitling options, with backplates to make the text stand out, customisable text size and directional subtitles which point out where important sounds are within the scene.

 

Games console accessibility hacks

A feature for players with limited mobility never seen before is swapping sticks while aiming. This simple feature swaps the left (movement) and right (aiming) stick controls while locking on to a target and aiming. Combined with the option of single stick movement, it allowed gamers to control both movement and rotation effectively with one stick. Target Lock helps users by auto-aiming your target reticle on enemies. You can control the type of button tap challenges in-game so this setting allows players to hold the button down instead of having to quickly tap it.

The Coalition strives to ensure the experience is improved in further updates. Gears 5 initially launched with the lack of an aim toggle, meaning that aiming relies on the player to hold the aim trigger and then press shoot with the other trigger. Coalition listened to feedback from the disabled community and subsequently added this feature after launch.

 

Simple control schemes which offer choice are the real winners

2019 was the year of fantastic video game releases. We had the Western masterpiece of Red Dead Redemption 2 with a beautiful story, brilliant characters and the most realistic world ever created. Unfortunately, Red Dead Redemption 2 has a very complicated and unintuitive control scheme. Buttons perform multiple actions depending on whether the user presses or holds them. It makes it challenging to remap the controls to suit my needs.

The winner of numerous Game of the Year awards, however, was Control by Remedy Entertainment. The opposite of Red Dead Redemption 2, Control showed us that even for users with various abilities, a control scheme can still be simple. Even with full button remapping, though, I have found the game quite challenging even on lower difficulties.

(When talking about pure escapist fun, though, The Untitled Goose Game certainly delivered. It had simple controls so players can live the fantasy of a mischievous goose making life hell for inhabitants of an English village.)

 

Inclusive video gaming for the future

Gamers are eagerly anticipating next generation of games consoles, with the release of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X in 2020. It will be the first console generation where accessibility will be designed from development to provide inclusion for all gamers. I’m super excited to explore the evolution of gaming software design which will no doubt be influenced by this next generation of inclusive consoles.

Even though this decade of gaming is nearing its demise, it’s not going out without a bang. The Last of Us: Part II, a sequel to one of the biggest PlayStation exclusives, will launch next year. Developer Naughty Dog pioneered advanced accessibility features with the release of Uncharted 4. It will be interesting to see how they will top it.

It’s 2020 and gaming should be for everyone. It’s my hope that this year will be the most accessible and exciting yet.