Access for all: meet the organisations and developers supporting disabled players

AbleGamers

AbleGamers’ Game Accessibility Lab at 2012’s Abilities Expo in Chicago. Image credit.

Carlos Vasquez can hold his own against the very best Mortal Kombat players in the world. He competes in tournaments and reached the finals of his pool at EVO 2013, despite having being rendered blind by closed-angle glaucoma. Vasquez has memorised the game’s combos, along with their audio cues, so he can play at the highest level using only what he hears.

Vasquez and many others are indicative of the inclusiveness of gaming as a hobby – take League Of Legends player Keith ‘Aieron’ Knight, whose muscular dystrophy forces him to use his face and feet in lieu of his hands. Even so, there’s an accessibility gulf between the massmarket game and disabled players.

Xbox One and PlayStation 4 currently rate “somewhere between apocalyptic and horrible” for accessibility, according to Steve Spohn, the COO of charity AbleGamers. The major problem, he explains, is that custom controller support is bare-boned on Xbox One and nonexistent on PS4, meaning that none of the peripherals popular among physically impaired players work.

The World Health Organisation counts over one billion people as suffering from some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million have some degree of ‘profound’ impairment. Most of these billion-plus, Spohn says, “only need a little help, such as remapping controls or maybe one device that helps them use an additional input”. A returning soldier who lost one of his arms, or a stroke victim left numb on one side, might be easily enabled with a foot pedal. AbleGamers and charity SpecialEffect try to step in with personalised solutions that allow disabled players to enjoy their favourite games even if they can’t hold a controller or see what’s onscreen. But in most cases, smart development is a better solution than custom peripherals.

It’s not just custom controllers; game designers can help make their games more accessible. Image credit.

Last year, Brian Schmidt turned his 25 years of experience in designing audio systems and composing soundtracks for games to developing a title for the visually impaired. Ear Monsters entered a blossoming genre of audio games on iOS, where it was met warmly after a few kinks were ironed out. “I naïvely thought that if I played with a blindfold or covered the screen,” says Schmidt, “that I would be able to emulate the blind player experience. I was wrong.”

Schmidt had the screen automatically rotate so that it could never be upside down, but this left many blind players complaining that the game was backwards, because they often tilt the screen away from them or place the device on their lap. Blind players also struggled to figure out the potential monster positions, represented for sighted players by small circles on the screen. Schmidt learned and added tutorial hints in the game’s VoiceOver mode.

The only way to account for these kinds of problems is to get people with disabilities in as testers, he says. Which is exactly what Lindsay Lauters Miller is trying to do at Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth, where she heads user experience and testing. “Recruitment is always a little tricky,” she says, “but we’ve had a lot of success with getting people to come in via word of mouth and by partnering with different game-related clubs and organisations in San Diego.”

Miller’s investment is personal: her husband’s motor impairments make it difficult for him to handle a controller in a precise way, so she consults the website gameaccessibilityguidelines.com as well as AbleGamers’ ‘Includification’ document when compiling user test reports.

“What’s an impassable barrier for
someone with an impairment is usually
still a bit of a barrier for everyone else”

Following accessibility guidelines has knock-on benefits for everyone, too. “What’s an impassable barrier for someone with an impairment is usually still a bit of a barrier for everyone else,” Ian Hamilton, a consultant and former BBC senior designer, explains. “You can’t mess with a game’s core mechanic; if you do that, you’ve made the essence of the game inaccessible to everyone, but most accessibility guidelines are simply good game design that benefits all players.”

Spohn agrees. “If you have a tutorial that’s horrible,” he says, “then you’re not only shunning the people who have cognitive disabilities, you’re [also] shunning everyone who doesn’t just want to pick up the game and go.”

For hardware and software developers, the steps necessary to make gaming more inclusive are mostly minor, and colour-blind modes and subtitles are just the start. Impairment can strike through accident, illness or age, and accessible design, where possible, is an investment that could one day be more personally beneficial than any young designer may yet realise. “Gaming has become a therapy,” Spohn says, “and this kind of accessibility has become a quality-of-life issue more than an entertainment issue.”