December 14, 2020

‘Next-gen’ gaming isn’t here until video games are accessible for all – fortunately progress has been made for gamers with disabilities

Gaming has never been more popular than during the coronavirus pandemic. The industry has shown significant growth in both sales and user engagement as players, confined to their homes thanks to lockdown, look to be transported to different environments and explore new worlds.

During the second lockdown in England, gaming giants PlayStation and Xbox released their highly anticipated next generation of consoles. Gamers have waited years for these as they promise better graphics, speed and performance, and while initial stock is limited this generation is likely to be around for several years.

A new age of opportunity for gamers with disabilities, or a missed one?

The launch of the new consoles offers a significant opportunity for video game developers and console manufacturers to make the gaming industry more inclusive and improve accessibility in both software and hardware.

Gamers across the world have also long been calling for improved representation of disabled characters in video games, and a move away from portraying disability using harmful stereotypes. There’s no doubt that there’s a long way to go still, but there are encouraging signs developers are listening.

Putting in-game representation aside for the moment; with more powerful machines, an improved developer environment and increases in graphical fidelity, more resources should now be able to be allocated to accessibility options. Consideration should therefore be given to inclusivity as a goal for the industry.

However for disabled gamers with accessibility requirements, change can also bring ‘fear and uncertainty’, and particular concerns have been raised about changes to the Playstation 5’s new controller, the Dualsense. Featuring adaptive triggers and improved haptic feedback the Dualsense controller promises more immersive gaming, but for gamers with muscle weakness or restricted grip the changes could make certain games extremely uncomfortable or, worse still, completely unplayable.

At the moment, only time will tell whether this new generation’s advancements will be a boon for gamers living with a disability.

What has already happened?

By working closely with accessibility charities such as SpecialEffect – a charity which helps gamers with physical disabilities to play with adapted setups – the gaming industry has made huge progress on inclusivity in the last few years, delivering incredible and affordable options such as the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

The work that started with the last generation needs to continue into the next to ensure disabled gamers are not excluded. Fortunately the new Xbox Series X and Series S consoles will continue to support the Adaptive Controllers, enabling disabled gamers to play the next generation of games with existing equipment.

We spoke to Mark Saville at SpecialEffect about the progress enabled by the Adaptive Controller, and its impact on their services, in recent years:

The introduction of the Xbox Adaptive Controller has made a big difference for us and the people we work with, in terms of offering a reliable first-party solution to get started trying out different access methods.

The Adaptive Controller hasn’t replaced some of the more specialised pieces of kit that will always be the right fit for certain people. However, I think a lot of families and people who are new to gaming, in particular, feel more confident working with a setup that includes hardware which works together without too much effort involved.

This development in controller tech has really streamlined the process of building some of the more common setups we introduce to those we work with. This has been made even simpler as more and more accessories have come out that are compatible with the device specifically, such as the Logitech Adaptive Switch Kit.

Other custom designed controllers can be universally used for both the PC, PlayStation, or Xbox, including one-handed controller sticks and lightweight controllers. These hardware improvements, when combined with software, can present amazing opportunities for disabled gamers.

Improving accessibility beyond the controller

The Playstation 4 was the first console to offer system-level button remapping, something that can greatly improve the user experience for disabled gamers. Furthermore, most video games now come with in-game accessibility features, a significant improvement from years gone-by.

SpecialEffect has provided support and advice for software development, helping the likes of EA, Playground Games, DoubleFine, and Rare to make games like Forza Motorsport, FIFA, and Sea of Thieves more easily playable. Mark at SpecialEffect explains how this helps:

Every so often there are conflicts where a certain piece of hardware that a person is really comfortable using is no longer supported, for example, or a new console or game is released that requires some tweaking to a person’s setup. Luckily, there is usually a way to work around these issues, especially when game developers themselves are increasingly adding their own accessibility options. Overall, the progression of gaming technology is seen as positive by our team, as it tends to allow for more flexibility.

Take The Last of Us 2, a PlayStation 4 exclusive survival game, which has three accessibility presets which the user can enable. The Vision Accessibility Preset is designed for players who are blind or have low vision. The Hearing Accessibility Preset is designed for players who are deaf or hard of hearing. The Motor Accessibility Preset is designed for players with a physical or mobility disability. Each of these presets can be tweaked and adjusted with hundreds of combinations, and the game has been widely praised for the granular level at which individual players could customise its display options.

The hope is that these software improvements will continue with the next generation of leading titles. If so, the early signs are promising. The recently released Viking epic, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which coincided with the release of the next generation of consoles, has a lot in the way of in-game accessibility features. When players start the game, they are immediately taken to a variety of options to tailor the game to suit their needs, improving the discoverability of accessibility options without hunting through excessive menus.

Beyond the game-makers

The accessibility options provided by games and the controllers used to play them are only part of the equation that ensures people with disabilities can get into gaming. Therefore, whilst it is important to press developers and manufacturers to ensure they’re complying with the needs of everyone, we perhaps shouldn’t expect them to provide the whole experience.

Mark at SpecialEffect was keen to stress that, even when game developers and peripheral manufacturers get everything right, expert assistance may still be necessary:

It’s also worth bearing in mind that a broader definition of accessibility could be considered to depend on a large number of factors that extend beyond the level of accessibility provided by the games, the platforms and any adapted control setups.

The gamer’s environment for example: Can the person sit comfortably and safely for their gaming time? Is the lighting suitable? What assistance do they need to position any adapted setup correctly? These are all considerations that our specialist assessment team take into account when helping people to play to the very best of their abilities.

There is still a long way to go to improve inclusivity and ensure the promises of the next generation are available to all. However, accessibility and inclusivity represent just two aspects of progress for disabled gamers.

To truly drive change, the gaming industry needs to continue to work closely with organisations – such as SpecialEffect and AbleGamers – and listen to leading voices, both in the gaming press and on social media, who want to see increased positive representation and diversity in both the games themselves and the professionals who work to design and develop them. To be truly ‘next-gen’, the industry needs a diverse, vibrant and inclusive community engaging in games which are truly representative of the full range of society’s experiences.

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