Cultural Barriers to Accessibility in Video Games
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
By Eric Kellenberger Edited by Matthew Jacobs
Audio Recording by Laura Barker
Posted on Medium
Video games are important: 65%-of-the-U.S.-playing, more-money-than-movies-making, parts-of-the-brain-strengthening important. The idea of the “typical” gamer is flawed. People might picture a male teenager playing in their mother’s basement. But gamers are 46% female. Gamers are on average 33 years old. And somewhere between 20% and 30% of gamers have a disability requiring accessibility options in games.
Games are often difficult or impossible to play because of unintentional barriers encountered by people with disabilities. Accessibility expert and self-advocate Cherry Thompson explains,
“For disabled people, we often can’t join in just because no one thought of us. It’s unbearably isolating and sad to be faced with other people’s palpable joy and camaraderie when you have to watch from the sidelines.”
Xbox Adaptive Controller Review | All Access Life
When done right, accessibility allows all players to share in the experience and benefits of a game. Using the Xbox Adaptive Controller, blog writer and self-advocate Erin Hawley is able to play her favorite game, Overwatch (2016). In an interview with USA Today, Hawley remarks,
“Gaming online is really an outlet for me to make friends and to socialize. And that definitely impacts my self-esteem because I’m able to share my world and how I live with people.”
So if these options improve gamers’ experiences, why are many games still inadequate from an accessibility standpoint?
Accessibility is often hindered by cultural or ideological barriers that prevent some developers and gamers from believing games should be for everyone. This article will survey those barriers and provide reasons to challenge them.
Perhaps the most common cultural barrier to accessibility is also the most hurtful. Prejudice, an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason, leads to a variety of mistaken assumptions about the benefits of more accessible games.
One assumption is that people who cannot play games out of the box are simply unskilled. Players are told to “git gud”, an expression used to heckle inexperienced players, suggesting that impairments like low vision or deafness can be surmounted with grit and practice.
(*CONTENT WARNING VIOLENT GAMEPLAY*)
This Is How To Play Video Games If You’re Totally Blind | (HBO)
When some extraordinary gamers do manage to overcome barriers, like these blind gamers that play fighting games, others attempt to generalize this by saying that if they can do it, anyone can. Unfortunately, this fails to acknowledge that gamers vary widely in their abilities and needs, and that doing something “extraordinary” shouldn’t be necessary to play a video game.
“Remember when games weren’t meant to be ‘accessible’ to everyone?”
The above quote assumes there is a “correct” way to play, and that accessibility undermines that way. This is gatekeeping, and it’s harmful. Accessibility is about providing people with more options to play suitable to their circumstances, and it isn’t limited to people with disabilities, either.
Some examples come to mind. Rocket League’s (2015) orange and blue color scheme is perfect for people with color blindness, but the contrast makes distinguishing between teammates and opponents easier for everyone. Remapping a controller is often useful for players with motor impairments, but a fan of First-Person Shooter games may just want to unify their control schemes across titles. Consider especially that about 80% of people who use subtitles are not deaf or hard of hearing.
“I really enjoy a good apple pie. It’s sweet and delicious and just the right consistency. My family prefers blueberry pie. Personally, I don’t understand why anybody eats blueberry pies, but it doesn’t affect my experience eating the apple pie when my family consumes a blueberry pie. It’s from the same baker and it’s in the same box when I bring it home from the bakery, but my experience eating a pie from that bakery is just as good even if they enjoy a different flavor.”
Ironically advocating for accessibility requires making gaming conventions more accessible. For example, disability access coordinator Elsa Henry says that many conventions lack wheelchair ramps and sign language interpreters. She writes,
“Stop thinking about the ADA as a thing that makes your life harder and start thinking about it as a way to facilitate new voices, new stories, and new bodies being a part of your community.”
What gatekeeping misses and what advocates like Henry pinpoint is that increasing accessibility is valuable for everyone. The gaming community benefits from inclusion because diversity enriches the culture and scope of video games, and because Universal Design is simply good design.
Authorial intent is the belief that an author’s interpretation of their work should be given the most weight. Game developers cite authorial intent to defend their vision of a “difficult” game when it is inaccessible.
Authorial intent dominated gaming news with the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019), the newest addition from the creators of the notoriously difficult Dark Souls series. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the president of From Software (the developers of Sekiro), comments on the company’s decision to not include difficulty settings in an interview with Gamespot.
“We want everyone… to first face that challenge and to overcome it in some way that suits them as a player” Miyazaki says. “We want everyone to feel elated and to join that discussion on the same level. We feel if there’s different difficulties, that’s going to segment and fragment the user base.”
To deny accessibility options on this basis is to conflate the concepts of “difficulties” and “barriers”. Difficulty is a relative experience in players in response to intentional challenges created by game designers. Barriers, conversely, are unintentional challenges that selectively affect specific populations; barriers often engender stress and pain for these gamers, if they can even play the game at all. As Thompson points out,
“[Accessibility is] about barriers, not difficulty.”
There is a double standard regarding authorial intent stemming from elitism. Authorial intent only seems to be invoked when the alternative makes a video game “easier” in the eyes of prejudiced gamers. Hence, a gamer who mistakes accessibility as being concerned with difficulty is perfectly fine with people beating Dark Souls (2011) with a Rock Band Guitar or doing Super Mario Bros. (1985) speedruns, which are considered harder.
Another difficult game, Celeste (2018), provides an ‘assist’ mode for players who want to modify their experience. The designer, Matt Thorson, struggles with this addition because the subjective experience of difficulty is integral to the game, which compares mental illness to climbing a mountain. Ultimately, Thorson determines it necessary.
“I spent many hours fine-tuning the difficulty of Celeste, so it’s easy for me to feel precious about my designs. But ultimately, we want to empower the player and give them a good experience, and sometimes that means letting go.”
What Makes Celeste’s Assist Mode Special | Game Maker’s Toolkit
This is a more productive mindset for authors because their audience can play to their preference. Authors should strive to make their games accessible by default, but when their intentions result in design choices that prohibit gamers from playing, they should then additionally add accessibility options which rectify that.
Assumption of Cost
There is an assumption that the cost of adding accessibility features outweighs the potential revenue received from opening the game to a wider audience. This cultural barrier is distinct from the concrete costs of adaptive hardware that may be prohibitively expensive for gamers.
Evidence to support or refute the gains of accessible design is slippery because the best method to study it — comparing sales of two versions of the same game, identical except for the inclusion of accessibility options — would be an impracticality for researchers and a deterrent for game developers.
Nevertheless, there is partial evidence to suggest that accessibility aligns with a company’s financial goals. For one, research suggests that a whopping 57% of computer users would benefit from the use of accessible technology. It is fair to speculate that similar results would be found between computer users and video game players.
Additionally, gamers with disabilities form tight-knit communities online, and share which games are accessible. For example, websites like DAGERS post disability game reviews covering accessibility for visual, fine-motor, and auditory impairments. Consider this excerpt from the review of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019).
“Unfortunately, for players with most physical disabilities, it is almost completely inaccessible.”
Reviews like this one are important because they spare players from buying games they can’t play, but they also provide game developers with important feedback. Here is an untapped player base, a group of customers that are interested in spending money if the effort is made to make the game playable.
Making Games Better for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing | Designing for Disability
Mark Brown at Game Maker’s Toolkit also points out that many accessible design choices are “cheap and simple” to implement. There are already rigorously explored options for game accessibility and a large arsenal of free resources at a developer’s disposal.
Colar Oracle and Sim Daltonism are both examples of free software that simulate color blindness. Open Dyslexic is an open source font to increase readability for people with dyslexia. Netflix and the BBC give guidelines on how to make accessible subtitles. Microsoft, AbleGamers, The IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, Game Accessibility Guidelines, and Game Maker’s Toolkit are but some of the thorough, free resources online for making video games accessible.
Will we ever see a 100% accessible game? — Cherry Thompson — ACCESS GRANTED Podcast (Steve Saylor — BLIND GAMER)
One interpretation that should be avoided is to be overly cynical, assuming that the current accessibility problems exist or have permanence because of people’s prejudices.
On the contrary, the barriers discussed are cultural because they all stem from a customary set of shared beliefs. Barriers built on beliefs can be broken. The thing about culture is that it changes. And it has been changing.
The push for accessibility in video games is rapidly expanding. Charities like AbleGamers and SpecialEffect raise funds for adaptive controllers and organize community events. Self-advocates like Brandon Cole and Cherry Thompson write articles and speak at conferences. Researchers study game accessibility and designers invent new solutions.
The desire for video games to be made accessible for everyone is situated within the larger context of the fight and desire for accessibility. Damaging narratives and stigmas towards people with disabilities need to be replaced with an understanding of the value of people with different perspectives and similar wants for love and inclusion. Advocating for Universal Design will shift the cultural assumption that accessibility is a niche topic for the benefit of minorities toward an understanding that accessibility involves and affects everyone.
There is much more work to be done, though. Visit some of the websites in this article and learn more. Message some people; get involved. Participate in the growing community of volunteers, advocates, journalists, researchers, and designers and help enact meaningful change.