Generally, video games are considered to appeal to people who don’t really like using their bodies. Video games are for skinny dweebs who couldn’t make it in sports who have to sit on their couch pretending to be a beefy super-soldier instead of a wimp.
Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true. The bit about not having to use your body, I mean. If you have even moderate physical impairment, playing games can become an incredible uphill battle. I mean, try holding a controller in one hand. Now try playing really anything at all. What about doing it with no hands at all? Gaming might not exactly be strength training, but the amount of fine motor control it takes is significant. For some people, that can be a huge obstacle. And games aren’t exactly helpful when it comes to trying to make up that difference. In my experience, most games think it’s revolutionary to include left-handed options, much less a method of reassigning the buttons for one-handed control.
I recently found the website ablegamers.com, which is designed as an alternative review source for people with most sorts of disability. The major groups included are people who have precision issues or hearing issues, people who are color-blind, and people who need to play one-handed. What I found interesting was that first of all, the scores are almost universally bad. Even games that have a top place in my personal pantheon of excellent fun, like Batman: Arkham Asylum, are ranked abysmally. A surprising number of AAA games offer absolutely no concessions, or minimal ones, to people with any disability. For instance, the Arkham Asylum review mentions that the subtitles in-game don’t identify any of the ambient sounds, conversations, or announcements. So, for instance, you rarely hear the Joker, never hear his minions, and don’t get the full picture of the environment. Color-blind gamers may find the enemy-identification in “Detective Mode” that paints enemies red difficult to use. A saving grace is that the combat system is for the most part 2-button, and can be played one-handed. Which is nice, because if you wanted to re-map the controls, you’d be out of luck.
Console shooters tend to score the lowest as they frequently offer almost no concessions, particularly online ones. Most, for instance, provide subtitles, but only in the sense that cutscene dialog is displayed. In games where the tap tap tap of footsteps, the cock of a gun, or the sound of a grenade clattering nearby is frequently the difference between life and death, the complete lack of detailed subtitling makes online play a huge hassle for deaf or hearing impaired gamers. And when a shooter is on a console, it frequently lacks the remappable controls that make PC shooters a bit easier for those with disabilities to play.
The other interesting thing is looking at which games do score highly on AbleGamers. One of the top games of the past year was Bayonetta, with an 8.5/10. Bayonetta is a game with which I have a slight love affair. As much as I like it, though, I figured it had to be a mistake. How can you play a game that can get that insanely difficult with any sort of disability? Easily, it turns out. See, Bayonetta has an “automatic” mode. That allows it to be played easily one-handed. Bayonetta also has reasonably detailed subtitles, no need to listen for specific audio cues (there’s usually a sufficient lightshow attached to any enemy attack), and the garish color scheme doesn’t include anything that would confuse a color-blind gamer, as no part of the gameplay depends on accurately identifying a color. Bayonetta’s high marks show that it’s not that you need to make your game simplistic or casual in order to appeal to gamers with disabilities, you just need to provide options for play that don’t exclude them entirely.
Most games don’t do that. Most games think people who are deaf just need subtitles for the cutscenes, not for any sort of incidental dialog or audio cues. Actually, most games just assume that no one with any sort of disability will play them, most likely. That’s not only mistaken, it’s a crazy business strategy. There are millions and millions of potential customers out there who just want to be able to make “Right Trigger” aim and “A” shoot. Color blindness is so common and correcting for it is so easy there just isn’t an excuse. Maybe you can just not make mini-games that require you to arrange red things on a green field. Subtitles can include things like “[ahead and to the right]”, or at least some of the information that’s been standard in closed captioning for years. It’s not that small a niche to pander to, and it’s weird that so few developers have put in any effort.
There are at least some people making the effort. The people at SpecialEffect, a UK charity, are making some absolutely impressive strides in opening up gaming to more people, including some really interesting eye-tracking control alternatives.
Another interesting thing to check out is AskACapper, a gamer with quadriplegia. He is… way better than me at Call of Duty. He’s been petitioning for a long time for games to include more options to re-map and alter controls. In the meantime he uses his face