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The simple solutions to better games

Game accessibility has come a long way, but there’s still more to do

In 2010, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, an action-adventure game in which players use stealth and parkour to navigate a vibrant open world. It was one of the biggest games of the year, but it only came with two options that might generously be called accessibility features: players could customize the control scheme and turn on subtitles.

The subtitles were an improvement — the first game in the series didn’t have any at all — but they didn’t have labels to show which character was speaking, making it difficult for players to follow conversations if they couldn’t hear the audio. There were no options specifically designed for people with vision, motor, or cognitive disabilities. For these players, Brotherhood, like many games of its time, fell on a spectrum from frustrating to completely unplayable.

In the 10 years that followed, the landscape of game accessibility changed dramatically. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, released in 2020, has more than 30 accessibility options, including closed captions and subtitles with adjustable sizes, backgrounds, and the option to display speaker names. There are options for text to speech, colorblind modes, alternative inputs, aim assistance, and multiple difficulty settings. The game is still far from perfectly accessible, but the evolution of the series points to growing investment in accessibility across the game industry over recent years.

“It’s been a slow climb up to this point,” says Steve Saylor, a blind game accessibility advocate. “But as the momentum has kind of grown, it just keeps getting faster and faster.”

Accessibility has gradually become more of a priority across the tech industry. Phones, tablets, and computers come with a range of features built-in, from screen readers to support for different input options. Streaming platforms are slowly adding audio descriptions to more movies and shows. Social sites more often give users the ability to add alt text or captions to their content, and more people are learning to use them.

The shift toward accessibility is particularly tangible in games. The increased visibility of disability advocates and consultants across the internet, along with developments in tech and industry guidelines, has led to more focus on making games that are accessible to a wider range of people. “The amount of information you can get out there to help developers be aware of what changes they need to make, or what things to implement, is really, I think, more prevalent than it was 10 years ago,” says Kyle Abbate, a game accessibility advocate.

Many players and developers credit Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II for raising the bar of what’s possible — and expected — in new games. The game, released in 2020, includes over 60 accessibility settings, as well as presets for players with vision, hearing, and motor disabilities. Other recent blockbuster games, like Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, have been recognized for their wide-ranging accessibility features. Indie studios and developers are also upping the ante, with games like Severed Steel and HyperDot being influenced by research about and feedback from disabled players.

But there’s still work to do. Plenty of games barely meet the minimum of accessibility options, and even those that exceed expectations have room for improvement. A more inclusive future is emerging in games — if the people making them care to reach for it.

“Even with The Last of Us Part II coming out with the amazing amount of accessibility that’s there, that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of accessibility,’’ says Saylor. “It just means it’s the end of the beginning.”

More of the features that already exist

I asked people for their biggest dreams about the future of games: new gadgets, augmented reality, brain implants. But most of them pointed to fairly simple solutions that they want to see more of, rather than tech possibilities straight out of science fiction. “The future of gaming, for me, is going to be a number of features that have already been slowly developing over the years,” says Ben Bayliss, editor in chief of Can I Play That.

As much as accessibility options have expanded, many games are still missing basic features like consistent captions or customizable controls. “It’s not really like I wish games would do ‘X’ thing; I just think that there needs to be more consistency,” says Abbate. He relies on the ability to remap controls in games, but sometimes even games that enable remapping have certain keys that can’t be changed. “You assume every game has remappable keybinds — it’s 2021, they should,” he says, “but you’d be surprised.”

Abbate compares basic settings like control remapping to ramps for wheelchair users. “Just to get me into the game, that should be there,” he says. “Some games are still missing the ramp.”

Saylor uses a number of options — rescaled UI, subtitles, increased text size, screen magnification, high contrast modes, text to speech, menu narration — when they’re available. But he says that even though games increasingly have at least some features, like subtitles, they’re often missing other vital features, like the ability to change the size of text.

Those features are also lacking at the console level. Several console systems have “amazing options to navigate the system itself, but they don’t really tap into the games themselves,” says Saylor. “I would love to be able to see that meshed together.”

Players also want more games to have options like assist modes, invincibility options, or adjustable difficulty levels. Hades, Celeste, and Control have compelling assist modes, some of which were added after launch in response to player feedback, but some developers (and fans) have been reluctant to sacrifice the difficulty that, for them, is a major part of a game’s appeal. Games like Dark Souls, celebrated for being notoriously punishing, create a high barrier to entry for disabled players.

“I want to be able to play Souls-like type games and be able to complete those and customize the experience,” says Abbate.

Accessibility features could also be advertised more prominently when new games are coming out, included in trailers and demos, and clearly listed in online stores and physical packaging. Google Stadia lists the accessibility features of games in its store, though they’re only visible to Stadia members. Xbox recently launched accessibility feature tags for games in its stores, with games needing to meet specific criteria to get the tags. Many players also want the accessibility information within games to be easier to understand; menus packed with toggles and jargon can be overwhelming for people with cognitive disabilities or who just aren’t very familiar with games.

“I’d love to see, at some point, the industry come together to say, ‘Look, here’s some standard ways we can talk about this stuff and let people know about this stuff ahead of time, before they preorder a game, before they purchase a game,’” says Brannon Zahand, senior gaming accessibility program manager at Xbox.

More shared resources across the industry could make it easier to build in accessibility at all levels of game creation. Xbox has publicly available reference materials like the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines and Gaming and Disability Player Experience Guide, but the most robust guidance and testing go to developers that publish with Xbox. EA recently shared open patents and open-source code for its accessibility tech but doesn’t offer resources beyond those documents for how to implement the tech. Most large companies keep their tech solutions under lock and key, only sharing with their subsidiary studios.

Game accessibility could advance more rapidly if publishers, game engine developers, and studios went a step further in sharing what they know, even if it means sharing with the competition.

Hardware improvements

Another major element of game accessibility is hardware. There are existing devices like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming Kit, and Tobii’s Eye Trackers, as well as various mix-and-match solutions cobbled together by players. But clever devices, while useful, come with their own problems.

“Everything is so expensive. And that’s just why we always create our own stuff,” says Abbate, who has cerebral palsy. “My setup is a USB touchpad velcroed to a piece of cardboard underneath my keyboard because it’s just 30 bucks,” he says, compared to around $200 for an Xbox Adaptive Controller and Logitech switches.

Whether a player goes for brand-name tech or homebrewed solutions, they need a fair amount of knowledge and effort to set it up. They have to decide which devices to try, figure out what adaptor cables are needed, map game controls to the equipment, and then get used to playing with something that’s not a conventional controller or keyboard — and all that work could be for just one game. Players might also have to reconfigure everything if they move from playing on a PC to a console and back.

More people could use adaptive hardware if it was less complicated. “One of the challenges is that we have this great tech; you have an adaptive controller; we have switches; we have software accessibility settings of the platform and in the games. But if you don’t know about it, and you don’t know how to configure it, it’s kind of useless,” says Zahand. “So, I think part of it is in the future, we want to have more documentation to make it easier for people to understand this stuff. But I also think we want to use both some better inclusive design in how we build the tech itself, to make it easier to understand and comprehend.”

The price and complexity issues might be reduced if hardware had more compatibility across a number of devices and software. “One thing that I really hope will happen is we’ll start to see companies — and not just game companies, but hardware companies, technology companies — start to think more about interoperability,” says Zahand.

The brain stuff

There’s also the dream of being able to play games with your mind, performing actions by simply thinking about them, letting even people with very low mobility play complex games with little effort. None of the tech we currently have quite measures up to the idea of controlling a game with your thoughts, but there are some things in the works that might get at least a little bit closer within the next decade.

EEG headsets, which sense electrical activity in the brain, have built some hype but are generally more gimmick than science. An EEG can pick up patterns in brain waves, but the most accurate readings come from electrodes placed carefully on the scalp with conductive gel, not consumer headsets. Some headsets have tested well for specific uses, like as controls for very simple game mechanics, but we’re likely still a ways out from them replacing other adaptive hardware options.

Myoelectric tech, which is more feasible for games, comes close to mind-reading by using electrical signals in muscles to control devices. Prosthetic limbs that are controlled with myoelectric sensors already exist, and some researchers have suggested that video games could be useful for training people to use them. Microsoft and Apple have both researched the potential of myoelectric sensors for controlling devices, and Meta (aka Facebook) wants to make myoelectric wristbands to complement its AR glasses.

At the more extreme end of these game control possibilities are brain implants. Nathan Copeland, who has a spinal cord injury, has spent six years participating in lab research on brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. Most of his time in the lab is spent controlling a robotic arm with his BCI, but he’s also been able to use it to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and other older games with basic control schemes.

Copeland has enough motion in his arms to use adaptive controls like joysticks, but the BCI gives him another way to play. “Though right now I can only play basic games, I still think that’s super cool,” he says. “Sonic the Hedgehog is just a good game, no matter what. So if I can do it with my brain, it’s just a little extra challenge. I could plug my joystick in, and I could do it better with the functionality and the equipment I have, but that’s not the funnest way to do it.”

Researchers are able to record signals in Copeland’s brain when he thinks about different arm or hand movements and map them to a robotic arm, a process that can also be applied to controlling a cursor or pressing keys. “If you can imagine doing different hand postures, you could potentially map that onto buttons on a video game controller,” says Jennifer Collinger, one of the researchers who work with Copeland.

“I think the field has really progressed a lot in the last 10 years in terms of the complexity of control that can be demonstrated at the same time,” says Collinger. But there’s still plenty of research to be done, and she doesn’t expect much of a consumer market for BCIs. Their potential is more as tools for restoring limb function, communication, and computer access for people like Copeland. “Because it requires a brain implant, I don’t think that anybody is specifically trying to develop an implanted technology for video game control,” she says.

Cultural shifts

Beyond all the things that go into games and how they’re played, there are changes needed in the broader culture around gaming. There’s still a lot of ignorance about disabled players, even as awareness for accessible gaming has increased.

“I want to see a gaming world in which players don’t feel excluded,” says Bayliss, “and where the community is more inclusive and understands and accepts features such as invincibility modes and doesn’t belittle people’s needs.”

The game industry is changing. Game makers are thinking about accessibility earlier in development, sometimes even making games specifically geared toward previously unconsidered players. Accessibility is on the rise, but a cultural shift has to happen to keep the momentum going.

There continue to be public debates about difficulty options in games, which is tiresome for players who have to hear people argue against their inclusion. “We shouldn’t dictate to people how they play the game — just allow them to play,” says Abbate. “You’re not in my house. Let me play how I want to play; you go play how you want to play.”

And as much as accessibility has entered more mainstream conversations, it’s still not often addressed in game reviews outside of dedicated sites. “I would love to be able to see that being talked about and accessibility be included as part of reviews and a part of coverage for video games because then, that allows disabled players to be a part of the hype,” says Saylor.

The hope is that players will be able to spend more time experiencing that hype and less time pleading for the same basic features. Steven Spohn, COO of AbleGamers, says that it’s impossible for any game to be completely accessible for every single person. But he does see a future where broader accessibility becomes the standard.

“Is there a time I can foresee in 10 years where we have a lot of this is finally figured out,” says Spohn, “and a lot of it is just default and baked into engines and the different building platforms that these publishers use to make the games? Absolutely, I can see where it’s going to continue to get better and get better.”

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