In “Unplayable: Disability and the Gaming Revolution”, a BBC audio documentary released on 28th January, 2021, Steve Saylor, a blind gamer, talks about seeing the NES on a high shelf in a game store one day while shopping with his mum. He remembers getting it in his hands and thinking, “this is the coolest thing ever”, before buying the console and a Mario game and taking it home.
Just a few years later, Saylor would find himself trading in every console he owned, feeling a great deal of sadness because he couldn’t engage with a hobby he loved. Due to his visual impairment, he would have to sit with his nose touching the screen in order to play, but even then, he would lose a lot. He watched his family and friends playing games, but he couldn’t join in. What was the point in owning consoles when it was so difficult for him to play?
It’s only recently that accessibility in mainstream gaming has really improved to the point where people like Saylor can finally play games to a similar level as people without disabilities. Thanks to the efforts of grassroots campaigners and charities like Special Effect and AbleGamers, the latter of which features heavily in the documentary, we’ve seen the gaming industry go from “occasionally having a colourblind mode” to huge leaps forward, like Xbox’s Adaptive Controller.
Steven Spohn, a gamer with spinal muscular atrophy, spoke about collaborating with AbleGamers to create an innovative controller that helps all sorts of people play games however they can. It all began, he says, with a bag of rice that they turned into a rudimentary controller, through some feat of technical wizardry. It wasn’t exactly a great prototype, but it eventually led to the Adroit Switchblade, AbleGamers’ first controller, which would eventually evolve into the Xbox Adaptive Controller with the help of Microsoft’s Accessibility team.
Ian Hamilton, accessibility specialist, said that the government’s data estimated that around 20% of people in the UK were living with a disability. As for why he considers games to be important enough to consider accessibility options, Hamilton said that “games are a vital part of our culture and society now,” and that restricting access to that culture can severely alter the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Tara Voelker, a Gaming and Disability Community Lead at Xbox’s “Gaming For Everyone” program, spoke about how accessibility in games can include people with a wide range of conditions. She noted that the gaming industry, in terms of revenue, was “bigger than Star Wars”, but that many teams were limited by either their tiny size or their lack of knowledge about accessibility.
“It’s about removing unnecessary barriers that block people from playing video games,” she says, citing the example of red/green colourblindness making it difficult to tell if a door is locked or not. “Everything from cognitive, to vision, to invisible disabilities, even things like ADHD, autism, even PTSD” could affect how, and if, someone can play a game.
“When I started working in accessibility, early on, there was a lot of work to increase awareness,” says Voelker. She calls for more people with a wide range of disabilities to be prominently featured in eSports, and the gaming industry in general, to better represent the huge proportion of the population who have similar conditions.
Mike “BrolyLegs” Begum is an example of how gamers with disabilities can adapt technology to suit their needs with huge success. He began his gaming journey with the NES, and found that his arthrogryposis and scoliosis, two conditions that severely limit his movement and strength, made it difficult to play with the controller. After figuring out a way to use his face to press the buttons, he became one of the top competitive Street Fighter players in the world. “So many doors have opened in my life because of gaming,” he says, noting that, when he’s in a tournament, he’s not there to be “inspirational” – he’s there to win.
Eventually, Saylor started up a YouTube channel that he called “Blind Gamer”, gaining thousands of followers almost overnight. Last year, he was among the 50 members of The Game Awards’ Future Class, and gained over 100,000 followers for his review of The Last of Us II, which he deemed “the most accessible game ever”.
“This is what we’ve been advocating for, for so long,” he says through tears in the video. “This is why we do what we do.”
The 28-minute documentary can be listened to on the BBC Radio 4 website.