Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. Today, Kate asks why the games industry is still so far behind in accessibility features.
It’s something you never have to think about, until you do: games and consoles are not made with disabilities in mind. Whether it’s a physical disability, like the loss of movement in your hands, a hearing impairment that makes it hard to follow audio cues, or even colourblindness – a condition that affects approximately 8% of men worldwide – many people struggle to connect with games in the way they were intended to be played.
In a Reddit post that went viral, gamer and YouTuber Biggy reviewed the accessibility of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and how it interacts with his disability. Biggy is paralysed from the chest down, with “significant loss of motor function in both hands”, which makes it hard for him to use ubiquitous control schemes, like D-Pads, joysticks, and particularly the triggers and shoulder buttons on a controller or a Joy-Con.
Biggy uses an app called Joy-Con Droid, which is free on the Android store, and lets players use the touchscreen to simulate Joy-Con buttons on one flat plane.
We’ve covered the Joy-Con Droid before, but never in the context of accessibility. In Biggy’s review, it’s clear that while Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t built for players with disabilities, it’s also surprisingly good in other ways – largely by accident. He notes that the game can even be used as exercise, at least in terms of developing fine motor skills, like needing to use both hands to capture tarantulas. Through the use of third-party software, he is able to play the game fully, catching hard-to-get bugs and fish and terraforming the place.
The Reddit comments are incredibly heartwarming – when one person recommended the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which can be used with the Switch, Biggy noted that he couldn’t get it easily or cheaply, as he’s not in the US – and another commenter said “PM me. I’ll buy it for you.”
Nintendo’s games and consoles have been criticised for how little they cater to the disabled community, especially with the fiddly Joy-Cons. Disability charity and advocate AbleGamers’ review finds it “disappointing” to see Nintendo ignoring accessibility features; the Washington Post praises Nintendo’s 10.0.0 update that added customisation options to controller inputs, and lets other disabled gamers know which games are easiest to play, but notes that the basic controllers are not ideal, and recommends third-party options.
In the past, Nintendo’s mandatory motion controls with the Wii, autostereoscopic 3D with the 3DS, and games that require button mashing have all been incredibly disability-unfriendly. Sure, they’re not alone in that – many games require button mashing, after all – but accessibility has never really been at the forefront of their design process.
The games industry as a whole is making slow progress on accessibility, but there is, at least, progress. Many games are implementing colour options for colourblind people, a range of subtitle sizes, and various other changes, but the fact is that many of these additions come after the game’s release, and sometimes – like in the case of Dead By Daylight – after the developers have been caught saying ableist things. Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought, or something that gets patched in months after launch.
Blind gamer Steve Saylor was so overwhelmed by The Last of Us Part II’s accessibility options – the most progressive he’d ever seen – that he wept tears of joy. That alone should show how much it means to include gamers with all kinds of disabilities from the very beginning, and not as a post-launch consideration.
The pandemic has not been kind to the disabled community. Many are at high risk of catching the virus, others cannot wear the mask, and are therefore often refused entry to places, and the rush to change how things work differently during a time that requires social distancing, office closures, and new health and safety guidelines has often left people who require extra accessibility measures behind. Loneliness is rampant, and many immunocompromised people, and people with chronic conditions, are hearing others treat them like acceptable losses. The healthcare systems of every country are overwhelmed.
To be able to see Biggy speak about being able to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons, albeit in a slightly different way to most, is more meaningful than it seems at first blush. A lot of our pandemic experiences have involved the emotional and mental support of this game, and everyone deserves to have that, if they want it. The game is slightly tricky to play with various disabilities, and Biggy (as well as other people in the comments) has had to find quite a few workarounds to be able to enjoy all that the game has to offer, but what matters is that, eventually, with new inputs that suit his mobility, he can fish and catch bugs with the rest of us.
But having to buy expensive new setups, with complicated wiring and engineering, and hoping that the system you have supports them fully, is a huge barrier to entry for many people. That’s why the Xbox Adaptive Controller was such a huge deal – an officially-made, simplified, first-party controller that was actually made with disabilities in mind. The more these controllers, inputs, and accessibility features get into the mainstream, the more widely-available and widely-accepted they will become.
Given that Nintendo’s whole MO is “games for everyone”, it begs the question: why don’t they make games for everyone? Accessibility has never really been one of their strong points, and – much like accessibility progress in general – a lot of the time, their more accessible games and features are accidental, not designed to be that way. Many champions of assistive technology and disability inclusion are third-party, like AbleGamers, SpecialEffect, and Steve Saylor, although Xbox has its own initiative.
Exclusion is outdated. It’s past time that Nintendo catches up with the progress of the rest of the gaming world, as small as it is. As Deaf hearing aid user Ben Bayliss says in his GI.biz article about accessibility in games marketing, “accessibility needs to be a thought process that spans an entire company rather than just the development of a game.” It takes a long time, a lot of money, and a ton of effort to integrate accessible design into the process of making a game, and running a studio, but it’s worth it to ensure that games really are for everyone.