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Overwatch mouse-keyboard support is vital for players with disabilities

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Players rail against developer disdain for the setup

Overwatch Blizzard Entertainment

Last week, Overwatch’s director spoke out against console players going out of their way to use mice and keyboards with the multiplayer shooter. But for Overwatch players with disabilities, eliminating those control options means they could be unable to play.

Jeff Kaplan, the game’s director, wrote on Battle.net to clarify his position against using mouse-and-keyboard setups on console. It’s an issue of fairness, he explained, as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One don’t currently allow players to use those controllers without purchasing special convertors. If Sony and Microsoft aren’t going to let everyone use keyboards right out of the box, then they should bar anyone from using them.

“We have contacted both first-party console manufacturers and expressed our concern about the use of mouse and keyboard and input conversion devices,” he wrote, urging fans to do the same.

Instead, many players reached back out to Blizzard Entertainment about what they saw as dismissive of members of the Overwatch community with disaibilities. That includes Steven Spohn, chief operations officer of AbleGamers. The nonprofit is in charge of charitable initiatives meant to aid and assist gamers.

After Kaplan’s post garnered attention, both positive and negative, Spohn voiced his own concerns on Twitter. Discouraging players from using mouse-and-keyboard setups meant edging out the large numbers who require them to play Overwatch at all, he explained.

“In order to [play Overwatch], I use an alternative input device called a TrackIR, which lets me move my head to mash keyboard buttons,” Spohn, who has spinal muscular atrophy, tweeted. “While I have a lot of love for Jeff Kaplan, requesting manufacturers BAN the ability to use alternative input devices is dangerous for us.”

This extends beyond just keyboards, as Spohn told Polygon when we reached out about the blowback to Kaplan’s response. Alternative input devices overall are necessary to make games accessible to the diverse needs of players.

“Disabling input conversion technology and alternative input devices would completely disable almost every single assistive technology on the market today,” he said. “We're talking things that are made for eye tracking through a USB port or a mouth controller that is used by someone who is quadriplegic or XIM, which allows you to use a keyboard and mouse on a console.”

While the point of devices like the XIM adapter is to give players with physical disabilities the chance to get in the game, it’s inarguable that it comes with a benefit over standard controllers. The peripheral’s website explains that it provides “unparalleled mouse precision unachievable by any other gaming adapter available.”

The complaint with controllers versus keyboards on console is that they’re less precise when it comes to aiming. Still, Spohn argued that this doesn’t qualify as an unfair advantage so much as a necessity for making games accessible.

“Mouse and keyboard give you an edge aiming more accurately in the same way that using a gamepad makes it easier to mash buttons,” he said. “Do they have an advantage? Absolutely. Is it unfair? No. Because if you care that much about having a slight disadvantage sticking with the stock controller, you should upgrade to the technology that gives you a little bit of an edge.”

He pointed to games that have cross-play and work better with controllers than keyboards, like Rocket League. If players want to do their best, they’re going to go with the best possible control scheme. “Simple as that,” he added.

Overwatch players chimed in with a similar line. Take this comment from our report on Kaplan’s post, for example:

You have multiple variables to improve your chances against the average user. You can get a larger TV or surround sound system to improve your chances of noticing someone/reacting to a problem. You have a variety of gamepads that offer additional buttons that can be bound to mechanics so you don’t have to lift your thumb off the sticks to access them…objectively skewing balance, and providing you an advantage.

More importantly, looking at reviews for the XIM adapter and similar devices offer an inspiring picture. They enable people who think they may never have the chance to play games with their friends to do just that.

A top-rated review for the XIM 4 keyboard and mouse adapter is especially validating.

“I never even thought that my disability (left arm paralysis, minimal function) would keep me from playing Xbox,” the reviewer wrote. “Once I had the Xbox I realized quickly that I couldn't use the left half of the controller. I didn't touch it again for almost a year until I saw the Xim. I immediately knew this would get me back into gaming.”

xim
The XIM adapter is a popular choice for those in need of assistive devices.
XIM Technologies

Numerous comments on the review share similar experiences, as do those found elsewhere. These include Overwatch players; popular threads on the game’s subreddit can be found imploring the developers to create more accessibility options for both console and PC versions. There are also comments from gamers without disabilities expressing sympathy for those who struggle to play the game successfully due to their own challenges. These commenters even suggest other peripherals to check out that may be beneficial.

Yet many who don’t rely on these assistive devices see XIM and similar adapters as Kaplan does: creating an unfair playing field. The Overwatch subreddit is also ridden with threads protesting keyboard-and-mouse players from competing on console.

For its part, a Microsoft spokesperson told Polygon that it’s investigating bringing native mouse and keyboard support to Xbox One in the service of giving owners “the best gaming experiences.”

“We’re always looking to bring the best gaming experiences to our fans and are committed to giving developers the tools they need to enable the best experiences for their games,” the rep said in a statement. “Mouse and keyboard support has been a popular fan-requested feature since we first launched Xbox One, and the team is looking at bringing that support to Xbox One.”

The PlayStation 4 does have native support, but it’s a matter of allowing developers to enable it for their games. Currently, Overwatch does not support keyboards and mice out of the box on the console.

The debate ensues, but Spohn doesn’t see banning mouse-and-keyboard adapters altogether as the solution. He’s adamant that a more inclusive landscape is what we’re moving toward when it comes to peripheral, so advocating for limiting controllers instead of expanding options would be “tragic.”

“To ban keyboard and mouse outright would be a tragedy,” he said. “We would be locking millions of gamers out. There are more than 33 million gamers with disabilities in America alone, hundreds of million worldwide.

“If even a percentage of those players need to use a mouse and keyboard over a controller because they legitimately cannot use or hold a standard controller, is it fair to tell those tens of thousands of gamers, possibly hundreds of thousands of gamers, that they need to set this game out because we want everyone to use the same controller? I don't think that's fair.”