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Glitchy, corrupted image of a women wearing a VR headset Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

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The biggest hurdle of accessible games may be the community, not developers

A look at how far we’ve come, and what we need to do next

Four years ago, I wrote about how having a chronic pain condition made me worry about the future of gaming.

It felt like devices were getting smaller than I could manage, VR was going to be a massive barrier that kept me from playing the newest games, and developers didn’t seem to care about accessibility. I was legitimately afraid of being left behind by my hobby, and I don’t think I was alone.

It’s now 2019. I’ve still got Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes frequent joint dislocations and pain, but that’s one of the few things that is the same. We’re at the end of a console generation; the Nintendo 3DS’ successor, the Switch, has been announced, launched and then refreshed with the Lite; and VR is more mainstream, affordable, and accessible than ever.

Yet with all the impressive progress coming out of gaming, I’m still worried about the future disabled people like me have with the hobby. The scene has become more hostile to disabled people than ever before, except now it’s coming more from the audience, and less from the industry.

Cross-play and streaming make us input-agnostic

One of the most positive developments over the past few years has been the widespread adoption of device agnosticism in games, joining the rest of media in not being bound to specific formats or hardware. You can watch Netflix on whatever device you happen to have with you, and gaming is quickly becoming similar.

a photo of Dragon Quest 11: Echoes of an Elusive age being played on a smartphone that is sitting in a portable controller device Photo: Joe Parlock for Polygon

This was the year that Sony opened its cross-play services to any developer who wants to use them, finally joining Microsoft and Nintendo in offering the ability to play with people outside of their walled-garden ecosystems. Stadia, Steam Link, PlayStation 4 Remote Play and Xbox One’s Project xCloud streaming all take their games away from a single box and let you play on everything from a Mac to a mobile phone.

These advancements, particularly cross-play, have made a huge impact on how I play games. For instance, because of my poorer fine-motor controls thanks to EDS, I struggle with analog sticks, and I greatly prefer mouse and keyboard or the touchpads that come on things like the Steam Controller to play games with more delicate camera controls. Playing titles like Minecraft or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare with friends on consoles would have been a nightmare, as I would have spent more time fighting with controllers that my hands find difficult to use, and less time having fun playing the game.

As it is, I can use my mouse and keyboard, or Steam Controller, and play just fine alongside anybody on a DualShock or Xbox One controller. People don’t often think about cross-play as an accessibility issue, but trust me, it is, and it helps.

Cross-play and device agnosticism have had a knock-on effect for how the very systems underpinning games have been developed, because of how platforms must consider input devices outside of their own native controllers in a way they never had to in previous generations.

Today’s consoles support keyboard and mouse without third-party peripherals, while games like Modern Warfare matchmake by input device over platform. And who can forget Microsoft’s hugely well-received Xbox Adaptive Controller?

On PC, schemes like Steam Input allow practically any controller to be plugged in and remapped without having to track down and install drivers and configuration suites, thanks to its design language of mapping functions over physical buttons.

We’re rapidly heading toward a future where anyone can use any controller they like to play virtually any game they’re interested in. There’s always going to be a need for the unique accessible tech supplied by charities like AbleGamers and Special Effect, but many solutions are now coming from officially supported avenues than the jury-rigged, hacked affairs disabled players have been putting up with.

These are all huge, positive shifts in how people interact with their favorite games, and it means more people can play than ever before.

VR is finally accessible

The last time I wrote about virtual reality, I had only had a taste of it with samples of the Oculus Rift Development Kit and the HTC Vive. Because of my EDS, my eye muscles are lax, and early models of VR felt more like watching two screens in a plastic box than the all-encompassing, immersive experience others claimed it to be. I was always disappointed.

A woman wearing a modern-looking VR headset
VR has come a very long way in a very short time.
Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

VR technology has come a long way since then, with advancements that have made the headsets much more comfortable for many more people.

The most obvious difference is in their increased fidelity, which finally compensates for my wonky eyes. Resolution and field of view have both increased significantly since the days of the Rift DK1, and solutions for different interpupillary distances have made headsets much more feasible for me and my condition.

Even innovations like the pass-through options in the latest headsets, which show your surroundings as seen through the inside-out tracking cameras, help with my poor proprioception. Knowing I’m only a double button press away from seeing exactly where I am takes a lot of the anxiety out of VR for people like me, who risk badly dislocating or otherwise injuring themselves when flailing in a room they can’t see.

Two boxing gloves float in space, ready to hit targets in BoxVR
VR has become a good way to work out, with many game options like BoxVR available for active players.
Image: FitXR

VR is viable for me now, which also means exercise is a lot easier. I’ve taken to playing Beat Saber, Blade & Sorcery and BoxVR for exercise, and have lost more weight in the months since the launch of the Rift S than I had in the five years before it.

I’m still worried about the future of motion controls. But games like Beat Saber are easy to explain, require no button presses, and have modifiers to prevent failure and adjust song speed, which illustrates that clever software design can make up for many people’s difficulties. BoxVR in particular is excellent for my EDS, because it is low-impact and doesn’t require too many hard flicks or flails to punish my joints.

VR does still have a significant way to go, though. IPD adjustment in the Rift S is software-based and less effective than mechanical implementations found in other headsets, like its sibling the Oculus Quest. Meanwhile, the Quest is significantly heavier and more cumbersome than the Rift S, which, for someone with lax joints — including vertebrae — isn’t a good thing. The difference in weight probably seems like a minor thing to a lot of people, but folks like me can feel every ounce.

Regardless, I’m now a full convert to VR and can’t wait to see where the tech leads next, rather than dreading it as I was before. It’s a technology that’s clearly not going to replace “normal” gaming anytime soon, but even so, it’s become much more accessible to many more people in a remarkably short time.

A worse time to be neurodiverse

While support for physical disabilities has increased, it feels as if game makers see people with neurological, developmental, and intellectual disabilities as prime targets for ever-more-aggressive monetization methods. And publishers aren’t shy when it comes to making their games look like gambling, even in ads that are supposed to sell those games to players.

I have autism on top of my EDS (studies suggest the two are comorbid, meaning they’re more likely to occur together), which can result in often bizarre fixations on certain things. When this intersects with the likes of loot boxes, battle passes, microtransactions, and other forms of monetization, the results can be financially damaging.

During the first of Overwatch’s winter events, I spent around three times the amount I did on the game just trying to get a specific skin for Winston from the limited-time loot boxes. Although I knew buying another set of loot boxes was irresponsible, it’d create so much anxiety that I had to give it another shot.

I’d like to say that my experience with Overwatch was the end of it, and that I had learned a lesson, but it wasn’t. Fixation, addiction, obsession, and compulsion just don’t work like that. It then turned to Disney Heroes, a mobile gatcha-like game featuring a wide spread of Disney characters. I needed Nick Wilde from Zootopia, or Kevin Flynn from Tron.

While I never became a “whale,” and certainly never got into serious financial difficulty because of it, it’s clear that these systems are likely designed to milk people like me, or people with addiction, ADHD, OCD, or learning disabilities. The entire microtransaction market predicates itself on a lack of impulse control, be that through personality or disability, and it’s gotten so much more predatory since 2015.

But this is implying intent, and it’s just as likely that developers are deploying a lever that leads to profits, and the collatoral damage is exactly that; an invisible cost of duing business in a way that can hurt the player while raising revenue through the game. Either way, abuse of microtransactions was a very real danger in 2019, and will continue to be a hot-button issue in 2020.

This isn’t a problem that is going to go away naturally. Publishers won’t ever back down from their cash cows, and we’ve hit the point where monetization systems like these are too lucrative to drop voluntarily. External regulation is needed: Legislators need to wisen up about predatory microtransactions.

There is some hope, with countries like the U.K. investigating loot box-like mechanics, and Belgium banning them outright, but progress on this has been far too slow for the many victims of these systems.

It’s scary being disabled in games now

With all of these positive developments coming from developers and hardware manufacturers, it’d be easy to assume that now is a great time for disabled people in gaming ... except it isn’t.

The climate toward disabled people saying “actually, we deserve access too” is markedly colder than it was four years ago, and we often get dragged into arguments over “difficulty” instead of discussing the actual, nuanced approaches game designers now take with regard to accessibility.

My previous article was in 2015. Gaming was already a volatile place then. Yet I never expected my biggest concern four years later to not be companies and products, but other players “fighting back” against a movement that is only trying to welcome more people to our hobby.

a warrior with an ax leaps at an enemy holding a long pike in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro was just one game released this year that caused huge online arguments about “difficulty.”
FromSoftware/Activision

The problem flared most notably, and most recently, with the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice earlier this year. A heated discussion about difficulty options was suddenly linked to accessibility, and by association linked to disability.

The end result was an astounding amount of ableism from all corners of gaming, as explained incredibly well by Rob Fahey. That included open hostility (“no, this game isn’t for you”-type comments), willful ignorance of the multiple experiences of disability (“a quadriplegic dude beat Sekiro, so why can’t you?”), and abject pity (“but what of the poor disabled people who can’t play?”).

a gamer posts a tweet mocking another player for not wanting to be excluded from playing a game
Comments like this were much too common in 2019.
Image via Twitter

Disabled players got caught in the crossfire over something that wasn’t even about disability in the first place, and since then I have often felt like there has been a general atmosphere that disabled people should be grateful for what access we do have.

Allow me to be clear: I don’t believe gaming hates disabled people and wants them out. I don’t think most people actually think about us at all. I’m worried that people with little or no understanding of disability are going to frame arguments like those around Sekiro’s difficulty as a crusade against “hard” games, when it’s actually a much larger discussion about the contracts developers form with players of all ability.

Am I still scared for the future of disabled gaming? To an extent, yes. Gaming in 2019 is a very different landscape from what it was in 2015. Developers have become much more savvy of accessibility, with major titles like The Division, Gears 5 and Borderlands 3 all featuring extensive accessibility options.

But it feels like for every technological advancement that benefits us, a much more sinister and nebulous problem is waiting just on the horizon: predatory monetization, polarized communities, cost-cutting, and that ever-present lack of understanding that so many able-bodied people have about disability. It always feels like we’re taking two steps forward, and then about one and a half steps back.

On the positive side, the solutions to these problems seem so much clearer than they did in 2015. We need disabled people in prominent, decision-making positions, in consultancy, in every level of development to guide development. We need disabled community figureheads, streamers, content creators, and journalists to speak up and not be drowned out by political point-scoring.

Disabled people are never going to go away, nor should we. We’ll still be here in another four years, and the four years after that, and the four years after that. It doesn’t have to get harder, like I’m worried it will, and it won’t get any better without a lot of effort from a lot of people. We’re here, and more accessible games help literally everyone.

We just need the rest of the gaming world to catch up with us.