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Illustrations by Ashlie Juarbe

The fight for fair gaming

How gaming is finally tackling its accessibility issues.

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Imagine the toughest boss fight you’ve ever been in. Was it an inconceivably powerful baddie that you couldn’t let touch you much less weather a full-frontal assault from? Or was it one that was so conniving and quick that it seemed like the game was learning how to fool you in real-time? Do you remember how quickly your fingers moved or the complex sequence of buttons required to bring the big bad down?

Now imagine attempting to do that while dealing with cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy or any of the myriad disabilities that impact more than 40 million Americans. Should the inability to mash a set of buttons or quickly toggle a joystick impact your ability to enjoy playing a game? Is attempting to defeat an endgame boss fair when you’re limited by a game’s settings?

For as long as developers have been making games, gamers with disabilities have been playing them — whether they were considered in the development process or not. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, games in both arcades and on at-home consoles were rigid. Modifications and adjustable settings were rare, and many game designers simply hadn’t thought of how someone with even a minor disability might have a different experience playing their game. Steve Spohn, COO of the AbleGamers Charity, a nonprofit game accessibility advocacy group, says that when he first started going to developer conferences and asked how they designed for gamers with disabilities, he was greeted with a shrug. “One of the first things we did as an organization was go to the Game Developers Conference and set up a video camera and ask a question: Have you ever thought about gamers with disabilities?” Spohn says. “A few people said yes, the majority said no. One even laughed and walked away.”

AbleGamers was founded in 2004, the same year that the International Game Developers Association published its whitepaper on game accessibility where the organization laid out the framework for creating games with disabled players in mind. “Currently, game accessibility has been addressed in only a limited manner,” the IGDA paper begins. “By providing information about what game accessibility is, how important it is to disabled gamers, and by looking at the current state of affairs, we hope to start discussions on how games can be made more accessible to a wider population.” This was one of the first times a major gaming organization officially addressed the issue of accessibility, but it wasn’t until game studios realized that customers with disabilities had plenty of money to spend that things truly changed.

“There’s a huge amount of money that disabled gamers control,” AbleGamers’ Spohn says. (He estimates the number to be just short of half a trillion dollars.) “And those people want to play games. It took this long to make the industry realize that disabled gamers [are] a group of people that exist but also have money.” Game studios that integrate accessibility standards into their development processes have a chance to unlock some of that value and, for independent studios facing razor-thin margins, that can mean the difference between a successful release and one that flops.

Bringing those considerations into game design isn’t a zero-sum game for non-disabled players either, says Courtney Craven, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Can I Play That?, a review site that focuses their critique on accessibility. “The way someone else needs or wants to play a game has absolutely zero impact on the experience of anyone but themselves,” Craven says. “If you don’t want certain options, don’t use them — that’s why they’re called options. But don’t say they ruin the game or are unnecessary just because you don’t personally make use of them.” Accessible game design isn’t about making games easier, it’s about giving players the ability to inject their own definition of fairness into something they love. (And besides, easy mode never hurt anyone.)

AbleGamers’ Spohn compares fair and accessible gaming to climbing a mountain. An expert mountaineer may need nothing more than a pair of shoes and a good line to follow, but novices require a lot more gear and some guidance to find the same joy. “What’s easy to you is not easy to me. When you’re thinking about fairness and what it means to an individual, it really means giving each person the best experience possible,” he says. AbleGamers released their own accessibility framework in 2012, the same year that a group of developers, researchers, and advocates published the Game Accessibility Guidelines. The twin benchmarks marked the beginning of a leap forward in software and hardware accessibility, with major gaming studios finally hearing what advocates had been saying for decades.

There’s still work to be done, of course. Emerging gaming technologies and platforms will have to address similar accessibility issues to give disabled players a level playing field as well. Augmented reality shows promise as a truly accessible medium, but virtual reality has a long way to go. Some tech companies are investigating how to give those with limited vision a chance to play VR games, but transforming the next-generation apparatus will require a complete rethinking of hardware as well as software, and may require the development of best practices that have accessibility in mind.

Gamer attitudes will have to change as well. “There’s still this negative connotation around the word disabled,” Spohn says. “Until that stigma is removed we’ll have people who refuse to label themselves disabled. People don’t want to be called disabled, and the average gamer who thinks about accessibility options doesn’t think of that.” Ditching that stigma may be a question of empathy — just think back to that boss fight, and put yourself in another gamer’s shoes.

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