Accessibility in video games made progress in 2018, but the industry still has a long way to go

Celeste. Source: Matt Makes Games
Celeste. Source: Matt Makes Games /

Accessibility in games made a lot of progress in 2018, with Celeste and Spider-Man catering to disabled gamers, but the industry has a long way to go.

For most of the history of gaming as a medium, gamers with disabilities have had to figure out and MacGyver their own methods to play their favorite games or go without entirely. The industry never paid attention to gamers with disabilities outside of the now ubiquitous epilepsy warning as players boot up a game and subtitles.

As someone with a mild form of cerebral palsy, I got used to game developers largely assuming all players were the same; the much-maligned Assassin’s Creed control schemes in the early days of that franchise were par for the course in my experience. Players complained about having to use a claw grip to play the game, but I have to use that grip in every game I play on consoles. This is to say nothing of the Wii.

The situation didn’t improve when I booted up the game. Games with solid accessibility options from a motor perspective, such as turning taps to holds or re-bindable keys were few and far between on console. On PC, the options were far better but much more expensive. I have to map everything to a mouse because I can’t switch back and forth the mouse and keyboard.

Now more than ever, it seems like the discussion around disability in games has gotten louder.

Mice with upwards of 60 functions are expensive and rebinding the keys is necessary, but extremely time-consuming and complex. I have it easy; I can use a controller, mouse and keyboard.

2018 was the year that began to change. The industry sat up and paid attention, for good or ill. Several major releases contained a bevy of accessibility features and others were lambasted going in the opposite direction and willfully ignoring portions of their player base. Now more than ever, it seems like the discussion around disability in games has gotten louder.

The biggest victory for accessibility in games was the release of Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller. The controller acts best as a hub for other adaptive peripherals; it has 19 3.5 mm jacks on its reverse, one corresponding to each button. This allows players to swap in peripherals and their inputs at will, granting a level of customization the console market has never seen from an official developer. The controller itself has several large buttons and a D-pad. The controller can also be paired with another controller via Copilot so that either one person can use both controllers or another person can assist in play.

The simple yet versatile design of the controller is the epitome of great accessibility. It is unobtrusive, yet facilitates the ability for almost anybody to play the way they want regardless of disability. It’s the perfect example of the curb cut effect: a device designed for people with disabilities has direct benefits for able-bodied people.

Several releases this year had huge accessibility suites allowing players to tweak to the game to their liking. The two MVPs this year were Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and Matt Makes Games’ Celeste. The latter allowed players to customize every aspect of the experience from a motor perspective; players could make themselves invincible or give themselves infinite jumps and dashes. These might seem like cop-outs, but they allow players to enjoy the game’s story, its true star, without having the game’s considerable difficulty prevent them from progressing.

Courtesy: Matt Makes Games
Courtesy: Matt Makes Games /

However, not every developer was as considerate. The Spyro Reignited Trilogy launched without subtitles and Nintendo built mandatory motion controls into Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee.

If developers won’t solve those problems, gamers will and already have.

Game director Junichi Masuda said, “The primary reason is really just to provide a new experience. There are a lot of people out there, I think, that really do want to throw a Poké Ball and role-play that. And as well as a lot of people out there who maybe haven’t played the main series of Pokémon, but would find that really appealing. By making that the only way to do it, I just wanted people to try this new experience.”

It’s not like Nintendo has never catered to players with disabilities before either. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has features such as auto-accelerate, allowing players to worry about one less button.

However, this is the exception that proves the rule. Nintendo has sacrificed accessibility in the name of innovation going back to the Wii. Using motion controls is hard when you have motor difficulties, especially in games that require them such as Skyward Sword.

If developers won’t solve those problems, gamers will and already have. YouTube content creator My Mate Vince engineered a way to get the Microsoft Adaptive Controller to work on the Nintendo Switch. The arrangement isn’t perfect, but it allows him to play games like Mario Kart 8.

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There’s a more general attitude change that needs to happen as well. In my Party Hard 2 review, I talked about how the game mocks the player for playing on the game’s version of easy mode, even though such features might help players with disabilities experience the game. Developers and players are going to have to realize players with disabilities can be just as good and as integral to a fan base as any other player.

The views expressed in this article explicitly belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of, nor should be attributed to, App Trigger or FanSided as an organization.