Over lockdown, gaming became a main passtime for people across the UK. Nintendo sold a staggering 12 million Switch consoles during the pandemic alone. We look at how accessible the gaming industry is for disabled people and address things that need to change.
Personally, I use gaming as a form of physiotherapy. Playing Animal Crossing on my Switch means I'm able to be more active with my right hand, which has limited dexterity. The pace of Animal Crossing also means not having quick reaction times isn't much of a struggle. However, trying to play a game like Fifa on the Xbox or PlayStation can present challenges for me as I can't press buttons quickly or use both hands as you would need.
Gaming is also a great way to tackle loneliness, which is something many people experience – including those who are disabled. This means that the world of gaming is vital for disabled people’s physical and mental health, so we must make sure everyone has a point of access.
With this in mind I decided to investigate the world of accessible gaming, and whether the industry is becoming more user friendly for others like me. I investigated three different gaming giants – Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation – to see what accessibility features they offer, and also spoke to disabled gamers about their experiences.
How do the consoles compare?
First up is Xbox. They now have accessibility on launch, which means that when the user opens a game for the first time they are greeted with accessibility options. This helps the user to an extent as it means they can set up what they'll need before playing the game, however it's nothing too dissimilar to what other developers offer.
By far the biggest selling point for Xbox when it comes to accessibility is their adaptive gaming controller which retails for £75. The controller features two big gaming pads as well as the usual controls you would find on a standard controller. It's a huge step forward that a company like Xbox (owned by Microsoft) is actively thinking about accessibility. Releasing something onto the market with a relatively accessible price point too is also welcome.
However, there are still downsides to consider. First of all, whilst the adapted controller retails for £75, extra buttons which you'll need to play games effectively cost more. This means that the price tag actually increases depending on the level of support you need in order to use the controller.
For this comparison, we'll be focusing on the Nintendo Switch as this is the latest device. Not much is known about Nintendo's commitment to accessibility for disabled players. They don't provide a dedicated webpage to accessibility like the other companies, so it does take a lot of digging. However, through self-trials I find there are many flaws to the device when it comes to accessibility.
First of all, the joysticks have a flat head so it's very easy for my thumb to slip when playing. This can affect enjoyment of the game when it's particularly fast paced. Also the buttons can be tricky to press due to the small size, so if you have limited dexterity this can be a real issue. Also the Switch doesn't offer any specific accessibility settings which is a real concern.
A selling point for Nintendo however, is that the Switch can be laid down or propped up at an angle. This allows gamers to play in a position comfortable for them. Also, although the buttons are small and close together, it's worth noting that for some people this will make the Switch more accessible, due to the minimal need to move your fingers too much.
For this comparison we'll be focusing on the PS5. PlayStation has some excellent features for disabled players. PlayStation (Sony) are also very clear on their strive for accessibility, which is super refreshing to see. First up, PlayStation has a screen reader which allows the user to hear what they're typing or clicking on which is great for users with partial to no vision.
The PS5 also features chat transcription. This enables deaf and hard of hearing users to use the chat function during gameplay. As well as this, deaf users will also be able to use the closed caption feature allowing them to follow along with spoken word in videos.
There are a few other standard features players can access too, but I would definitely like to see more features around using the controller itself for those with limited mobility in their arms.
What do disabled gamers think about accessibility?
I spoke with Charlotte Callister, a gamer with epilepsy who informed me: “I have photosensitive epilepsy… [I’d love to see] things like a low strobe effect mode or introducing static images in place of flashing animations”. She went on to say, “I think a really big one for a broad range of disabled gamers and even non-disabled gamers is difficulty levels. Some games are inaccessible simply because of memory and muscle memory impairment. Given the opportunity to slow down a battle would be amazing”.
I also spoke with Ben Bayliss, the editor of ‘Can I Play That?’, an online gaming site focused on accessibility. When asked about why accessibility is important in gaming Ben had this to say:
“Accessibility is certainly an important role in video games and should be an integral part of a game's development. By implementing features for accessibility, from single-stick control, customisable subtitles, menu narration, and legible HUDs to name a few, more players can jump into a new world somewhat more comfortably, and with features and design choices that succeed, studios can carry them into later projects and repurpose and innovate further”.
Ian Hamilton is a gaming accessibility specialist who shared with me that “recent years have seen huge steps forward in accessibility in both hardware and software, from the Xbox Adaptive Controller to The Last Of Us 2, which had a wide array of accessibility considerations including being the first big budget blockbuster game to be designed to be fully accessible to players who are completely blind”.
He went to say “studios and publishers are creating dedicated accessibility roles. Developers are engaging directly with disabled gamers more and more. However, accessibility isn't about fundamental basics either, we need to be going way beyond that. Where we need to get to is a point where any gamer can pick up any game and have at least a reasonable expectation that they will not be unnecessarily locked out or have an unnecessarily poor experience”.
UK disability charity Scope conducted research into accessible gaming which found that “66% of gamers with an impairment or condition say they face barriers or issues related to gaming”.
They also found that “40% of disabled gamers have bought games they haven’t been able to play due to poor accessibility”.
Meanwhile, they report that 25% of disabled gamers would like to see more accurate representation of disabled people or characters, and 23% want more frequent representation.
Every disabled person is different, meaning the features that benefit one person may not benefit you. Because of this, it's impossible to say which console is the most accessible. However, hopefully this has given you some helpful insight into which one might suit you.
It's clear just upon talking to gamers and professionals that things are moving along in terms of accessibility, however there's still a huge way to go. Not being able to access consoles to even a reasonable level is still a massive concern for disabled gamers and it's definitely something that needs addressing further.