AbleGamers Interview: The Roadblocks Accessibility Still Needs To Overcome

In December 2021, the Game Awards added an Innovations in Accessibility award, which was won by Forza Horizon 5 for features including a built-in screen reader for button prompts and menu options. Forza has been following a trend of games that have made accessibility a major topic of discussion, and has received extensive praise for its implementation of those features, but this praise is not universal.

“I think out of the blind people I know who play Forza, I'm pretty much the only one who bitches about it,” Shay, a 23-year-old accessibility consultant who was born blind, tells me.

For Shay, who mainly relies on haptic feedback from her controller and audio cues to navigate the games she plays, playing Forza was fun. The game has a feature that limits the top speed of your vehicle in offline play, which allows users to respond to things like turns, easier. The game also has an auto-steering feature to make those turns easier to take, letting players enjoy the sensation without worrying about perfect timing.

These features were designed with players like Shay in mind. But once developer Playground Games discovered sighted people were abusing the feature to farm for in-game currency, they quickly patched it.

“When the game first came out, I was able to freely hit my button for the car to do its thing and it wouldn't time me out,” Shay says, telling me she relied on the auto steering to keep her car on the road. “Sighted people used to farm a lot and now I have to press the stick every few seconds. If I don't, I'm kicked out of the race or convoy.”

She adds, “I mean I don’t hate that they did it. I understand it, but like, ugh.”

For many gamers with disabilities, this sentiment is one they’ve had to deal with for decades. As early developers were trying to appeal to the masses, certain fans got left behind. Accessibility is now a major topic of concern in the games industry, but as was the case with Shay and Forza, there is still a lot of work to be done.

For 35-year-old David, an Australian gamer with cerebral palsy, it’s a logistics issue. Gamers like David, who has limited use of the right side of his body, need physical solutions to play their favorite games. “I am so glad most PC games use the WASD keys and allow for rebinding,” David says. “But for games that rely on multiple inputs, like mouse and keyboard, I struggle. I’d love to find a one-handed controller, like an Xbox or PlayStation controller, to use on PC, but they aren’t common, and either they are set up for right-handed users, or aren’t quite right for my issues.”

Features like subtitles, screen readers, auto-targeting, and steering assistance, are helpful for gamers with sensory disabilities, but gamers with physical ones are still struggling. Most of the time, the roadblocks to their enjoyment can’t be fixed by a UI change. Some gamers have to rely on specially-made equipment tailored to the user.

“Not being in the US makes it harder to try stuff,” David tells me, explaining that he has to pay exorbitant import prices to get devices shipped to Australia from overseas. “It’s more of a ‘hey this might work’ trial by fire.” David has tried a few different items, but nothing seemed to work in a way that benefited him.

“There was a gaming keyboard thing I got. It had programmable keys. It was huge for an extra tool, but too small to be useful. You’d have my keyboard, mouse, and this thing. It ate up half of my desk.”

In an ideal world, there would be a specialist to sit with players like David and offer them options based on what’s available on the market today. He has an occupational therapist who helps him meet his daily living needs, fitting bathrooms, beds, postural support, but they aren’t trained to help him with his hobby.

That training should however, be right around the corner, as developers and activist groups continue to work together to bring more accessibility options to gamers. Groups such as AbleGamers have been advocating for accessibility options for nearly two decades. Their efforts lead to the very features games like The Last of Us Part 2, The Outer Worlds, and Forza Horizon 5 would be praised for.

“The truth of the matter is that disability is complex,” says Mark Barlet, founder and executive director of AbleGamers. “Show me a person with multiple sclerosis and I'll show you a person who can potentially be blind, can potentially be deaf, can’t walk, or can’t use their hands.”

Barlet and his team spent years advocating for more accessibility features. In their early days they’d even take matters into their own hands, taking apart Xbox 360 controllers and creating their own controllers to serve their community. Devices like these paved the way for advancements like the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC), an interface device that allows custom input options through foot pads, levers, joysticks, and user-friendly buttons.

“None of this was legal,” Barlet tells me, recounting a moment he was confronted for the modifications he was doing to Xbox controllers. “We talked to a Microsoft lawyer who said, ‘You realize what you're doing is illegal?’ And I looked him dead in the eyes. I said, ‘Are you really going to sue a nonprofit helping people with disabilities?’” Microsoft ultimately never sued AbleGamers, and even asked them to consult for the XAC.

“What we're looking to do in the future is, if funding is there, come up with training programs that we can start sending out for the purposes of educating people,” Barlet says. “Where people with disabilities are interacting with the PTs, occupational therapists, rehabilitation specialists, things like that.”

Ultimately, accessibility in gaming has come along way, and it’s a positive for the community that it’s being discussed so widely, but a lot of progress still needs to be made.

Source: Read Full Article