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As part of our Open for All series, Marketing Officer Lorna Hutchman explores the advances in accessibility that are creating a more inclusive gaming industry.

With the global pandemic keeping many in isolation, gaming offers a unique space to build online communities, forge genuine, enduring friendships, and provide much-needed entertainment and escapism.

Video game giants such as Microsoft have thrived, reporting a 130 percent increase in multiplayer engagement in March and April 2020. It seems there’s never been a better time to play.

Globally, one in five gamers identify as having a disability. According to Game Accessibility, 92% of these gamers continue to play despite difficulties. Although efforts have been made by developers and manufacturers to accommodate this lucrative group of passionate gamers, there is still more work to be done.

Deliberate measures to make video gaming more accessible began in the 1970s when small milestones were made to include accessibility in design, establishing the roadwork for later developments.

1970s

The world’s first commercially successful video game established a foothold in closing the inclusivity gap at video gaming’s genesis.

Versions of Atari’s ‘Pong’ type games (1972) were hacked by video game modifiers who slowed down the speed of play. Other Atari 2600 games introduced ‘kids mode’ a feature that reduced the number of enemies and in-game challenges.

A screengrab of 'Pong' in play, the score is 00 vs 01.
Atari’s ‘Pong’. Image credit: The Guardian

Players with disabilities may not have been the impetus of these efforts, but offering a slower rate of play helped gamers with cognitive or learning impairments to engage with strategy in real-time, at a self-determined pace.

1980s

As games progressively became more complicated, game controller complexity increased proportionally. Although controller design has largely followed a linear development, Nintendo broke the status quo in 1988 with their NES Hands Free Controller. The modified piece of hardware was the world’s first custom made video game controller designed exclusively for players with limited mobility by a mainstream gaming company.

NES Hands Free Controller., manual and box
Nintendo’s NES Hands Free Controller. Image Credit: Google Arts and Culture

The device which strapped on to the chest and allowed users to blow or sip air through a straw, replaced pushing the A and B buttons on a traditional controller. This revolutionised how people with with motor impairments could play.

What seemed like a huge leap forward for Nintendo still presented additional barriers to access. The device was only available to purchase through Nintendo’s customer service line and was sold in very limited quantities, at a high cost.

1990s

With the advent of digital memory cards and internal gaming storage, the ability to save progress on-the-go provided a welcomed respite for gamers. This advancement also afforded users with both cognitive and mobility requirements to play without added time pressure.

Individual platforms were also undergoing innovations during this time, including the SEGA Saturn, which required all their titles to include full button remapping. This empowered gamers who found certain areas of a controller difficult or painful to use to create their own bespoke layout.

2000s

In the dawn of the new millennium, accessibility efforts were re-directed to adapting software as opposed to hardware.

Ubisoft, whose titles include Far Cry and Rayman, made it mandatory for all their games to include subtitles. Game subtitles are imperative for people who are D/deaf or hard of hearing to understand the progressively important and complex narratives and objectives within games. The decision came into play after gaming whistle-blowers highlighted that Assassin’s Creed (2008) failed to offer this option.

Screenshot of the accessibility menu in The Division 2. The screengrab shows the full caption subtitle mode is turned on.
Ubisoft’s The Division 2 accessibility option. Image credit: Ubisoft.

2010s

Fast forward to 2016, indie developers Naughty Dog made huge leaps in creating an equal playing field, surpassing the efforts of most AAA developers.

After a player highlighted that he was unable to finish Uncharted 2 (2009) due to difficulties with button-mashing sequences (repeated pressing of buttons), Naughty Dog created a more accessible title.

By creating an option to remove button-mashing and use single stick aiming, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) enabled users with limited dexterity and coordination to progress through the game.

a figure from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) standing in front of ruins.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016). Image Credit: Britgamer

Other successes followed with the release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which innovated the way gamers with cognitive issues could play in-game challenges without altering the complexity of the puzzles.

Gaming titan Microsoft also levelled up to meet this standard with the release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018.

Designed exclusively for gamers with reduced mobility, the controller can connect to external switches, buttons, mounts, and joysticks for custom set-ups. Allowing players to own their gaming experience.

The controller is so accessible, in fact, that it has the ability to be used cross-platform with any gaming system, not just Xbox.

Xbox adaptive controller , two pads a controller and 3 additional buttons.
Xbox Adaptive Controller. Image credit: Microsoft

2020s

In 2020, Naughty Dog once again broke new ground in meeting accessibility demands with the development of the award-winning The Last Of Us 2, widely celebrated as the most accessible game of this generation.

With a total of 60 accessibility settings to cater to vision, motor, and hearing-impaired players, The Last Of Us 2 has set the blueprints for positioning accessibility at the forefront of development.

The Last Of Us 2 screen shot of accessibility options.
The Last Of Us 2 accessibility. Image credit: Sony / Naughty Dog

A clear pattern that has emerged through these advances is that change has been implemented in response to players who have been brave enough to share their experiences. These gamers are the true champions of the sector.

Whilst there may not a blanket approach to meeting the needs of all disabilities, charities such as AbleGamers and Special Effect help to enhance play on an individual level. Both charities provide custom gaming set-ups from controller mods to voice and switch controls, tailored to the specific requirements of each gamer.

A young boy in a wheelchair watching a man play with a gaming controller.
Image credit: AbleGamers

While a truly level playing field is still a long way off, inclusive gaming experiences are created by listening to the community.

It’s the responsibility of developers and manufacturers to collaborate and ensure accessibility is considered at every stage of the game, from planning to play.

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