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We Can All Save The Princess: Accessible Video Games

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Gamers play together; it’s what we do. The prospect of no longer being able to do so is the stuff of nightmare, but for many gamers it’s a hard reality that they have to live with. Worse still, it’s a reality that we could fix with just a little more diligence, which is why accessible game development is so important.

Accessible gaming refers to titles that accommodate players with varying disabilities or barriers to play. It’s not a notion that gets talked about nearly enough, making games accessible to as wide a range of people as possible ensures a diverse and healthy gaming population. If altruism isn’t your thing it also makes good business sense; an estimated 19% of the US population are disabled in some way, most nations have an estimated disabled population between 10-20% - that’s a lot of potential gamers being forgotten.

A range of disabilities can affect an individual’s ability to play video games, each posing a unique set of problems. Developers of accessible games are currently working on ways of allowing the visually impaired, auditory impaired, mobility impaired, and cognitively impaired to get into gaming. However the principles of developing accessible games don’t just improve the experience of people with disabilities but gamers as a whole. Increased accessibility means increased usability, or the elimination of frustrations that every gamer experiences from time to time.

The development of audio games, built to be blind accessible, is a nice example of how a focus on accessible game design benefits all gamers. Just like when someone loses the use of one sense they begin to pay more attention to the other four, developers working on specialized audio games for the blind began to hone skills in an area that usually didn’t receive so much notice. These skills were then applied to increasingly sophisticated mainstream games, helping to evolve game development as a whole.

The popular Half-Life series illustrates how blockbuster series’ can grow to incorporate accessible game elements. The original Half-Life title was both a commercial and critical success, but deaf gamers were left out in the cold when the game offered no alternative to a heavily sound-reliant atmosphere. The developers at Valve felt horrible about the oversight when it was raised, and quickly solved the problem in Half-Life 2 with the inclusion of closed captioning; text that explains what is happening within a game’s audio environment. Many gamers that are not hearing impaired also prefer to play with such text assistance, as it helps to make things clearer and easier to follow.

Not all accessibility fixes are quite so easy, however, but the industry is certainly advanced and inventive enough that a little effort would yield extremely worthwhile results. Options like accommodating multiple input devices (such as sip-and-puff controllers for the mobility impaired), adjustable control schemes, customisable difficulty settings, and the option of repetition or speed control for speech and text are all avenues currently being explored to open up games to everyone.     

Game developers that continue to strive for ways of ensuring everyone can potentially become a gamer should be applauded, it’s an issue that needs much more attention than it gets and both game culture and the industry stand to gain so much when everyone truly has the opportunity to play together.

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