The word ‘accessibility’ is an interesting one. I work in a field in which it gets thrown around a lot, and in which it usually means ‘possible for as many people as possible to engage with regardless of their physical or mental ability or impairment’.
At least here in the UK (I can’t speak for anywhere else), we use the word to refer to ‘accessibility ramps’, for example: the smooth slopes usually placed outside buildings as an alternative route in for those who might have difficulty using steps. Websites use it as a shorthand for a range of features including responsive design, ability to change font size and colours, clear labelling so that people using text-to-speech or text-to-Braille software can still read it as intended; ‘web accessibility’, in short, is to do with making sure that there are no barriers to accessing or interacting with a site by someone who might have a visual impairment or struggle to use a mouse precisely. (Interestingly, when I Googled just the word ‘accessibility’, the Wikipedia article on web accessibility specifically was the first thing that came up.)
The word in its simplest form just means exactly what it sounds like: the ability to access something. In whichever context it might appear, it’s always to do with removing barriers for entry, essentially ensuring a level playing field so that regardless of someone’s physical or mental ability, they have equity of access to information and services and so on.
In video games specifically, however, the word’s got something of a double meaning, and I find it a little bit fascinating. I put a poll out on Twitter a while back asking people what they thought of when they heard the word ‘accessibility’ in a gaming context, and among the very small sample size of respondents (12 people), 42% went along the lines of ‘ease of learning’: how easy is it for a gamer of any skill level to enjoy playing? Over at The Well-Red Mage, the format of their trademark 8-Bit Review explicitly defines ‘accessibility’ as having to do with how easy the controls are to pick up, how intuitive the game is: in short, can a gamer enjoy the game without needing to git gud? It’s to do with ease of advancement without being frustrating, allowing a gamer of any skill level to enjoy the game.
For a long time, games have had difficulty levels, allowing players to give themselves an easier time of things. Lower the challenge involved in completing a level and you make it so that a wider variety of people of all ability levels are able to progress through more levels, enjoying more of the game’s world and story. Difficulty levels themselves have occasionally become a little bit inaccessible, opting for dumb names that don’t really tell you what you’re actually letting yourself in for (or mocking players for not wanting to get one-shotted at every turn), but in general the concept does speak to that broad definition of ‘accessibility’ as ensuring the greatest level of potential for interaction and engagement among as many people as possible.
I wonder whether this is the sense of ‘accessibility’ that most gamers would have thought of until fairly recently. Or perhaps they’d have heard the word and drawn a total blank, but if you’d said ‘difficulty’ it would have meant something else entirely.
These days, I think we’re leaning towards the sense of ‘removing barriers for people with disabilities’, but we’re also doing better at making difficulty levels adjustable for a variety of playstyles and preferences. See, for example, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, which features a ‘difficulty and accessibility’ menu allowing players to independently tweak the challenge present in combat, puzzles, and traversal. It may seem a small thing, but it means that those who love solving difficult puzzles but perhaps aren’t so good at fast-paced combat (or perhaps have trouble with reflexes or quick-executed motor movements) are able to enjoy every aspect of the game at their own pace. Even more of a granular array is the difficulty settings menu in most recent WWE games – WWE 2K18 is the most recent I’ve played, and I’m pretty sure that it allows you to adjust sliding scales for how much damage particular types of move will do, how frequently opponents will counter your moves, how quickly you’ll be able to get back up after a hit, how large of a window you have to execute quick-time counters and a whole bunch of other stuff.
So games these days are pretty good at giving players control over a bunch of stuff in order to make it possible for a gamer of any skill level to play and enjoy, I think it’s fair to say. Sure, some games are deliberately difficult and offer no facility to do anything about that other than to get better at playing – and, conversely, some games these days have been designed so as to not require the player to be of a particular level of skill (think of Journey, for example, which anyone can complete without needing to be good at any of what someone might think of as the ‘conventional’ elements of gameplay like precision, reflexes, specific inputs and so on) – but I reckon that for the most part, games in general are better at allowing players to set the challenge at whatever level is most appropriate for them.
Are games also better these days when it comes to the other meaning of ‘accessibility’? I think so, yes. Interestingly, despite the ‘difficulty’-related option being the most-picked on the Twitter poll, when I raised the question ‘what does accessibility mean to you?’ in a private group elsewhere (a group of people who are all gaming bloggers, I should say, and perhaps the fact that my questions were directed mostly to people who were already likely to have thoughts about this may have skewed the results!), the response was almost exclusively to do with removing barriers for those with disabilities. It was also the opinion of most of those who responded that generally, things are going in the right direction on this front, which is heartening.
To take what might be a slightly extreme example, think of old arcade cabinets; something like Street Fighter with a joystick and a couple of buttons. Those assume that the player is of a certain height (and therefore able to reach the controls/ see the screen), and that they have two hands capable of reasonably quick and precise movements. Or a driving game in an arcade might assume that the player is able to use both their arms and legs – at the same time, no less – to interact with a steering wheel and foot pedals. Unfortunately, I can only assume that the only practical option back in the day would have been to design an arcade machine with the not-disabled Joe Public in mind: it’s out for the use of anyone who cares to wander up to it, which most likely means someone who meets these assumptions. It just wouldn’t have been possible to accommodate a range of physical and mental barriers, I guess, since making it more accessible for one person’s abilities might make it less accessible for someone else’s, and besides, since you’re a corporation looking to make money, you want your product to appeal to the largest demographic, so you design it for the ‘average’ (aka not differently abled, although I heavily emphasise the quote marks there and think the word with a hugely sarcastic inflection) person. I mean, that could be the rationale, or it could be that they really just didn’t even consider people with impairments.
Now that home consoles are a thing, though, it’s much more practical to include things like keybinding as a more mainstream feature: allow those for whom a ‘standard’ controller setup is prohibitive to make their own! (After all, a console is only likely to be used by the person who owns it and maybe a few other people in the house/ guests, so it’s not an inconvenience to make these adjustments when needed – it’s not as if you’re changing the settings for everyone in your neighbourhood who wants to play the same game as you, as it would be if we were still in the arcade machine days.) Gaming companies have also increasingly realised – I’m not saying this is the primary or only motivation, but all companies have to consider profit – that there are in fact a lot of people who do have disabilities and who would really like to pay for their games, so making things more inclusive is a win-win. Heck, Microsoft even came out with their new Xbox Adaptive Controller recently, designing something that as many people as possible would be able to suit to their own specific needs (and making sure that it would also be compatible with other hardware that people with disabilities – mostly mobility issues – might already use to help with gaming).
A company of Microsoft’s size and standing making a big deal about making things more inclusive is a massive step in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned; they worked with a lot of smaller companies who’ve been doing this for a long time, and I want to give massive props to the work that those smaller groups do exclusively and with dedication, but I still have to consider it a win when Microsoft puts the word out much more widely that hey, this is happening and you kind of need to get on board with it.
Other interesting thoughts were raised in discussion: the idea that games can have a wide range of aspects which can be more or less accessible came up a couple of times. Difficulty is one of those things; having settings allowing people to make sure their disability won’t be a barrier is another; there are then things like ease of consumer access, or how easy it is to actually purchase or download a game (see the loooong-raging arguments around download rights management, or DRM, for examples of how this affects people), and complexity, which is to do with how easy the game and its mechanics are to understand (slightly different from difficulty). A single game could do some of this very well and some very badly, but the increasing philosophy in game design of taking accessibility into consideration throughout the entire design process is helping games to do better at this (I think). I mean, why wouldn’t a game want to be as accessible as possible in all ways, allowing as many people as possible to play and enjoy (and pay for) it?
I’ve barely even mentioned cognitive impairments, by the way; I’ve focused mostly on physical adjustments because… well, I’m not really sure why. Those seem to be the ones that games are actually doing better, and perhaps the fact that I can’t think of all that much to say about cognitive impairments is a sign that they’re not being talked about and addressed enough. Suffice to say, though, that if a game’s controls are unintuitive, that it doesn’t have a tutorial, that it’s just hard to learn, then that may well be not only an increase in difficulty for gamers in general but also a straight-up barrier to entry for those who have cognitive difficulties.
At this point, I feel I’ve talked a lot about the various facets that people might identify as having to do with accessibility, but what I really want to know is what it means to you. I’m curious to find out more about whether people are, in general, thinking more of it as being to do with adjustments for disabilities and, if so, whether you think that games are in fact doing better at this than they used to. Personal stories, particularly from those to whom these kinds of features really have made a difference, would be great to hear!
Here are a few articles that I found interesting while I was thinking about this:
Polygon – Why Game Accessibility Matters
AbilityNet – 5 Ways Accessibility in Video Games is Evolving
GamaSutra – Improving Game Accessibility
The Game Accessibility Guidelines website, which is really quite fascinating and I hope designers are using it as a point of referral
SpecialEffect’s Accessible Gaming Wishlist
And finally, a great story about a really cool guy (whose speedruns may have been one of the things that inspired me to start thinking about this in the first place): Halfcoordinated has extremely limited movement in one hand, so plays games one-handed. He just happens to do it better than most people can with two.