The Long Road to Accessible Gaming

looks at accessibility in the gaming industry and Xbox’s first tangible move into the field

Gaming is a popular social activity and hobby for a large portion of the population, and perhaps to no-one is it more important than disabled gamers. Yet they remain largely forgotten by the industry and the gaming giants who lead it. In fact, it is estimated that 20 per cent of all gamers have some kind of disability; AbleGamers estimate a huge 33 million in the US alone. So, the lack of accessible features in both controllers and the games themselves is quite frankly baffling. Only after years of independent work by charities and individuals has one of the gaming giants – Xbox – finally embraced the accessible gaming market with the to-be-released Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Over the past decade, accessibility within the gaming sector has been largely ruled by the work of charities. The three leading charities, all of whom offer adaptations to existing inaccessible controllers, are the UK based ReMap and SpecialEffect and the US based AbleGamers.

Image: BagoGames

These charities not only provide assistive equipment allowing the disabled to engage with video games on the same level as the able-bodied, but they also offer this for a fraction of the price – or occasionally granting it free of charge. This tackles another of the barriers disabled gamers have to overcome in order to level the playing field: the cost. Adaptive and assistive gaming technologies are more often than not inaccessible themselves due to the huge cost alone; something considerably hindering when the financial burden – especially in the US – of simply living with a disability is significantly more expensive than living without.

This is why accessibility not only matters in the physicality of playing a game but within the game itself. Control configurations are the easiest way for game developers to provide a small amount of accessibility inside their games. Overwatch is a prime example of this, having endless configurations; as a result allowing someone who can only use one action per hand at a time to play the game which requires multiple button inputs.

Thankfully Overwatch is not alone, with several games over the past decade beginning to include accessible in-game options for the colour-blind, blind, deaf, hard of hearing, and even dyslexic. These are important, but still small, steps in the right direction.

Although in-game accessibility is important, accessible controllers are the final keystep towards the gaming industry being accessible to everyone. Currently, all adaptive controllers on the market are sourced either via charities or through small independent companies. While these are vital and often impressive – the QuadStick, a hands-free mouth controller for quadriplegics, being one – they are expensive and not manufactured on any kind of large scale. As a result, disabled gamers are often left without any viable options for playing video games without major difficulty.

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) with its two large soft programmable buttons, D-pad, standard profile button, and unique 19 jack inputs, all for £74.99 aims to change the game. This is both substantially cheaper than previous adaptable controllers, and still allows users to add their choice of assistive aid that best suits their gameplay.

The XAC is also the most easily and instantly compatible (with both Xbox consoles and PCs) adaptive equipment available; meaning that disabled gamers using accessible technology won’t be limited to PC gaming and won’t have to endure a complicated set-up anymore. Although the low cost does exclude the price of the potential pricey additions needed to cater to specific disabilities – perhaps the most expensive example being the whole set-up of the QuadStick coming to around $700 – the relative low price of the XAC shows a consideration and determination by Microsoft, and Xbox, to cater to disabled gamers irrespective of high potential profits.

Hopefully, the release of the XAC later this year will lead to more accessible technology in the gaming industry by the big companies – PlayStation and Nintendo among others – to ease the financial burden of both the players and the charities who’ve been crucial in the field for so long. Ultimately, the hope for the XAC is to encourage the gaming industry to become more accessible for all.

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