Entertainment & Culture

Disability and entertainment: the accessible world of gaming

Avid gamer Vivek, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, shares his thoughts on the accessibility of the gaming world, including what games companies need to do to make computer games more accessible, what positive things are already being done, and how you can adapt gaming to suit you.

Gaming is an important hobby and social activity for many disabled people. It enables us to forget about our disability for a short period, and provides an escape into a world where we can participate in physical activities that would otherwise be impossible.

And I’m not just talking about the big actions like shooting aliens, driving a supercar or having superpowers. But also the small things, such as simply walking around, picking up an item or exploring disabled-unfriendly environments, including the jungle (Uncharted 4) or other planets (Mass Effect Series, Halo).

The gaming industry is an untapped resource for disabled people with the potential for realistic representations of disability and accessibility to the game itself. With regards to disability there are 3 core areas to focus on within the game industry:

  1. the physical accessibility of hardware or controllers;
  2. allowing disabled players to alternate configurations or to have button customisation;
  3. storytelling opportunities for disabled protagonists, with non-stereotypical portrayals of a character with a disability.

Gaming accessibility

There are unfortunately a number of gaming companies, including Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, that need to better consider accessibility during the design process of controllers, which would greatly benefit all gamers and avoid disabled gamers being unfairly restricted.

I’ve owned a variety of game boys: an Xbox, PS2, Xbox360, PS3, PS4. Over the years my Duchenne has slowly affected my gaming enjoyment. It’s meant I’ve been unable to quickly press R3 or L3 buttons on my PS3 controller without holding it in a uncomfortable, twisted position.

I’ve also had issues with my PS4: the gap between the R1 and R2/L1 and L2 is too big to slide my finger quickly between them and the convex shape of the R1 and L1. I thought I’d wasted my money, so I knew I needed to do something to adjust it. But it seemed liked a colossal task to face.

I searched the internet and found this article about adapting a PS4 controller and the charity ReMap, which adapts equipment for a number of different disabilities. After filling in a form online, a ReMap engineer visited my home. He listened to all my issues and then took the PS4 controller away for a week.

The pictures below illustrate the wonderful adaptations he made. The analog sticks are used as normal, but I can use the gold sticks for the R3 or L3 buttons and the R1 and L1 are modelled concave using SuGru, a moldable clay that can by stuck permanently.

ReMap has since adapted my friend David’s controller by moving the R1 and R2 underneath, so I’ve stolen the idea and asked ReMap to do the same for me.  I’ve also shared this with my friends at Muscular Dystrophy UK.

Front of PS4 controller adapted for disability

PS4 controller adapted for disability

There are also companies happily considering disability from the outset. The recent release of games like Uncharted 4 and Overwatch are great examples of how game developers are now starting to embrace accessibility options. Overwatch, a fighting game, has endless control configurations allowing someone who can only use one action per hand at a time to now play a game with mechanics that require multiple button inputs.

Uncharted 4 by Naughty Dog studios is a masterpiece in how to perfectly end a series by inserting an incredible story with likable characters, beautiful life-like graphics, perfectly placed slow sections of environmental exploration to contrast with gripping combat. The most incredible aspect is how Naughty Dog has made accessibility a priority by consulting with Josh Straub, a gamer with a disability. The in-game accessibility options are:

  • 5 different alternate button configurations;
  • a toggle for aiming down sights;
  • make quick-time-event functions executable by holding ▲ instead of repeated taps;
  • snap to aim function locks onto foes without having to manually aim.

Disabled characters

Uncharted 4 represents a standard of accessibility that should be more wide spread within the gaming industry. The way disability is represented in both the storyline and characters in games is important. However, it needs to be portrayed realistically, without falling back on usual negative stereotypes associated with disabled people.

All too often people see a person with disabilities as someone innocent and in need of help or protection. These opinions do not foster heroes; they foster a mentality that keeps disabled characters as sidekicks to be protected by the hero. Disabled characters can take care of themselves and should never be defined by disability.

The game Batman: Arkham Knight still relies on negative stereotypes within the story. It restricts the character Oracle painting a damsel in distress (see image below). It also includes unnecessary scenes, with the glorification of her paralysis and her supposed suicide, which gives Batman motivation to avenge.

Disability in Batman game

Their have however been a few good examples of disability representation. For example, the character Lester Crest from Grand Theft Auto V, who has a disability, is the mastermind behind all the heists. Also, Joker Moreau, the pilot of the Normandy in the Mass Effect series, is the perfect example of how to design a disabled character. He suffers from Vrolik Syndrome but is only defined by his piloting skills, grace under pressure, wit and dedication.

Recently many indie game developers have experimented with disabled protagonists. Beyond Eyes focuses on a blind girl’s view of the world, Depression Quest allows you to play as a character going through depression and Perception enables you to play as a blind woman in a haunted house. Let’s hope that this is only the beginning.

By Vivek

You can read more of Vivek’s article on his blog Uncanny Vivek

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