When it comes to accessibility in games, the first aspect people always look for is an options menu. From customizing controls, adjusting subtitle size, or even activating varying colorblind filters, these settings help to dismantle any inaccessible barriers that could appear. And this constant search for features has become the primary topic when examining a title’s overall accessibility. Disabled players praise or criticize developers on social media platforms, and even content creators and publications will release videos or articles exploring menus to help disabled players make informed purchases. Yet, options alone do not make for an accessible game.
Before I explain further, I am not advocating for the removal of accessibility settings. I regularly scour menus to find features that suit my needs. I rebind keys, increase my mouse sensitivity, or even toggle actions like aiming or sprinting. I understand the importance and necessity of innovating, especially with groundbreaking settings like Audio Descriptive Cutscenes. But this notion that a game’s accessibility is solely based on what it does or doesn’t include in a menu ultimately holds back the greater accessibility movement.
Exploring Inclusive Design
The disabled experience is incredibly multifaceted. Even people with the same disability as me – Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type II – have varying levels of strength, stamina, and general mobility. While certain accessibility features are crucial for me to play games, some options may serve no purpose or may not be enough for other players. This is where inclusive design practices thrive.
Inclusive design is the concept of game development that explores opening games to disabled players without extensive menus. For years, designers, consultants, and developers like Ubisoft’s Lead Accessibility Designer Aderyn Thompson have championed teams that create titles by layering in accessibility throughout the entire development process. Does a game need colorblind filters if all information can be understood without specific colors? Are mandatory quick-timed-events necessary to tell a story? Do titles need complex control schemes or can people still be entertained with relatively few inputs?
The process behind implementing inclusive design is by no means new. Strategy games like the Total War: Warhammer series can be played entirely and efficiently through the mouse alone. Most recently, the Dead Space remake added modern accessibility tools, but also reintroduced linear levels, making physically disabled players need to use less energy to land precise shots. Close spaces and terrifyingly atmospheric situations are hallmarks of the Dead Space series, which originally released in 2008.
My Experience with Inclusive Design
I’ve been professionally critiquing and analyzing accessibility in games since 2019 yet, long before I learned how to properly examine the functionality of a feature, I grew up as a player. And during the time when complex menus were nothing but a dream, I was forced to rely on the accessibility in gameplay alone. As a result, I gravitated toward turn-based games and titles with heavy multiplayer components, letting me rest between turns or having friends and family protect me while I regained strength. This necessity to find games that worked for me ultimately led me to discover what continues to be my favorite franchise – Pokémon.
It’s no secret that I adore Pokémon. From collecting cards to spending hundreds, if not thousands of hours playing across every generation, my love of gaming was primarily formed because of Pokémon. I obsess over collecting every monster, battling friends, creating unique team combinations, and even recently, searching for shiny variants. And while I adore the traditional gameplay loop of taking wild animals from their natural habitat and forcing them to fight one another, it’s the simplistic controls that keep me invested. With my limited reach and strength, I often struggle to simultaneously press buttons, use two sticks, or perform rapid movements. The grid-based traversal of older Pokémon games let me comfortably play for extensive periods all with a single finger. Couple that with turn-based combat, and there was never a need to rush. I could take my time and still grow my team. Even as the series transitioned into 3-D spaces with the sixth generation, the controls and core gameplay still allowed me to play at my own pace with one finger.
Action games like Kingdom Hearts are also some of my favorites simply because it follows the same easy control patterns of turn-based titles. Yes, I’m rapidly mashing attacks and zooming through levels, but since it’s entirely possible to use the left stick for movements and the camera – a design I like to call singlestick movement – I can focus on managing energy for fights. Many of these design choices were created years before the mainstream accessibility movement. And yet, it’s still possible for me to enjoy them.
The Future of Accessibility
Accessibility in games should seamlessly coexist with the user experience. Rather than throw dozens of options in a menu and call something accessible, disabled players should expect their game to be playable, and if necessary, use options to alleviate barriers that design cannot fix. As a reviewer it’s a question I’m always asking when I examine a new title – if I were to strip away most of these options, am I still able to play?
By talking about inclusive design, I don’t think it’s possible, nor expect the entire games industry to shift their mindset when discussing accessibility. After all, it was only until recently when studios actively utilized consultants to open their games to disabled audiences. Rather, I am hopeful that conversations begin examining all facets of accessibility, instead of how many settings are in a menu. While certain games like The Last of Us Part II, God of War Ragnarök, and even the Dead Space remake provided incredible options that opened these worlds to many disabled players, we primarily praised specific features or even how many options were included in the final product.
Much like the varied and personalized nature of being disabled, games are entirely unique. And when releases don’t include the elaborate settings of competing titles, it’s easy to question the overall accessibility. But if we continue to proceed with this thought process, our understanding of accessibility cannot grow, and we will be forever disappointing ourselves when the latest game isn’t The Last of Us Part II.