The question “how do we make games accessible?” is difficult to navigate because the word accessibility can mean many different things for gamers who are disabled. Two gamers who are disabled can have the same disability, but because they are different people, what works for one person might not work for the other. Similarly, they’ll have different views around accessibility as well.
Essentially, accessibility is tricky; and achieving accessibility in esports will be too. But, what it can’t be is binary. Many people in the world like to categorize issues in a very black and white way; but accessibility is more complicated than we think.
Part of understanding accessibility in esports is ultimately acknowledging that it’s tied to personal experiences, so there’s no one studio, developer or game that will be able to do it all. In order to do as much as we can, disabled voices, perspectives and expertise must be central to improving accessibility in the esports landscape.
What accessibility really means
Accessible gaming is huge. More developers are working on games or features in games to create a desirable gaming experience for as many players as possible. It doesn’t always work perfectly; but some companies have made some progress.
Going into this topic, I had an idea of framing accessibility for everyone. But that’s not a thing. Everything can’t be for everyone. So when asking whether there’s a studio, game or company that’s done accessibility well, Steven Spohn, senior director of AbleGamers said no.
“If you say [is there accessibility for] all gamers the immediate answer is ‘no,’ and none of them are doing it,” Spohn said. “But the problem is in the way that we frame the question and the problem statement, right? Accessibility is a very personalized thing … [it’s] a binary term, and accessible is a rather big misnomer.”
This viewpoint aligned with comments from Chris Robinson, a deaf gaming accessibility consultant and Twitch content creator who’s worked with different studios like Ubisoft, Eidos-Montreal, 343 Industries and more. In his email response, he explains that as a fighting games player, accessibility is lacking.
At certain tournaments, Robinson had issues with missing information because verbal communication was seen as the default. One experience left him seeking out this information on his own from the tournament organizer, and he said conversations like these “[don't] always go well.” Robinson continued, “I ended up losing motivation to keep going to tournaments cause I wasn't really having fun anymore without the proper accommodation.”
Robinson is hopeful that things will get better this year since streaming tournaments are providing captions, there still are lingering questions about what are realistic steps esports games and the larger industry can do to make people feel included.
From a studio perspective, Maikl Babenko, the brand manager of Room 8 Studio gives the gaming industry a B- on accessibility.
“The gaming industry still has a lot of room for growth and opportunities to ensure esports, and all genres of games, are accessible for disabled gamers,” Babenko said. “There definitely is a greater awareness of this need, and I am optimistic that the gaming industry can be A+ in the near future.”
Trying to get to that A+ rating can’t happen without doing the work. Looking at Naughty Dog's The Last of Us, for example, is a start. While it’s not an esport game, it’s still a good example of how games can be good for some by winning an accessibility award for settings like fine-motor, hearing and low-vision, and still not go as far as it can.
“Naughty Dog's The Last of Us is largely regarded as one of the biggest things that came out with accessibility, '' Spohn said. “I cannot play it, it's not accessible enough for me. And, you know, when you remind people about that, you get either someone who's like, ‘Wow, you are really demanding if that's not enough accessibility for you’, or you get someone who's like, you just don't like the game. And neither of those is true.”
“What's true is that for me with my set of disabilities, I'm not able to operate the controls well enough to be able to play it,” Spohn continued. “And so it's not a matter of whether something is accessible enough for me to play, and then that makes it accessible or not to everybody, it's a matter of whether or not it's accessible to me [on an individual level].”
Why lack of accessibility is a form of toxic gatekeeping
The idea that no “real gamer” needs accommodations is simply exclusionary. There’s an allure that anyone can become an elite esports player since there are a lot of great gamers. But in reality, esports is like traditional sports -- not everyone will be on an elite team. So, esports can be exclusive by design. But if you can’t play the game in the way it was designed, then there are some who think you’re not a “real gamer.” Babenko sees this as flawed thinking.
“Players who are disabled must be able to experience the same level of access, quality and fun game-playing experiences as everyone,” Babenko said. “I don’t understand why anyone would be against this idea, especially as it doesn’t in any way take away from their own ability to enjoy and play the game. It is also not a new concept to try to make games accessible to everyone.”
Make no mistake; gatekeeping is as old as time. And truthfully, it’s nothing new and finds itself across any number of careers and hobbies. So it’s no surprise gatekeeping found itself in this industry. The problem is that accessibility in a way is being used to exclude people.
“I honestly dislike how accessibility tends to get gatekeeping or gate kept so much … it's truly important to understand what accessibility is used for and why it's there in the first place,” Robinson said. “Not everyone plays the same as everyone else. There are gamers with different disability backgrounds trying to play their game but there's a barrier keeping them from being able to play.”
Spohn feels the same way. He took it further by explaining that exclusivity is the opposite of what games are supposed to stand for. While games are supposed to unite us, it’s managing to uphold structural inequities.
“You know, back in the day, there used to be bomber jackets for clubs, they're the leather jackets you hear of in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, where you know, people would have these exclusive memberships. And the only thing that made them cool was the fact that not anybody could get into it,” Spohn said. “And that is a human psychological thing that has been passed on to certain segments of gaming, where we have cultivated these communities where they are very, very proud of achieving the completion of a very difficult game.”
Improving esports for gamers who are disabled
So with accessibility being so complicated and gatekeeping preventing gamers who are disabled from being able to fully play and enjoy a game, the question remains how to improve esports for disabled gamers. Where the industry goes from here is really up to whether disabled gamers are centered in these discussions of game development from the bottom up.
It’s not enough to have a few consultants here and there. Hiring gamers who are disabled with the experience to manage teams, test, develop stories and more will make esports games and tournaments better.
One thing esports tournaments can do now according to Robinson is ask for feedback.
“I can't stress this enough but ask for feedback before and after the event,” he said. “If you don't ask, then how do you know what the problem is or what you're missing out on? If you're gonna have stairs, provide a ramp. If you're gonna have people speaking on the mic, provide a captioning service or/and sign language interpreter(s). I promise you that most of us disabled gamers just want to have fun like everyone else if you can just provide the accommodation that can also help benefit the event and bring more people as well.”
Some of the accommodations for esports tournaments can be really easy to implement. Spohn suggests allowing for things like bigger controllers than the standard size for players to hit buttons, colorblind mode, increasing text or contrast and subtitles can work as well. But “tournaments currently have a standard default set of parameters, and they don't go outside of those,” Spohn said. So, it’s unfortunately, something that will still need a lot of work before there’s better disabled representation.
Although tournaments can do their part on improving esports for gamers who are disabled, game studios can continue to do their part by making games that use “subtitles or closed captioning, audio cues, sonification, speech synthesis or haptic cues” for deaf or hard of hearing gamers as Babenko suggests.
Studios can also add “direct voice input and removal of automated inputs … to include people with motor impairments,” Babenko said. “And companies can also support gamers who are visually-impaired by enhancing, reducing or replacing stimuli or input with “high-contrast color schemes, larger text sizes, color blind-friendly color schemes and zoom options for users with visual impairments.”
In terms of shifting the culture and thinking, it comes down to understanding the realities of gamers who are disabled inside and outside of the gaming industry. One of the first things someone might think of is to create an esports tournament specifically for gamers who are disabled. That is certainly a start, but we also should remember that “some disabled gamers still want to play and compete with abled gamers as well in the competition,” Robinson said.
“My perspective doesn't speak for the entire disabled or deaf/hard of hearing community. The best thing we can do is work together as a community so that everyone can feel included without feeling excluded,” Robinson said.
If you don’t recognize the reality of disability, then there will certainly be an issue in centering and supporting gamers who are disabled, and that is a part of the challenge esports and gaming at large has to work on. Separate, but equal is never equitable, so accessibility will need a multi-tiered approach to improve it.
But until then, here’s what everyone needs to know.
“If you're disabled, life is harder for you. And this is something that is often ignored,” Spohn said. “And something that we kind of gloss over is that the moment that you entered the disability club your life is on hard mode. You now have obstacles and barriers to face. You will face challenges in life and gaming and love and interest and friendship that no one else has to face, and it is not fair. And it sucks. But where you go from there is you take that pessimism, you turn it into realism. That is a real statement. It's not pessimistic. That is an actual true statement that I just said, that's not even arguable. It is in fact harder.”
Lead photo credit: Steven Spohn