Updated: Feb 2
Not many of you know this, but most of my immediate family are registered disabled in one way or another. My little tribe of five has between us five cases of Hyper Mobility Syndrome, two cases of Autism Spectrum Disorder, one case of Dyspraxia, one case of ADHD, several GI disorders, dairy and wheat intolerances, and most seriously two autoimmune diseases - Multiple Sclerosis and Bechet’s Disease. And that’s just the ones which have been formally diagnosed - there are several other conditions awaiting diagnosis as we speak.
All five of us are gamers to one degree or another, and we have all struggled with at least one aspect of gaming at some point due to these conditions. I feel this life experience, combined with my 35+ years’ experience of multi-platform gaming and my keen interest in game design, leaves me well placed to argue for greater accessibility in games.
In this three-part article miniseries, I intend to do precisely that, and I aim to do so in three ways;
1) By highlighting some of the challenges faced by some differently-abled players.
2) By providing examples of software and hardware solutions which can make existing games more accessible.
3) By suggesting some easily implemented changes/options/mechanics etc. that developers can use to make their future games accessible to all.
4) By making the point that increased accessibility benefits everyone.
One immediate potential barrier to accessibility is the physical input devices used to play the games, be they mice and keyboards, gamepads, joysticks, HOTAS or ‘gesture interface’ systems such as the Xbox Connect, Wiimotes or PlayStation Move.
Some players may have difficulty using standard controls for a multitude of reasons. These could be physical - such as only possessing one functional hand, neurological - such as the tremors caused by Parkinson’s, or developmental - such as the impaired bilateral coordination caused by Dyspraxia. Players confined to wheelchairs may be unable to use whole-body gesture interface systems.
Thankfully there are several hardware-level solutions which may aid differently-abled players. One of the most high profile being Microsoft’s Windows 10 PC and Xbox One Adaptive Controller
Xbox Adaptive Controller
The Adaptive Controller is a system which allows additional inputs to be linked to its simplified plus-sized base controller. This enables players to build a controller set up that is right for them. The Adaptive Controller was designed to enable all gamers to enjoy games on the Xbox One, Windows 10 PCs / Laptops and the next-gen Xbox Series X / Xbox Series S
Introducing the Xbox Adaptive Controller
Video by Xbox
Is Microsoft… the Good Guy? - Xbox Adaptive Controller
Video by Linus Tech Tips
Using the Xbox Adaptive Controller on Xbox One
Video by SpecialEffect
One-handed controllers and one-handed gaming keyboard and mouse combos might also prove beneficial for some players, even if they were not designed with accessibility as their primary goal.
Razer Tartarus V2 One Handed Gaming Keyboard
Video by R Λ Z Ξ R
THE ONE-HANDED CONTROLLER | Evil Accessible Gaming
Video by AIR BEAR
Xbox One Co-pilot
Microsoft has implemented another innovative accessibility feature - Co-pilot. With Co-pilot two players use two separate controllers to control a single in-game avatar, vehicle etc.
Typically, one player will access the controls on one side of one joypad, whilst the other player accesses the controls on the opposite side of the second joypad. Not only is this a great accessibility feature, it is also a superb social feature, allowing differently-abled players to play with their able-bodied friends and relatives.
How to Use the Xbox One's Co-pilot Feature
Video by SpecialEffect
Some more ‘mainstream’ controllers possess options that while not specifically aimed at accessibility still aid it.
One example of this is variable resistance joysticks/thumbsticks. Players with muscle weakness may find very loose sticks easier to use, especially if paired with high sensitivity settings and a near-zero deadzone, as these will allow for controlling the action with very light and slight movements.
Conversely, players with impaired fine motor control may benefit from using a stiffer resistance combined with lower sensitivity settings and a larger deadzone, as these may reduce the effects of minor unintended movements.
Haptic feedback - such as controllers vibrating - may also benefit some players. However, some players may find the opposite is true. Therefore, game developers should avoid relying on controller vibration alone to convey information.
Players with conditions such as Hyper Mobility Syndrome, EDS etc. may find membrane keyboards with stiff or ‘spongy’ keys and a long key travel distance – i.e. how far down the key needs to be pressed for it to work - difficult to use for long periods due to hand fatigue and pain. Mechanical keyboards with very light keys with short key travel distances may prove more comfortable. Cherry MX Speed Silver keys might be the best option, as they offer the lightest touch and shortest travel distance.
Conversely, players with fine motor control difficulties such as Parkinson’s may benefit from stiffer mechanical keys with a longer travel distance, as this may prevent the keyboard from registering unintentional keystrokes. Cherry MX Black keys might be appropriate here.
Game-agnostic Software applications are programs which make alterations to how other programs perform or adapt how users interact with them. The ones we are most interested in here are programs that allow for greater freedom and flexibility of controls. Software that enables users to alter mainstream controllers are usually inexpensive and some of them are free.
Since mainstream controllers tend to be far less expensive than bespoke accessibility hardware this is often a far more affordable option. If the software allows the player to better use mainstream hardware they own already then the initial outlay is even less.
There are several programs for PC which allows the player to use non-standard controls and non-standard controllers. These might prove useful as accessibility aids. For example, a player who struggles with mouse and keyboard controls but is fine with joypads may find programmes such as XPadder very useful.
XPadder enables the player to map any key and/or mouse button to any button, trigger, thumbstick, D-pad position etc. on a gamepad. XPadder also allows the player to map the mouse pointer to their game controller’s thumbsticks. In other words, it allows gamers to play keyboard-and-mouse-based games on a joypad.