How accessibility in video games is moving on to the next level

Microsoft's Super Bowl advert showed a huge new audience how gamers with disabilities can tailor their controllers to play the latest games. So The Big Issue spoke to British charity SpecialEffect to see how they open up gaming to everyone who wants to play

Nestled among the £4m-per-30-second Super Bowl trailers for Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame was an advert with a difference.

Microsoft used the world’s most sought-after ad space to publicise a game controller – showing kids with physical disabilities playing games with their new adaptive controller alongside the message: “When everybody plays, we all win.”

It’s an important piece of customisable kit that allows the use of body parts other than hands to control games. The ad – viewed 30 million times on YouTube – has given a huge platform to the issue of accessibility in games. As did the BBC’s heartbreaking report on how World of Warcraft offered a Norwegian boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy an opportunity to roleplay as a nobleman by birth, a philanderer and a detective as well as connecting with players all over Europe.

Almost 50 per cent of Brits play games, according to Newzoo’s market report, but at least 20 per cent of people have some kind of a disability that could impact playing games.

Many of them cannot use a standard controller – the device that has been largely unchanged since the launch of the first version of the Nintendo Entertainment System in Japan in 1983 until the recent advent of touch screens and motion controls.

But in 2019 the vast majority of blockbuster games such as FIFA or Fortnite require either a controller or a mouse and keyboard.

This is where SpecialEffect comes in. Founded in 2007, the unique UK charity brings together a 25-strong team of accessibility experts, gamers and therapists to provide accessibility solutions for people with physical disabilities completely free.

That involves developing free software like EyeMine to let gamers play Minecraft with their eyes, for example, or making the set-up to help Ajay, an IT support analyst with spinal muscular atrophy, play Call of Duty with his chin.

Mick Donegan, CEO of SpecialEffect, told The Big Issue: “Playing online is much more commonplace than it was, so playing video games has become an increasingly sociable way to engage with other people.

“And, therefore, if people are unable to access that technology then you can argue they are even more excluded than they otherwise would have been.

“Playing games is a great opportunity to be included socially and an opportunity to make friends and to compete – it’s almost like there is a pressure valve bursting to open up for many of the people we work with. The great thing is it gives people an opportunity – for those who can – to get to the level where they can compete online with other people and often beat them.”

Gaming accessibility expert Ian Hamilton agrees. “Quite simply having access to games is important because games are important,” he said.

“Popular games are huge cultural phenomena. They’re all over the media, they’re what your friends are talking about, what your friends are doing. So it’s a big deal to be excluded from that and an equally big deal to be included.”

Disabled gamers have attracted plenty of attention online for competing against able-bodied opponents. Dutchman Sven Van de Wege – aka BlindWarriorSven – plays Street Fighter to a high level while American Clint “halfcoordinated” Lexa, who has hemiparesis – a weakness of one side of the body – speedruns games with one hand. But Donegan insists that, for many, the chance to move without restriction is one of the real attractions.

He said: “For many of the people we work with, they have to be in their home, rehab, hospital or intensive care. Movement is difficult for many of them and certainly the ability to get right out of that environment and to take control in a virtual world – many of them tell us it is very liberating and enjoyable.”

Representation remains a problem with relatable video game protagonists with disabilities in short supply – Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen using prosthetics which have been turned into real-world solutions by Open Bionic is one of the most notable exceptions.

And, bizarrely, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’s portrayal of a wheelchair-bound protagonist – in an alternative history game about fighting Nazis, no less – has been praised.

But be under no illusions – gaming can do better. And not just with physical disabilities. Subtitling is still not guaranteed – last year’s Spyro the Dragon remake being the latest offender to omit them.

“Just 10 years ago we would never have imagined something like Microsoft’s Super Bowl advert,” said Bill Donegan, SpecialEffect project manager.

“It’s a difficult thing but more and more ideas are being shared and hopefully it will become part of the game development process to consider accessibility from the outset, making it easier to implement it well.”

Video games have the unique power to offer the chance to go anywhere and do anything.

To talk to friends, to find like-minded people and communities you could never reach in person, and to escape reality and have fun when it may be in short supply in everyday life.

It’s up to the game industry to give even more gamers with disabilities that essential opportunity.

Image: Microsoft