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How accessibility consultants are building a more inclusive video game industry behind the scenes

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Last year, Forbes published an article titled “’Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’ Needs to Respect Its Players and Add an Easy Mode.” In the piece, Dave Thier, the author, argues that the title’s egregiously high difficulty settings detract from the superb world and character design. “The difficulty is only one part of what defines these games for me, and honestly, it’s not the most important part," wrote Thier. Easier difficulty settings would allow those with physical or cognitive limitations — or just limited time to play games — the opportunity to experience the studio’s artistic vision.

It was the latest salvo in a debate that has taken on a culture war-level valence among players online, a debate that has been litigated and re-litigated to no apparent end. Fans of the series, angered by the article, argued that not all games are meant for disabled players. Futzing with difficulty settings, they said, tampers with the creative intent of a game, especially in genres where a game’s key selling point may be its difficulty (as is the case with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice).

But the recent efforts of accessibility consultants and developers to create inclusive products tell a different story. Unbeknown to many, accessibility consultants have been pushing for an accessible industry for years. From menus containing a plethora of options, including the ability to customize controls and adjust subtitle size, to disabled inclusion within the workspace and gaming community, the often-hidden efforts of accessibility consultants are beginning to become standard practice within the industry.

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Ian Hamilton is one such accessibility consultant who regularly assists developers to ensure that their video games can be enjoyed by both the able-bodied and disabled. A key part of Hamilton’s work is dispelling false rumors regarding the implementation of accessible features. Despite the gaming industry’s rise in acceptance toward the disabled community, coinciding with Hamilton’s efforts, some still question the addition of accessible options.

“There’s a common set of misconceptions that people often have various combinations of — that accessibility is difficult, expensive and involves diluting down your vision, harming the majority to suit the needs of less than 1 percent of the population who don’t play games anyway,” he said.

By directly engaging with developers and players across social media platforms, Hamilton regularly connects skeptics with disabled voices, as well as articles and research which point out their incorrect assumptions. Hamilton views statistics as a useful way of highlighting people’s misconceptions.

The “one-handed control option in Uncharted 4 was used by 1/3 (i.e. millions) of their players,” Hamilton said. “Subtitles were turned off by default in Assassins Creed: Origins [and] just over 60 percent of players turned them on. So Ubisoft had them on by default in Assassins Creed: Odyssey, and 95 percent of players left them on. [When] they did the same in Far Cry New Dawn, 97 percent of players left them on.”

Hamilton began his education in accessibility while designing children’s games for the BBC in 2006. After witnessing a research video of profoundly disabled young children using assistive technology to play games alongside their peers, Hamilton understood the true impact of designing and creating accessible services.

“The decisions we make as designers, developers and content producers have way more impact on people’s lives than most people working in the industry [realized]," said Hamilton. "What that impact is, whether what we make enables or denies access to recreation, culture and socializing is entirely in our hands.”

Invisible changes

Josh Straub entered the accessibility consulting world through his writing. After a stint at Game Informer, he created Dagers in August 2012, a website dedicated to continuing the accessibility discussion through physical accessibility game reviews.

As Dagers grew in popularity, developers reached out to Straub, inviting him to studios for his advice on creating accessible titles. His first consultancy role was for Fortnite, and he has since expanded his teachings to other studios, such as Insomniac Games.

In 2015, while attending the Game Developers Conference, Straub met with Naughty Dog UI designer Alexandria Neonakis. After learning of Straub’s difficulty playing the game’s button mashing sequences, Neonakis, along with several other Naughty Dog developers, set out to create a widely accessible title. In 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End released with a menu dedicated to accessibility options and features. Single stick aiming, camera snapping when targeting an enemy, and the capability to remove button-mashing sequences by holding, rather than tapping, were introduced.

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When new clients seek consulting advice, Straub provides general lessons until studios are familiar with accessibility. For repeat visits, Straub examines specific problematic options or features.

“Anytime that I consult, I try to offer broad insights into the four areas of physical accessibility: fine-motor, auditory, low-vision and colorblindness,” he said. "For me, [it’s] less about fixing things on a granular scale, and more about addressing big issues.”

Straub’s consultancy appointments also focus on the importance of creating a balance between applying accessible features and maintaining a studio’s ideas. He noted that options should complement a game, not detract from the overall experience for everybody else.

“For a disabled player, the only thing worse than a good game you can’t play is a bad one that you can,” he said.

Hamilton took a similar tack during the Sekiro debate. Many detractors of accessible features fixated on the inclusion of optional difficulty settings. But the solutions are much broader, and often invisible to players not seeking accommodation, as evidenced by the Naughty Dog example.

“‘Easy mode’ is a really blunt instrument," tweeted Hamilton in March. “It is worth looking at what the designer’s intent is, what they want the players to experience. ... [The] question then becomes about how to avoid the barriers that prevent that player from experiencing what the designer wanted them to experience.”

Beyond controllers

Born with disabilities that affected them physically and cognitively, Cherry Thompson, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” enjoyed video games. Yet, after suffering from a stroke in their early 30s, Thompson began to experience severe motion sickness, greatly inhibiting their ability to keep playing. Looking for solutions, Thompson interacted with other disabled individuals on the AbleGamers Charity forums, where they discovered the need for video game accessibility features. Thompson — whose advocacy originated after they were forced to abandon the film and arts industries due to inaccessibility — shifted their work toward representing disabled players.

“I started getting asked directly by producers and designers from various teams and studios for feedback via email, then I got invited to Design Sprints at a couple of Xbox studios as a Subject Matter Expert,” Thompson said. “I was encouraged to learn game design, to start streaming and it went from there.”

Thompson strives to ensure that development studios are aware of the inaccessible features that are unintentionally added into their games. Forced button mashing sequences and the inability to customize controls or change a game’s difficulty can prevent disabled individuals from enjoying, let alone experiencing a new game. Developers can dismantle these barriers, thus opening the industry to everyone, regardless of physical or cognitive limitations.

“Really good accessibility is inclusive, it doesn’t segregate, and it benefits everyone with disabled people at the heart of it," Thompson said.

While Thompson’s work primarily focused on the intricacies of designing games, they simultaneously made it their mission to incorporate conversations pertaining to acceptance for the disabled, with an emphasis on a studio’s disabled employees.

"How can we earnestly fight for inclusion and accessibility if the industry itself isn’t accessible or truly inclusive of everyone?” they asked. “Without true inclusion and acceptance, we’ll never get accessibility right or achieve it without furthering social stigma and bias.”

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Similarly, Straub’s approach goes beyond just advocating for those with fine motor impairments. He aims to provide aid to those with other physical disabilities, especially individuals with auditory or visual impairments. As such, Straub can feel frustrated when a single accessibility innovation receives all the praise.

In 2018, Microsoft released the Xbox adaptive controller, a device which allows disabled individuals to fully customize button inputs, as well as utilize switches with varying levels of sensitivity. During Super Bowl LIII, Microsoft aired a commercial featuring several physically disabled children successfully playing video games with the adaptive controller. With approximately 98 million Super Bowl viewers and 29 million views on Microsoft’s YouTube channel, the controller surged in popularity. On social media platforms, celebrities such as T-Pain and Cher praised the device. Yet, as Straub noted, the controller cannot benefit every disability.

“In the area of hardware, the [Xbox adaptive controller] is a great device, but it only helps one segment of the disabled gamer population," Straub said. “And yet the narrative seems to be that now everyone can play, because Microsoft released this device.”

While accessible technologies and settings are certainly helpful, Straub encourages individuals to remain realistic with their accessibility expectations. Devices and options cannot benefit every disability, and highlighting only a single innovation can harm the greater accessibility trend, as well as alienate those with differing disabilities.

Fighting alienation

In their advocacy work, Thompson also includes those who may not have the capability to express their frustrations on a grand scale.

“I try to make sure we’re paying attention to players that are angry and hurt by being excluded. Sometimes they get lumped in with the toxic parts of gaming, but if we pay attention to those that are upset because they’re excluded, we’ll see it’s justified,” they said. “There’s no words to describe the harm that exclusion from massive cultural phenomenon like games does to people.”

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Disabled individuals that are unable to complete portions, or in serious cases, play specific games, cannot join their peers in conversations surrounding popular titles. That becomes especially problematic when a title in a fan favorite series includes inaccessible mechanics that were previously omitted.

“I adore Resident Evil. It was one of my favorite franchises. But when I set out to replay all of the games, I struggled,” said Elizabeth Garcia, who suffers from debilitating joint pain, and requires accessibility options to complete varying titles. “Resident Evil 4 is one of my favorite games on the planet, but now that I am sick, I cannot complete [it] without physically hurting myself because of the large number of button tapping needed to complete certain events. It is frustrating to love a piece of media that doesn’t consider how you have to play.”

The goal of an accessibility consultant is to create an inclusive industry which respects and acknowledges disabled individuals. But despite their persistence, arguments against the addition of accessible options are still quite prevalent. The Sekiro discourse exemplified this — but also, in a surprising turn, demonstrated a willingness from industry developers to accommodate the disabled.

“Cory Barlog, director of the God of War games, replied,” Hamilton said. “‘Accessibility has never and will never be a compromise to my vision.’ Another well known dev, Rami Ismail, saw this, and tweeted the same words. Other devs saw and did the same.”

In a subsequent tweet, Barlog alsowrote that “accessibility does not exist in contradistinction to anyones creative vision but rather it is an essential aspect of any experience you wish to be enjoyed by the greatest number of humans as possible.”

"It was like a scene from Spartacus,” Hamilton said.

While anger lingered, Hamilton noted that the support of prominent developers demonstrated the rise in acceptance of accessibility features within video games.

“It’s still just a start, but it feels like the ball is at least rolling downhill now,” he said.

To continue the innovation of the accessibility trend, Hamilton encourages players to use their voice. Whether through social media posts, or direct communication with developers via email, feedback is a great way to discuss accessibility highs and lows.

And as for studios, Hamilton offers an invaluable lesson.

“It can seem an intimidating topic, so intimidating that people often will back out and do nothing at all out of worry about not being able to ace it,” he said. “You don’t have to ace it the first time. Nobody does, nobody can. Accessibility is a journey.”

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