In "Unplayable: Disability and the Gaming Revolution", a BBC audio documentary released on 28th January, 2021, Steve Saylor, a blind gamer, talks about seeing the NES on a high shelf in a game store one day while shopping with his mum. He remembers getting it in his hands and thinking, "this is the coolest thing ever", before buying the console and a Mario game and taking it home.
Just a few years later, Saylor would find himself trading in every console he owned, feeling a great deal of sadness because he couldn't engage with a hobby he loved. Due to his visual impairment, he would have to sit with his nose touching the screen in order to play, but even then, he would lose a lot. He watched his family and friends playing games, but he couldn't join in. What was the point in owning consoles when it was so difficult for him to play?
It's only recently that accessibility in mainstream gaming has really improved to the point where people like Saylor can finally play games to a similar level as people without disabilities. Thanks to the efforts of grassroots campaigners and charities like Special Effect and AbleGamers, the latter of which features heavily in the documentary, we've seen the gaming industry go from "occasionally having a colourblind mode" to huge leaps forward, like Xbox's Adaptive Controller.
Steven Spohn, a gamer with spinal muscular atrophy, spoke about collaborating with AbleGamers to create an innovative controller that helps all sorts of people play games however they can. It all began, he says, with a bag of rice that they turned into a rudimentary controller, through some feat of technical wizardry. It wasn't exactly a great prototype, but it eventually led to the Adroit Switchblade, AbleGamers' first controller, which would eventually evolve into the Xbox Adaptive Controller with the help of Microsoft's Accessibility team.
Ian Hamilton, accessibility specialist, said that the government's data estimated that around 20% of people in the UK were living with a disability. As for why he considers games to be important enough to consider accessibility options, Hamilton said that "games are a vital part of our culture and society now," and that restricting access to that culture can severely alter the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Tara Voelker, a Gaming and Disability Community Lead at Xbox's "Gaming For Everyone" program, spoke about how accessibility in games can include people with a wide range of conditions. She noted that the gaming industry, in terms of revenue, was "bigger than Star Wars", but that many teams were limited by either their tiny size or their lack of knowledge about accessibility.
"It's about removing unnecessary barriers that block people from playing video games," she says, citing the example of red/green colourblindness making it difficult to tell if a door is locked or not. "Everything from cognitive, to vision, to invisible disabilities, even things like ADHD, autism, even PTSD" could affect how, and if, someone can play a game.
"When I started working in accessibility, early on, there was a lot of work to increase awareness," says Voelker. She calls for more people with a wide range of disabilities to be prominently featured in eSports, and the gaming industry in general, to better represent the huge proportion of the population who have similar conditions.
Mike "BrolyLegs" Begum is an example of how gamers with disabilities can adapt technology to suit their needs with huge success. He began his gaming journey with the NES, and found that his arthrogryposis and scoliosis, two conditions that severely limit his movement and strength, made it difficult to play with the controller. After figuring out a way to use his face to press the buttons, he became one of the top competitive Street Fighter players in the world. "So many doors have opened in my life because of gaming," he says, noting that, when he's in a tournament, he's not there to be "inspirational" - he's there to win.
Eventually, Saylor started up a YouTube channel that he called "Blind Gamer", gaining thousands of followers almost overnight. Last year, he was among the 50 members of The Game Awards' Future Class, and gained over 100,000 followers for his review of The Last of Us II, which he deemed "the most accessible game ever".
"This is what we've been advocating for, for so long," he says through tears in the video. "This is why we do what we do."
The 28-minute documentary can be listened to on the BBC Radio 4 website.
[source bbc.co.uk, via twitter.com]
As somebody who has autism myself, I can't stress enough how heartwarming this is to read. I'm incredibly lucky that I'm able to hold a controller in my hands with ease- I know it could be far worse.
Video games, as both a medium and a hobby, should be accessible to all, above all else. I really hope that this conversation only grows, because disabilities should never prevent somebody from pursuing a passion for gaming. Good on you, BBC.
Can you please post this article in braille?
I don’t think the phrase “disability advocates” conjures the proper idea. “accessibility advocates” seems more accurate.
As long as they can create cybernetic eyeballs, hands, and ears for gaming, nearly every problem solved.
I work in a Disability Service so seeing this is fantastic. Society has a long way to go in improving accessibility but this is great progress
Agree it's a step in the right direction, and it goes to show how much we take for granted.
BrolyLegs is legit an inspiration. He plays at top competitive levels with just his mouth and it's honestly insane the things he's been shown to do
@TheFrenchiestFry it was super cool listening to him!
This is a great story - and it's great to see everyone being able to pursue gaming as a hobby, no matter what their situation is - but I keep going back to the statistic that 20% of the UK population is considered disabled. What is the definition? Like, that number seems REALLY high to me, but...maybe it's not.
@Andy_Witmyer 20% does seem very high but the sheer number of conditions that are considered Disabilities (As per the Equalities Act 2010) might make that percentage seem more realistic- for example wheelchair users, mobility conditions, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, SpLDs (Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, etc), Autism, ADHD, Tourettes, tics, visual impairments, hearing impairments, carpal tunnel, epilepsy, diabetes, crohn's disease, colitis, MS, ME, FND, chronic fatigue, chronic back pain, height (very tall/very short), long term injuries, amputees, brain injury, Bipolar disorder, Cancer, Limb loss, Musculoskeletal disorders, Schizophrenia and many many more.
It is quite a vast area so 20% might not be such a high number considering that.
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