The video-game industry is worth an estimated $137 billion (US), and that figure is growing at a staggering rate. In the last six years, the industry has doubled its worth from $70.6 billion in 2012. While video games may have once been seen as an entertainment form only for kids, they have grown to be widely enjoyed by people of all ages, backgrounds, and physical capabilities.

The addition of accessibility options in the gaming industry is a fairly new development. For years people with disabilities (an estimated 10% — 20% of most countries) would struggle to enjoy the games their friends and family could play easily. But thankful the industry has now fully embraced the need for accessibility options, and in a few short years, those features have gone from being a rarity to the norm. An example of this is wheelchair skills training through gaming technology. Developers of all shapes and sizes from big budget studios, to small independents (indies), are now designing their works from the ground up with accessibility in mind.

Input Systems

One of the most obvious difficulties experienced by disabled gamers, input systems are one of the most important areas for accessibility work — by their very nature games require user input in some form. Each platform has its own controller style from mouse and keyboard on PC, to various permutations of handheld controllers on console and mobile. But most follow the same basic design, requiring a firm two-handed grip and manual dexterity to reach all the buttons or keys.

Microsoft recently unveiled one such product with its Xbox Adaptive Controller. Years in development, it has been designed from the concept stage as a product suited to gamers with physical disabilities of all types. Initial reviews are promising, with users with a variety of disabilities saying it makes play easier, but there is still work to be done, though, as not all platforms support the hardware.

Motion controls also pose an issue here. Some platforms offer developers the opportunity to incorporate motion-based control systems into their games. Motion controls should always be an option, though, rather than a necessity as they render some games — for example, the latest entry into the Pokemon series Pokemon Let's Go — completely off-limits for those with motor control issues. This is another area where work still needs to be done.

Another solution more common than new hardware is the addition of in-game settings designed to make input easier. Sony developer Naughty Dog offered a variety of these settings with the release of Uncharted 4; settings included options such as the ability to hold a button rather than having to perform repeated taps, offering toggle aiming rather than button hold, and camera control assists. Finally, some games offer the ability to remap the controls to custom layouts, which means that if a user struggles to reach or operate a specific critical button it can be remapped to a more easily accessible alternative.

Visual Considerations

Similar to input devices, the ability to see the screen is a core requirement of being able to participate in playing video games. Visual accessibility features can be tricky to implement as the ability to see what's on the screen is such a core feature of play.

Some visual accessibility features are simple options such as increasing text sizes, or adjusting colours for colourblindness — and these are widely available now. Others features exist at a much more core level of design; for example designing in-game obstacles and enemies to have clear outlines for easy identification. Shadow of the Tomb Raider took this a step further by giving you the ability to tweak the number of highlights (displayed as white paint on rocks) the climbing puzzles display, making it much easier to pick out obstacles and objectives.

Auditory Considerations

Many games can be played without any audio at all, but even games which require audio, for example, to hear story dialogue, generally offer subtitles and volume tweaks allowing you to rebalance music, sound effects, and dialogue to make things clearer.

Multiplayer games can be especially tricky here as they usually require fast verbal communication, but even then options are available, although not always directly from the developers. Players of Destiny 2, for example, developed a web-based tool to aid deaf and hard of hearing players play the game's raids — a type of hard end-game content that requires fast communication between a team of 6 players, usually playing remotely — something that was almost impossible before. The tool works by being left open on a second screen, such as a laptop, phone, or tablet, and offers quick selection icons that are updated in real-time on everybody's page displaying crucial information that would otherwise have to be communicated verbally.

Difficulty Settings

Not everybody has the same experience and skill level at playing games. For some people, higher difficulties may be impossible due to physical response times and fine motor controls. It's gradually becoming more popular for games to offer granular difficulty designed to allow the user to tailor the experience to their abilities.

The 2018 release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider is again a great example here. Rather than singular difficulty levels (easy, medium, and hard), Shadow of the Tomb Raider gave players the ability to set the difficulty of each different parts of the gameplay independently. This allows players who struggle with fast-paced combat to turn the difficulty down, while still leaving the slower paced exploration difficulty high, or vice versa.

While gaming with a disability may pose a greater challenge, the industry has come a long way in a short time, incorporating accessibility options and settings, and developing new hardware-based solutions to ensure that whatever your physical capabilities are they won't hold you back in the virtual world.

Author's Bio: 

George Ajaka is the general manager of GTK, a company passionate about providing custom assistive technology to support and enhance the quality of life of others. He has been an active member of the rehabilitation and disability service industry for over 16 years. To read more about George and GTK's mission click here.