I’ve been writing and reporting on video games for more than a decade, but I’m also a lifelong member of a millions-strong community of gamers with disabilities.
It’s a symbol of frustration, restrictions, and tears for me. I couldn’t even navigate the home screen since I didn’t have enough motor control.With over 100 million units sold globally since 2006, the motion-controlled gaming console remains one of the most successful video game consoles ever produced. The Wii, on the other hand, made me feel as if I’d lost my capacity to play video games.
My Cerebral Palsy, and my associated muscle weakness and lack of fine motor control, left me excluded from a library that includes Mario Galaxy, Wii Fit, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I felt forever barred from using a platform that had brought joy to millions.
As Steven Spohn knows all too well, my story is far from unique.
“There’s nothing more heartbreaking,” he tells Inverse. “I don’t know anybody who’s in our situation who’s never experienced opening up a game only to realize within 60 seconds, ‘I’m not going to play this.’
“There’s no way to convey how much that sucks.”
Spohn lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. He’s the COO of AbleGamers, an organization that empowers disabled players to find ways to enjoy games and teaches creators how to make their content more inclusive.
While AbleGamers has led the charge, the last five years have seen a groundswell of efforts at some of the biggest video game publishers to include differently abled audiences.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which offered me an opportunity to better understand the history of the limitations within my community. I interviewed representatives from Sony, Microsoft, Activision, and others to better understand past failures in accessibility, how it has improved, and what the future holds for making the most profitable entertainment medium a more welcoming pastime for every kind of player.
Despite their varied perspectives, a common thread emerged among everyone: Accessible design principles make gaming better for everyone. GAMING’S EARLIEST FORAYS into accessibility were haphazard, with rare accidental successes. The failures of inaccessible tech often proved to be a stepping stone for future innovations.
Nikki Crenshaw has worked in the User Experience department of Blizzard Entertainment for the past four years. She says fostering a close friendship with a colorblind World of Warcraft player gave her a new perspective. Looking back, she feels gaming accessibility began with bonus features meant to pad the shelf-life of a classic titles. Similarly, Xbox Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager Brannon Zahand says Microsoft’s early innovations came indirectly, through workplace software and operating systems.
“Nonprofits and advocacy groups, like the National Federation for the Blind, were interested in trying to find ways to get people into the workforce,” Zahand says. “They were really pushing tech companies and working on legislation to help people get jobs, which is great. But the problem was that those groups and those tech companies didn’t really think a lot about entertainment.”
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