What is ‘accessible gaming’ and why is it important?

Gaming is more popular than ever. 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for the industry; not only will it welcome the next generation of big consoles in the form of the Xbox Series X and Playstation 5, but it was also saw Nintendo’s flagship handheld device – the Switch – overtake the original 1980s NES in lifetime sales as lockdown propelled an at-home gaming boom.

It also saw the release of the Last of Us Part II, which experts have hailed as the ‘most accessible game ever’. This is an important landmark for the gaming industry – we explain why below.

What is accessibility in gaming?

Put simply, accessibility is about ensuring the interface or design of a game works for all gamers, regardless of disabilities or impairments.

There have been considerable steps forward in this area in recent years, but there have also been challenges too. Every console generation has added new complexity to game control schemes as manufacturers seek to introduce variety and novel experiences to gaming. This generation’s controllers, for examples, have squeezed a slew of functionality into their devices including trackpads, buttons, triggers, analog sticks and ‘traditional’ d-pad controls – considerably heightening complexity.

At the same time, game designers are constantly looking to push the envelope with in-game features that increase the level of immersion for players. This includes directional audio, which can accurately map where a sound is coming from, or the removal of the on-screen HUD (or on-screen menu) to help gamers feel more involved in the gaming world.

Both of these examples could clearly present those with hearing difficulties or visual impairments with a challenge, underlining that gaming advances can come at the expense of universal enjoyment.

How can you make gaming accessible?    

Over the last few years, developers and hardware creators are increasingly mindful that the intricacy of controllers or more complex game design simply won’t work for everyone.

This has been addressed through clever hardware design and game settings that can be tailored to the user’s needs. A watershed moment for the former came in 2018 with the release of Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller, which is a customisable unit allowing disabled gamers to use a wide range of assistive devices including switches and pedals.

Big developers have also boosted accessibility in recent years, from making sure that subtitles are baked in by default for cutscenes and allowing users to change the font size to better read what appears on screen.

Last of Us Part II is the high-water mark for these developments, with more than 60 accessibility options. Gaming accessibility website Can I Play That has painstakingly analysed the game’s features, from audio cues and toggling enemy lock on, all the way through to completely customisable controls that means you can totally change how you interact with the game.

The site’s founder went as far to say in an interview with the BBC that “We’re going to look back on this and [see] everything for accessibility before The Last of Us Part II, and after.”

Gaming for everyone

While the Last of Us Part II is just one game, it exemplifies how the industry is moving towards accessibility by default. There’s a hope that its truly innovative approach to design sets the standard for all games in the future – particularly with the next generation of consoles set to be released in a matter of months.

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