Graphics. Sound. Story. Gameplay. This is the set of scored categories gamers consult at the end of game reviews to inform their purchasing decisions.
Precision. One-Handed. Deaf Gamers. Subtitles. Colorblind. This is the set of categories that the readers of AbleGamers' game reviews consult to inform theirs.
For most gamers, bad sound or poor graphics means a diminished experience. For gamers with disabilities, the lack of subtitles or reprogrammable controls may mean no experience at all.
That's why Steve Spohn and his staff at AbleGamers write and maintain their review database, which rates nearly 200 games according to their accessibility to gamers across a spectrum of physical and cognitive impairments. Sixty percent of the registered user database at AbleGamers has a form of muscular dystrophy. Other common disabilities in the community are multiple sclerosis, ALS, and visual disorders ranging from colorblindness to the legally and totally blind.
Games that the mainstream gaming press adores are often rated as nearly unplayable by the AbleGamers staff. Take Far Cry 3, one of last year's highest-rated titles. It requires precision aiming that is in places timed, timed button presses, and fast button mashing to proceed, making it a difficult proposition for gamers with motor difficulties. And it features a red/green map and subpar subtitles, making it inaccessible to gamers with vision problems. The AbleGamers staff gave it an accessibility rating of 2.8.
"We want to be fair to developers but helpful to the disabled community at the same time," Spohn says.
If anyone can fully appreciate the difficulties faced by the disabled gamer, it's Spohn. In 2006, he had to leave behind a part-time professional gaming career (in the fast-twitch first-person shooter Starsiege: Tribes) when the loss of sensation in his arms from his spinal muscular atrophy became too severe. While looking for ways to continue his beloved hobby, Spohn came across an AbleGamers article about World of Warcraft. He soon started writing reviews and is now the editor in chief of the all-volunteer organization, which has a staff of eight.
In their reviews, the AbleGamers staff advocate for three major disabled-friendly features, the lack of which lead to the majority of accessibility complaints: remappable functions (so a gamer who lacks the control to use both a mouse and a keyboard, for example, can control the game entirely from the keyboard), colorblind options, and subtitles. The full span of accessibility concerns can be found in AbleGamers' 50-page book Includification: A Practical Guide to Game Accessibility.
Segments of the game industry are moving toward more inclusive game design options, not because of a desire to accomodate disabled people, but to woo the lucrative casual gaming market. These changes sometimes benefit the AbleGamers readership.
FIFA 2013 features a two-button mode, a control system designed to appeal to new and casual players who don't want to take the time to learn the daunting control scheme of the game. The racing game Forza: Horizon offers a setting that automatically slows cars down during turns, meaning that with the aid of a clamp on the accelerator button, a severely motor-impaired gamer can focus just on moving left and right. For disabled gamers, these features are godsends. AbleGamers named FIFA their mainstream accessible game of the year.
It's a trend, according to Spohn: "Electronic Arts has won our game of the year 80% of the time, and if you talk to EA, they do not design for disabilities. They design for good game design. They make accidentally accessible designs. If you make game design as friendly as you can and make it for as many gamers as you can, you will hit a lot of the disabled community."
Spohn finds other gaming design trends, such as a plethora of so-called "quick time events" (time-sensitive button prompts to, say, fend off an attack) and a return to the jumping puzzle, to be "disturbing." In such cases, AbleGamers advocates what they call a "fail-safe prompt", an option, after repeated failures at a timed event, to be pushed forward by the game.
Developers are sympathetic, but not always willing to change. At the recent PAX East conference, Spohn discussed his concerns over the control scheme in the forthcoming Elder Scrolls Online game with one of the title's lead developers. Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games tend to be very popular among gamers with motor disabilities because they are usually customizable to keyboard-only control. Elder Scrolls will require both keyboard and mouse in order to play. The developer responded that he understood, but that the issue was "above his pay grade."
Conversations like these are especially important because, unlike the sticky problems of representation and inclusion that trouble women gamers, gay gamers, and gamers of color, the technical problems of disabled gamers seem immediately solvable. Also unlike those groups, which are more and more finding platforms in the world of gaming, disabled people hardly have a voice in the industry, a fact that has a lot to do with the stigma of being disabled in our culture. "Gamers with disabilities tend to be very reclusive," Spohn says.
For a lot of non-disabled gamers, who found a haven in gaming during reclusive and awkward times in their lives, that ought to ring a bell.