One-button Bayonetta: Disabled gamers fight for inclusion

Last year, former games journalist Adam Sessler confessed that for the first time his age kept him from being able to play a game that he needed to complete for his job. It's a sobering reminder that we all have limits. Those often come in different forms, but nobody can do everything.

Fundamentally, games are about challenge and require some form of conflict to be compelling. That challenge can come in a huge variety of forms, from puzzles to fighting game combos, but the player is always the core component to completing these assignments. Many challenges, however, can prove impossible for some players.

In the past few years, video games have grown, trying to adapt themselves to suit larger and broader audiences. Despite this growth, a segment of would-be gamers continue to be effectively locked out by constraints like color blindness or physical ability. Some dedicated groups have been looking to change that, however; and the work they are doing might just open the floodgates for everyone else.

What Super Smash Bros. 3DS looks like with varying types of colorblindness

Ian Hamilton, an independent game designer and consultant said that he believes accessibility comes down to having a solid grasp of what a game is really trying to do, and building out from there.

"Take Bayonetta for example. Many developers would think that the core mechanic is executing complex combos. But it's not," Hamilton said. "The developers abstracted it out a bit, and [realized] that what makes the game fun is the feeling of successfully pushing your motor skills to the limit ... So they included a wide range of difficultly settings, going all the way down to a single button mode." As a result, he added, Bayonetta is, quite unexpectedly, the most accessible game of its type. Its developers understood that the point was empowering players, and that can be scaled to people of just about any ability. If someone only has the physical ability to hit one button, they could still play and get roughly the same challenge/reward balance as everyone else. For quadriplegics, that button can be mapped to a microswitch, eye motion trackers or a wide variety of other pieces of technology. The core of what Bayonetta attempts to do remains in tact regardless of input device.

A common criticism of that kind of inclusive design is that it's much too expensive to be practical. And in some ways, Hamilton added, that's definitely true. "One thing that I learned very early on is that the cost of accessibility is directly tied to the point in development at which it is considered. It really sank in when I saw a developer... make some changes to how their controls worked, things that would have been really trivial to do if only they had thought about them from the outset, but going back and retrofitting after everything else had been layered on top... it took them months."

Game design is an iterative process, where a small decision at the beginning can be almost impossible to modify or change down the line. It's vital to communicate with developers early to bring the cost of accessible features in games down. Working with developers at the ground level to help publishers and game makers keep their games open is largely the realm of non-profits like the AbleGamers Foundation and the English organization Special Effect.

Steve Spohn, Chief Operating Officer of AbleGamers, said that they've been making some solid progress. "Go back even a few years ago, and almost no one thought about these things," he lamented. "Things are getting a lot better though. It started with adding in subtitles and options to help out [people] with color blindness. Since then, we've come a lot farther than I expected, but we still have a long way to go, especially on consoles."

Consoles are, by their very nature, somewhat closed ecosystems. The kind of button remapping that is practically a default for PC games is rarer on console controllers. Spohn also mentioned that some companies just want to avoid encouraging certain peripherals for fear of cheating. "Elder Scrolls Online is a big example. They've done some great work to improve the accessibility of their series, but [ESO] requires a lot of extremely technical movement and eschews a lot of the modder-friendly features of previous games."

In response to some fears that making such concessions could give an unfair advantage to players, Spohn is adamant the core issue is participation. "These are games that test people physically, and for some, playing in a multiplayer game or playing competitively won't be possible. Many people just want to get in the door though; right now they can't even do that. If it's that big of a problem, play with modded controllers could be restricted to non-ranked games or to matches with friends. All we're looking for right now is getting in the door."

With the help of new and emerging technology, AbleGamers and other similar organizations have made some incredible progress in opening up new possibilities for gamers with disabilities. The biggest victory, perhaps, is the Adroit 'Switchblade' controller. Co-developed by AbleGamers and Evil Controllers, it gives players an incredible degree of latitude to customize their inputs. Using the Switchblade, many players have been able to participate in experiences they've never had a chance to in the past.

Spohn tells one story of a child that had almost no muscle control. The boy was visiting the AbleGamers booth at an accessibility convention and his mother didn't believe that there'd be anything AbleGamers could do to help. Within a few minutes they managed to get a game working so that this child, who otherwise would never be able to play a game, was laughing and smiling. His mother said it was the happiest she'd ever seen him.

"When we are denied something, the walls come down around us and we're locked, trapped. When you break that barrier the walls come down again, and you feel like you can rejoin the world. What we do is for the people." Spohn said. "That's what this is about. Giving people a sense of control over their own lives."

That powerful impact is unfortunately very expensive. Between voice recognition software, extra peripherals, and eye tracking tech, the technology itself isn't easily accessible. On top of the challenges to include accessibility for disabled gamers, the monetary barrier of entry can prove to be too high.

"One of our big pushes right now is to try to make accessibility accessible," Spohn quipped, "as odd as that sounds." Right now, AbleGamers is looking to raise $200,000 to load-up a van with all of the latest hardware and visit folks that might not otherwise be able to make it out to conventions. "These kinds of projects are extremely expensive, and the legal reality is an absolute nightmare. At the end of the day, we're a small organization run almost exclusively by volunteers."

Ian Hamilton and others have taken a decidedly different approach. Their focus is research and advocacy. He's worked with academics and has been pushing for the bigger, albeit less immediately tangible goal of new technology and large-scale government support. From his perspective, the victories are big numbers and more open platforms. "A few years ago the idea of a gaming platform that had built-in support for blind gamers was a wild fantasy," he conceded. "But now... via iOS, making blind-accessible games can be so easy that Zynga managed to make Hanging with Friends completely blind-accessible by accident." The next step is to make sure these features become as commonplace as subtitles. To that end, Hamilton and others organized the Accessibility Jam, a game jam for developers to crank out an entirely original game within a few days demonstrating gameplay based on the core theme of "accessibility."

"The goal of events like the accessibility jam is raising awareness, giving developers a chance to experiment with accessibility and see just what is involved in considering it, which is obviously very different to thinking about it in theory."

All-told there were 19 original games each asking their developers to actually apply these ideas. The games range from D-LIMB, which has no graphics, instead relying on audio cues to direct players, to DF-Valkyrie [pictured, above] which uses eye-tracking software to guide aircraft through obstacle courses. Taken together they represent some of the earliest attempts to genuinely build games with accessibility at their core. In the future Hamilton hopes that these kinds of experimental projects will be considered and affordances used as the foundation of a game instead of simply an afterthought.

Together, both sides of the accessibility front are pushing for a future where games aren't just designed for gamers, but for everyone. Everyone who's in this fight envisions a future where anyone can pick up your average AAA game and have a good time – regardless of previous experience or ability.

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"Pretty much everything in accessibility comes down to one of two things," Hamilton said. "Communicating information in more than one way (such as an icon as well as color), and offering players some flexibility in play style (such as reconfigurable controls). When you think about it in those terms, it becomes pretty clear that it does not mean dumbing down, it means making the game better for all players.

"The most important thing is the simple act of stepping out of your own shoes, recognizing that you are not representative of the audience, recognizing that every gamer is different, seeing things from different perspectives. It's liberating. Once that door has been opened it can't be closed, it'll be with you for the rest of your life."

[Images: Able Gamers, Nintendo, Platinum Games]

Dan Starkey is a freelance writer based out of Minneapolis, MN. His work has been featured on GameSpot, IGN, Eurogamer and more. Follow him on Twitter.