Much has changed over the last years regarding disability representation on- and off-screen and accessibility for people with disabilities in all areas of life. However, we still have a bit to go, especially in one particular sector: gaming. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm speaks with Anita Mortaloni, Director of Accessibility Xbox at Microsoft, about Microsoft’s efforts to continuously improve the gaming experience for people with disabilities, and gamer Paul Martin, aka CerebralPaul, about accessibility for and representation of people with disabilities in video games.
More than 50 percent of the US is gaming.
According to a report by Insider Intelligence, the number of monthly gamers is expected to increase by 1.1%, up to 177.7 million people in 2021. This is mainly due to the COVID pandemic. Overall, this means that more than half of the US population is gaming – a high number. Video gaming is one of the fastest-growing markets in the US. Since a quarter of all people in the US live with some kind of disability. Apparently, gamers with a disability make up a significant part.
CerebralPaul has been gaming since age 9.
Paul Martin is one of these gamers. The California native lives with cerebral palsy, a group of conditions affecting the body’s motor function. “In my case, it’s mostly on my left side. I don’t have good control of my left hand; I can’t walk, so I use a scooter or crutches. Cerebral palsy also affects my speech when I get excited, but I am considered a mild case,” Martin explains. Early in his life, he got into gaming. “I used to miss the bus a lot in middle school because I would be in the back playing with the computer,” he says. And he plays a little bit of everything. “I like Dead Redemption and Fallout – games that allow me to wander around. I also play shooters, but I am not good at them. But I play with friends since they understand I have limitations, and they don’t pick at them – at least not in a serious way – even though they always shoot me in the face,” Martin laughs.
Different disabilities lead to varying barriers in games.
However, Martin wasn’t able to enjoy playing all those varying games until a few years ago. Due to his disability, some games are hard or impossible for him to play without the right accessibility features. “Anything that requires quick reactions or multiple button pushes is a problem. I can’t have my left thumb on the thumbstick and my left finger on the trigger at the same time. My hands don’t close that way, and that can be an extreme limitation in games. In most driving games, it means I just don’t use breaks.” Paul chuckles. “Now you know why they don’t give me a driver’s license in real life.”
Accessibility tools or features open up gaming for people with disabilities.
If Martin cannot remap his controllers or adjust the difficulty level, he is excluded from playing or at least finishing the game, which is frustrating. “Also, every game that allows me to try one situation a couple of times and then says, ‘Hey are you having trouble with this? Would you like to skip that part?’ is a good game in my book because it enables me to continue with the game,” Martin adds.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller & other accessibility tools.
One major progress in terms of the accessibility of games was the invention of the Xbox Adaptive Controller. “The Adaptive Controller allows you to connect devices into a hub, so it works with external devices, like buttons and joysticks, to get that custom gaming experience a lot of our gamers need,” Anita Mortaloni, Director of Accessibility Xbox at Microsoft, explains. Mortaloni is very passionate about accessibility. At the beginning of the interview, she gives an extensive image description of herself, and it’s apparent she knows what she is talking about. “I got into accessibility through engineering and immediately connected with the idea of inclusive design and the importance of seeking out diverse perspectives to create products that more people can enjoy,” she says. Mortaloni moved into the gaming department at Xbox in the middle of a pandemic, “because what better time to focus on fun and play. We believe that play is a fundamental human need for everyone.”
According to Mortaloni, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is much more than ‘just’ a product enabling gamers with disabilities to play games they haven’t had access to before. “It started the momentum that accessibility can go beyond features like captions and difficulty settings and showed that we can really be innovative and meet the needs of people that previously were excluded from gaming. It allowed us to use the controller as gold standard to show the impact it can have on the industry.”
Positive examples for accessibility in games.
Accessibility has also been the center of attention for some game developers. One example of a game praised for going beyond regular accessibility features is the Playstation game The Last Of Us Part II. With more than 60 customizable options, the game is accessible for people with a wide variety of disabilities. They even offer a text-to-speech setting to support the gaming experience for people with low vision.
What’s done to improve accessibility?
And Microsoft is right there with them. According to Mortaloni, Microsoft’s speech-to-text feature was one of the latest tools for accessibility they released as well. Microsoft specifically outlines its accessibility requirements for Xbox in a ‘best practice’ guidebook called the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines 2.1. “It’s a checklist for developers to assess the accessibility of their games in 20 different accessibility areas,” Mortaloni says. It’s an extensive document that highlights different barriers gamers might face and how to overcome those. For example, the chapter ‘text display’ explains the challenges gamers with low vision might have when reading text on-screen, and it does that by asking the developer questions like, “Is the ability to read text a requirement in your game?” In its speech-to-text guidelines, the book states, “The provision of voice chat isn’t the same as making text chat accessible. The provision of text chat isn’t the same as making voice chat accessible. Players should be able to communicate through the method of their choosing.” “We encourage all developers to first go to the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines to familiarize themselves with all the accessibility ideas out there. And as a second idea, we ask them to look at the Game Player Experience Guide, a companion book built on those guidelines. After they go through all of that, they get an idea of where the opportunities in the game are and who to bring in from the disability community,” she states. “What I would like to see is that the developers go beyond that list. It would be nice if they reach out to people like me and be like, ‘How can we make this better for you?’ Because even Microsoft might not be aware of all things,” Martin adds.
More ways to foster accessibility for gamers with disabilities.
Microsoft actively seeks out the opinions of players with disabilities with their Xbox Accessibility Insider League (XAIL). “At Xbox, we want to empower gamers around the world to play the game they want with the people they want on the devices they want. This translates to actively seek out the perspective of gamers with disabilities and intentionally create titles, ecosystems and communities where players and creators with disabilities feel welcome, safe and represented,” Mortaloni says. By joining the league, gamers with disabilities have the opportunity to directly communicate with the development team. This way, they can inform the developers of barriers in games, and the creators will hopefully provide a fast solution to improve access. Additionally, Microsoft recently launched The Game Accessibility Testing Service, where developers can send Microsoft their Xbox or PC title and have it analyzed and validated against Microsoft’s Accessibility Guidelines. They then receive extensive feedback on where issues were found and how to fix them.
What about representation in games?
The accessibility of games clearly improved over the last years, but what about representation? How many characters with a disability can we find in games? ABILITY Magazine recently reported on PBS KIDSs efforts to represent as many children as possible, which applies to different genders, ethnicities or disabilities. They act as a role model, with characters with disabilities being represented in many of their TV shows but also in their online games for children. However, within the adult gaming world, we still barely see any person with a disability.
Characters with disabilities are lacking.
“I don’t think we are represented enough! If you look at games, you very rarely see a playable disabled character. You might see a person in a wheelchair, but you don’t interact with them,” Martin says. He has brought this topic up often lately with different developers: People with disabilities need to be an active part of all kinds of games. “Personally, I would be a great support guy! I could be the guy in the main hideaway, making sure that everything was in order. I would have a good use. Even though I know in a zombie apocalypse, I’d be the first to die… I cannot run fast,” Martin laughs. Microsoft is aware of this problem too. “It is important to us to accurately depict people with disabilities and everybody in our community. Representation and identity in gaming doesn’t only matter for the community but really for the world at large. And we aim to build a platform where everyone can see themselves, but we know we still have some work to do to fulfill that vision. It’s on our radar, and we are working towards it,” Mortaloni adds.
Some positive examples of disability representation in games exist.
Even though characters with disabilities are not found in games for the most part, lately, a few games have shown progress. For example, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales shows a deaf character who speaks ASL, which is then translated via subtitles. Another example that gives reason for hope is Marvel’s Avengers. In this game, a wheelchair user is depicted. To accurately portray how a person in a wheelchair moves, they used motion capturing of a person using a wheelchair in real life. Unfortunately, the list already ends here.
The ultimate goal: Accessibility and representation become the norm.
We are moving in a good direction, but still, a lot needs to be done. Accessibility has become more of a focus for game developers, but we also need to catch up on representation. While access to games seems to be more important at first, it is just as crucial that everyone – regardless of gender, ethnicity or ability – can identify with the characters in games. Maybe Microsoft will take on this issue next? “For me, the ultimate goal is that all players with disabilities have games they can play. And as an industry, I hope we get to the point that we are not talking about baseline accessibility because it’s standard and always there, and we can focus on the true innovations,” Mortaloni ends.
All images: Xbox Microsoft
by Karina Ulrike Sturm