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Friday, April 19, 2024

More Accessibility Options Only Make Games Better

Accessibility in video games has come a long way in a few short years. Console manufacturers, as well as game studios, publishers, and developers, have all turned an eye on some level to making sure the games they produce are more accessible than ever. However, there is still much to be done, especially when it comes to invisible disabilities, ones that often go overlooked, like disabilities that affect vision and memory.

For example, chronic and invisible illnesses can carry the burden of memory loss. I would know. I personally experience memory loss as a direct result of my narcolepsy. I experience lapses in memory and an overall decline in functional cognitive thinking as a result of excessive daytime sleepiness. Often games become increasingly difficult the longer I spend playing them. The more time I focus on playing, the more likely I am to forget things like button combinations, the path to an objective, prior methods I have used in an area, items I am searching for, and whether I have returned to a spot repeatedly. Some of these issues are things many gamers take for granted, and game developers assume aren’t issues for the player. Even if they aren’t, there are still plenty of things developers can do to improve gameplay and make sure their games are more accessible to people like me.

Games That Do It Right

As examples, there are two games that were built to help those with memory issues. The first is Minecraft Dungeons. As you progress through a level, the map can be accessed onscreen so that you can see your character moving along and never have to wonder where you are if you don’t remember how far you’ve walked or what you were doing last. You also can see where you have already been by changing the color of the path. There are also pointer arrows that tell you where you need to go. If you happen to be in a group and need to break off from your friends, you even have the option to fast travel back to them. Minecraft Dungeons even gives you the option to quick-equip any gear you have in your inventory, which is a fantastic option when you struggle with remembering what you have equipped, and whether you swapped out one item for another item the last time it came to mind.

Outriders, developed by People Can Fly & published by Square Enix, and recently released to pretty positive reviews, is another prime example of a game with remarkably useful accessibility features. When you select a quest to track, you can simply press up on the directional pad on the console (the Tab key on PC), and you see a white line on the terrain in front of you that leads to the destination or quest objective. The area maps are small and show travel points with large flag markers, and there's an icon to let you know where you are currently on the map. If you play with friends and break off during battle, you don’t have to worry about looking for loot that dropped closer to them or your share of any iron they may have harvested. Pressing down on the directional pad (the H key on PC) will make the game automatically pick up items no matter where you are.

Mechanics like these make it easier to navigate the game area, pick up items, reduce the amount of time you spend backtracking, revisiting places you’ve already been, and do other tasks that are challenging when you have memory issues. When confusion sets in and you begin to forget where you have been, these types of simple options become a saving grace. Path markers are critical for memory loss, and it makes the game much less exasperating to have a guide to help travel from point A to point B, with frequent map checkpoints that make fast travel easier. I have spent too many hours to count in games like Borderlands going in circles trying to figure out where I need to be. The marker can literally be just around a cliff, and yet I find myself staring at a wall for 30 minutes trying to remember, and another two hours trying to navigate to whatever destination I’m headed to.

How Developers Can Help

Beyond these examples, developers can go a bit further by having a message pop up with something like “We see you have been in this area for a while. Do you need help on where to go?” or “Would you like to enable auto-route to your next quest objective?” Hints are critical in helping gamers figure out what to do. Developers can also assist by implementing a detection method if you have been searching for items for a while by adding arrows or hints to help pinpoint said items. A number of games do something like this, where if you spend too much time looking for something, it starts to sparkle or makes a sound the closer you get to it. This also could be a toggled menu option for those who choose not to utilize it.


Controls can be yet another obstacle. When your character appears stuck or you lose repeatedly to an enemy, it would be helpful to get reminders as to what the buttons on the controller do, or which common key bindings may be useful but buried in the controls menu. For games with complex combinations, it is always a great idea to make sure that there are reminders easily accessed via the pause menu. It is often difficult—for any gamer, not just one with memory issues—to return to a game and remember how it’s played, or what the control scheme is. It becomes even more confusing as levels advance and button combinations evolve in complexity. Just imagine sitting and thinking, “What was I supposed to do again?” while trying to enjoy your current game session, or even “Where do I go from here? I’m lost.” When your mind plummets into confusion and defeat sets in, the first thing that comes to mind for me is to simply shut the game off.

Accessibility Isn’t the Same as ‘Easy Mode’

These accessibility options do not necessarily make a game easier. It simply gives people like myself with cognitive challenges the ability to look forward to having fun while gaming.

Sure, some people may say that not every game is for everyone, but in this regard, it doesn’t have to be the case. Developers should ask themselves if they incorporate accessibility, will it truly affect the underlying mechanics of the game? Inclusivity and accessibility shouldn’t automatically be associated with the notion that it devalues the quality and overall enjoyment of a game.

Manufacturers of console hardware and game retailers also have a role to play, if we want a better, more inclusive and accessible future in gaming. It is a truly terrible feeling to have purchased a game you have been looking forward to, only to realize that it isn’t accessible to you. I have experienced this, and game retailers could do more to accommodate gamers who spend full price on a game only to find out a few hours in that the game won’t work for them. A great refund policy for all digital stores would be to allow a return credit within two weeks for less than 2 hours of logged play time. This should be a enough amount of time to figure out if a game is accessible to you or not, considering your specific needs. Buying discs is a risk for people like me, and it's a waste of $60 or more if you cannot enjoy the game you just bought. Most retailers today will refuse an open game due to DMCA issues, so you forfeit your money for a title you cannot play. Game subscriptions, like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus and Now, are on the leading edge of this.

Finally, publishers and developers should listen to feedback from people with chronic and invisible disabilities. Not every disability can be seen with the naked eye, and far too often cognitive difficulties are overlooked. A few simple ideas and tweaks to follow where other great developers have gone before can make games more accessible for people like me.

As Microsoft executive vice president and head of Xbox Phil Spencer has said, “When everybody plays, we all win.”

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