Monday, 20 February 2017

Accessibility Considerations for Gamers with a Physical Disability

A physical disability is any condition that can make any task involving physical activity very difficult or even impossible. They can come in the form of neurological disorder such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. It can even be the result of an accident or disease resulting in full or partial paralysis. In some cases a physical disability can make it very difficult for you to use your arms and hands. There are many other issues and problems that can be caused by having a physical disability but for the sake of the context of this post we are only going to focus on arms and hands seeing as in most cases these are what are used mostly for playing video games.


Problems Gaming with a Physical Disability


Having a physical disability can cause many problems for playing video games especially when that disability has a massive effect on your hands and arms. I can think of a few main issues that can arise for gamers with a physical disability and they are:
manipulation of input devices
fatigue
slower reaction times

Let's briefly go over some of the difficulties a gamer with a physical disability might face.

All video games require some form of input device and in most cases that will generally be a game pad, mouse and/or keyboard. That is usually the main way in which you interact with a video game. If you struggle to do use one of these input devices it can be very difficult or impossible for you to play a video game as the developer intended. You might not be able to reach all the buttons and press very reliably or you might not actually be able to use the input device at all.

Lots of video games these days can be very strenuous, especially if you happen to have a condition which can affect strength say for example Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. If it takes you considerable effort to use your muscles then you can get tired very quickly playing a game. I have this form of dystrophy so I can tell you from experience what that is like. When I used to play games and use a normal keyboard I used to get tired very quickly if I had to move my hand from one side of the keyboard to the other. Likewise if I had to move the mouse cursor from one side of the screen to the other. That used to be very tiring until I found a solution. Games these days can also have a lot of repetition such as fighting games and this can especially tire you out.

Most of the competitive video games these days and many non-competitive ones require very fast reflexes. This can sometimes be difficult for someone with a physical disability because often they have slower reaction times. In most cases this is probably because it takes the muscles more effort and a bit of extra time to catch up with the brain. In many cases I have been playing a game and I can feel myself thinking DUCK and then feel my hands not respond and my game character would drop dead. This can be really irritating. It can also take a little bit more time to respond to an attack. It might take you too long to get to a button or reload and you end up dead again.

Solutions


It was my intention to break this section down into three categories for each of the problems I listed above but really they a lot of the solutions I am going to talk about can be used for more than one of those problems.

There are many things game developers can do to make their games more accessible to people with a physical disability. In my opinion some of the best things they can do are as follows:
  • make sure you have a difficulty setting where possible
  • allow for key remapping
  • allow custom macros
  • enable some cheats
a difficulty setting is really useful. In most games where I have the choice I always tend to pick easy or very easy. With a physical disability it can often be hard for you to keep up with a very difficult game which can be very unfortunate given that lots of games have very good content making them more like interactive movies. I often find that I enjoy the stories of many games which I would not be able to do if it was rock hard and I could not get past the first level. An easy mode can also make bad guys a lot less aggressive so I don't have to worry as much about my slow reaction times when I am taking fire.

My next suggestion is to allow key remapping. There are so many times when I have really struggled with a game because most of the important buttons are too far away for me. Key remapping would be a valuable addition to any game because it would allow somebody who struggles reaching buttons to put them in a more comfortable place. This would help with anybody who gets fatigued really quickly as well as they would not have to stretch as far.

The ability to make your own custom macros would be a very useful addition to a game especially for somebody with a physical disability that affects their ability to press buttons. Especially so when you have to do it quickly and often. It would be very handy to allow them to make a macro that would record a complicated combination of buttons so that less effort is required to pull off that combination. The best example of where this would be useful would be in a fighting game where you have to do usually press a complicated sequence of buttons at the right time and in the right order to do a special move. You could also make macros that step-by-step cycle through all of your weapons so that it is easier to select one quickly without letting go of your ability to move around. In lots of games I would have to stand still when I select a weapon or go through my inventory.

Finally it would be good if you could add cheats. I can hear the fury of many gamers already. I am going to make a future post addressing how cheating can be used as an accessibility feature in more detail. There would obviously be some caveats to this. For a start I can understand that you would not be able to put it in a multiplayer game. However, if I was sat at home playing a single player game on my own then it should surely be allowed. You would just have to make it so that if you did choose to use "accessibility cheats" that you would no longer be eligible for high scores or anything that would give you an unfair advantage. Unless of course you add a different high score list for this purpose. There are certain cheats you could add to a game that would make it much easier for somebody with a physical disability to play. Sometimes a God mode can be useful for somebody who has terrible reaction times but still wants to enjoy the story. Maybe you have a disability that causes a bit of a twitch resulting in you spending an astronomical amount of ammo. An infinite ammo cheat would be nice. Just something to consider.


Conclusion


Trying to play video games with a physical disability can often be quite taxing. There are many things that can be done to make things easier. Lots of solutions involve third party software and different types of hardware but it would definitely be much easier if a little bit more consideration was put in at the design and development stage. I would much prefer it if some of the solutions I listed in this post could be added to more games. In future posts I will talk about other hardware and software that might be useful for people with this kind of disability.

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