Figures from the US Census Bureau suggest that more than 24 million Americans are living with a severe physical disability and another 34 million who have a functional limitation, which means they’re impaired to a certain degree but less severely. That’s a massive potential market, but are gaming and tech companies doing anything to ensure equality of opportunity in the gaming arena?
One of the fundamental and most appealing aspects of video games is the visual element. Graphics are one of the defining qualities of video games, and enormous investment has been made, and continues, into improving graphics. But what if you’re blind or visually impaired? If you can’t play a game without being able to see the graphics clearly, that effectively denies blind and partially sighted people from playing.
The industry does have a subspecialty of game accessibility within the mainstream field of computer accessibility, so there is recognized research going on into the ways that computer gaming can be made more accessible to people who have limitations. As the field grows, it’s creating additional resources based on video games that can be used for education, rehabilitation, and promoting better health.
Game accessibility doesn’t just study the games themselves; it also reviews how easy they are to use on different platforms, whether that’s online, gaming computer, games console, or other means. There is a selection of tools available to assist people with visual impairments, such as JAWS®, which stands for Job Access With Speech.
JAWS is in widespread use, providing people with visual impairment the ability to use a computer even when they can’t see what’s on the screen. It uses speech and Braille to enable people with vision problems to interact with the internet, and it can be used with most audio-only versions of computer games. However, this kind of software is only useful if the game designers create versions of their games that are playable using only audio.
Some game developers have realized the extent of the problem and are now making games that use sound cues rather than visual clues to guide play, so you don’t need to be able to see a screen to play the game. There are other challenges facing games companies and their customers, though, as sight loss isn’t the only barrier to engaging with gaming. Other problems that can affect how easy it is for people to play computer games include:
- Deafness or being hard-of-hearing
- Having physical impairment of hands, wrists, arms, or legs
- Speech impairments
- Inability to distinguish colors
- Blurred vision
- Learning disabilities
- Reasoning difficulties
- Dyslexia and dyscalculia
Some games are designed from the ground up to be accessible for people with disabilities, and these are known as one switch games. The vast majority of games are mainstream, which means they’re not designed with accessibility in mind, although some may be adaptable. Having said that, not having the necessary skills to make adaptations is another restriction on widespread engagement with gaming.
Certain games may need additional equipment, for example:
- Adapted controllers
- Mouse emulators
- Special input devices
- Switch interface
Audio games are designed for people who have a visual impairment, which sounds limiting but is proving to be a source of great creativity amongst designers. One of the advantages of audio games is that they aren’t limited to use by the visually impaired – they can equally well be used by sighted people as well. There’s a growing interest in audio games from people who have no visual impairment but find the medium to be useful for their work.
Cost is another factor that can affect people’s ability to participate because purchasing extra equipment is very often a necessity, not a luxury. If that represents a financial challenge, it could be worth considering using credit facilities in a carefully managed way that avoids you being burdened with a debt you can’t repay.
Using a financial broker service such as Bonsai Finance gives you access to sound, independent financial advice, and a range of loans and other forms of credit that would enable you to take advantage of the ability to use computer games for social and educational purposes that could enrich your life considerably. Even if you receive disability benefits, you should be able to access credit facilities within your means.
One interesting development is that as games are becoming increasingly popular as educational resources for schools, there could be legal implications regarding accessibility. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act states that schools and universities that rely on federal funding are required to make their electronic and information technologies accessible.
That means that if schools want to retain their federal funding, they’ll need to find a way to make the games they use accessible, or only purchase accessible versions. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) already passed a law in 2015 that requires communication between players in-game via consoles must be accessible to any player who has sensory disabilities, so legislating to make accessibility standard rather than an added bonus could well be the next step.
Another area that holds great promise for people who have disabilities is virtual reality. VR is developing at an accelerated rate, making it possible to immerse a player and make them feel as though they’re actually in the game. This type of gaming gives developers the chance to enhance the experience by using a different balance of stimulants and sensory inputs to suit a broad range of physical impairments.
There’s still a way to go when it comes to giving people who have physical disabilities better access to games and gaming platforms. It is encouraging that the issue is being taken seriously now and not ignored in favor of the mainstream market, but there’s still considerable room for improvement.
This is a topic that needs to be given more impetus as gaming offers such a valuable form of entertainment and education, as well as an opportunity for people who are living with physical restrictions the chance to experience being able to run, jump, and climb, and take part in a global social network.