Accessibility in Video Games - Physical

15 October 2012

There's nothing like losing use of your dominant hand for a year to give you empathy for the physically disabled.

The Iguana Saga

It was my sophomore year in college, and I was bitten by my five-and-a-half foot iguana. Four tendons were completely severed. Twelve hours in the ER, three in the OR, and a year of physical therapy later, I had most of my use back, though I would never regain full feeling, and my right hand tires quickly.

This was a few months after I got my PlayStation. AUGH. TIMING.

Once I was off the meds that made me think that British people were speaking Spanish, I broke out my PlayStation again. I couldn't go to school since I couldn't take notes, and the meds I was on tired me out if I did anything more strenuous than go out to eat. Might as well game.

I discovered that there were some games that were impossible to play, but some were doable. I beat Final Fantasy 8 thanks to being able access all the functionality of the game with one hand. I could also set the fight system to one that waited for me to enter what I wanted to do rather than beat on me constantly.

The people at my work did some research, and one of them found a one-handed keyboard for me to use. Another installed Dragoon Natural Speaking. I played around with both, and ended up with a grab-bag of successes and failures. I could poke around on my computer, but anything more complex than surfing was painful. Games? Hah. No. I couldn't hit the keys fast enough, even with my nifty one-handed keyboard. Mousing with my off-hand was shaky, and it didn't get much steadier as time went on.

I have all of my functionality back, but I still have time limits when it comes to how long I can do things on the computer or on a console. If I game more than an hour or two at a time, I pay for it the next day. My hand wears out quickly, so if I have to hold down a button for a long time, I'm going to eventually get pains shooting up my arm.

So what?

Not every physically disabled gamer is in a wheel chair (though some are). We may not even appear to have a disability. Most people don't know about my hand until I stick it in their face and start rattling off my story ("I know what my hand looks like without any skin on it!"). It may be incredibly subtle, and it may take time to kick in.

Who does it include:

  • Those with limited movement
  • Those with spastic disorders (their muscles might move too much, or move unexpectedly)
  • Those with arthritic disorders or RSI
  • The temporarily disabled (broken arm, etc)
  • The elderly (Your grandparents may not game, but you're going to be old one day. Sonny.)

The tools

The physically disabled have a huge variety of tools, some of them made especially for gaming.

  • One-handed keyboards
  • On-screen keyboards
  • Touch screens
  • Specialized controllers
  • Mice with many buttons

They also might use a standard keyboard and mouse, albeit slower than normal, or less steadily.

What can a game developer do?

Since games are so heavily reliant on input (and often, quick input), this can feel like an impossible task. It isn't, though! Ask yourself a few questions...

Does input need to be realtime?

With Final Fantasy 7 and 8, I was able to configure battles so that the game waited for my input before continuing. Without this, the game would have been impossible for me to play. Did it take longer? Oh, sure. A replay a few years later proved I could beat the game pretty quickly if I could use both hands. I was still able to beat it, however. Tetris wouldn't work if it wasn't real time, but many RPGs have room to add this in. Even Fallout 3 had this, in a way, with their TADS system. Hit a key, and you can choose where you want to plug enemies.

Can you have on-screen controls?

Take a look at your game screen. Could you add an optional pad for movement or input onto the screen? Legend of Grimrock has one of these, added back in at the request of a disabled developer who uses a touch-screen to play games. If you do decide to add this, just remember to add all functionality a user would need: Pausing, movement, spell casting, and combat should all be represented.

If this seems impossible to add, go look at a few RPGs on Android or iOS. If they're an import from another system, they will almost always have a set of translucent controls.

A shot of Minecraft on Android, with the movement controls shown.

One advantage to designing some on-screen controls: You're already primed for deploying to a tablet market.

Can you lose the mouse? Or the keyboard?

Many PC games are a hybrid: they insist on using both the mouse and keyboard. For some games, this would probably be impossible to work around. I can't image playing a FPS without the ability to look around with my mouse. For others, though, there's a bit more leeway. I have a feeling that Blackwell Legacy could have worked with just the keyboard

Can the user customize controls?

Many specialized controllers depend on the ability for the user to customize their controls. Maybe they want to remap everything to work on their mouse. Maybe they're left handed and really don't want to use the arrow keys.

What do StickyKeys do?

If you've ever worked with Windows, I'll bet you know about StickyKeys. In many versions, if you hold down the shift key too long, you'll turn them on. They'll then proceed to drive you up the damn wall until you get them turned off.

With StickyKeys enabled, if you hold a key for a bit, you can release it, but Windows will pretend that you're still holding it down until you hit another key. If you're someone with joint issues, this can be a god-send. Holding down one key, whether on the keyboard or on the mouse, can cause quite a bit of pain if you have any hand issues.

I discovered the glory of StickyKeys and games when I played The Witcher. In The Witcher, you generally walk by left-clicking and holding somewhere away from your character. You walk all over the damn place in that game, so I was getting horrible pains up my arm.

I turned on StickyKeys so that I'd only have to hold down the mouse button for a few seconds. After that, I guided my character by moving my mouse around. He followed my cursor until I clicked again, at which point he stopped.

Most games work with StickyKeys without any interference, but it's worth revving up your game and seeing how the two interact.

Next up...

The cognitively disabled!

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Comments

1 Ian Witham says...

Thanks the thoughtful post. I previously wasn't fearful of being bitten by an iguana, but that's an image that will disturb me for the rest of the day. I always thought they were such placid beasts. Iguanas aren't permitted in New Zealand at all so I'm probably quite safe. Probably.

Posted at 6:37 p.m. on October 22, 2012

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