When most of us boot up a new game, we’re not thinking about whether or not we’ll actually be able to play it. Rather, we’re thinking about the vast and expansive world that we’re about to step foot into, and of course, the endless hours of fun gameplay that is imminently upon us. This same experience is sadly not always afforded to disabled gamers, who are more often than not left unable to access and enjoy most games that are being published today.
The games industry has long lagged behind in offering inclusive experiences for all gamers, but accessibility advocate and games journalist extraordinaire Laura Dale is on a mission to change the status quo. She has been leading the fight to highlight the games that are shipping with accessibility options for a myriad of disabilities—experiences that everyone can have a chance to enjoy.
SCREENSHOT met up with Laura over Zoom to learn a little bit more about the Access-Ability Summer Showcase, set to go live on 9 June 2023 at 4pm GMT, and why it’s a fight very close to the activist’s heart.
First and foremost, I asked Laura how the event came to be. “I’ve wanted to do something like the Access-Ability Summer Showcase for about three years now. And the idea originally came from the fact that a lot of video game publishers aren’t great about talking about the accessibility settings.”
For those not super familiar, accessibility settings in games are usually reserved for very minor changes, like subtitles, colourblind modes, and controller options. While these alternatives are great for those who need it, they’re usually an afterthought and often exclude a plethora of other accessibility issues like sight impairment or Amelia—the birth defect of lacking one or more limbs—for example. A lot of disabled gamers have been long outspoken for options that allow them to better tailor the experience for their needs too, and yet, the industry has done very little to listen to them.
Laura went on to explain that although a lot of new games are starting to include these long sought after adjustments, like The Last of Us Part 2, the options are often unveiled as part of the games’ PR plan, which “often leads to people not knowing whether a game that looks exciting is going to be playable for them, until, in many cases, days before that game releases.”
June has always been an exciting month for gamers, thanks to developer conferences and announcements falling in place around this summer month, but as Laura pointed out, these annual showcases do very little to “tell disabled players [that] this thing that looks exciting will have features in place to make sure that they can play it.”
The game journalist went on to add that in her advocacy work, she’s constantly encouraging developers to be more open and transparent about what features their games will include, especially earlier in the hype pipeline, to save disabled gamers from ultimately being faced with disappointment.
So, the Access-Ability Showcase has become Laura’s own “little slice” for disabled gamers to be able to get excited for games they know they’ll be able to play. The event also provides the opportunity for developers to be open with the growing community of disabled gamers, and to display properly what they’ve been working on.
With the recent announcement that the latest expansion for Horizon Zero Dawn would be including a plethora of new accessibility features, I wanted Laura’s take on whether or not its offerings came a little too late. The gaming expert was quick to praise Guerrilla Games for its inclusive options, but also pointed out that the industry leaders, no matter how slow they are at getting these features into the game, are still missing the mark in a number of different areas.
Laura explained how it’s great what Horizon’s team has decided to include, one notable inclusion being an option to remove deep bodies of water for those with thalassophobia, but lower end features, like fully adjustable subtitle sizes are still missing. She told me: “It’s always good when a game is getting improvements, [they] are always beneficial, but we’re really at the point now where a lot of these things should be standardised in this industry.”
Essentially, the games industry needs best practices for these features. Laura went on: “We need to be able to go ‘this is what good subtitles look like, this is what good colourblind support looks like, this is what good controller mapping options look like’. It’s not enough to just have the feature, you should be aiming for a good execution of the features you’re including.”
Naturally, I had to go of course for a moment and ask Laura how she feels about rhetoric online that the notoriously difficult role playing game Dark Souls needs an easy mode. The franchise is infamously inaccessible to a lot of gamers, be it the crushing difficulty or just a general lack of inclusive options.
Laura began by musing: “I think with games like Dark Souls, a lot of people have really tied up a lot of their own personal feelings of validation as human beings in an elitist idea that their ability to be better than you at a difficult game makes them an inherently better person.”
This sentiment definitely rings true, especially considering how proud gamers act online over having beaten games from the aforementioned franchise. Laura went on to note: “Specifically, they see any attempt to welcome more people into being able to experience things that they love as a threat to a piece of media that they view as part of their identity.”
This kind of gatekeeping is very common in pop culture as well as games: “Video games often build this idea that certain people have that ‘I am inherently better and more skilled, because of skills I’ve demonstrated’ and for those kinds of people, offering options that they don’t need to use ruins the badge of honour of ‘I beat a Dark Souls’, because they then have to caveat it with ‘I beat it on its normal difficulty and not the easy mode’,” the journalist continued.
Essentially, these gamers are feeling like their achievement is being watered down. But, as Laura went on to highlight, “in the context of accessibility, difficulty that is overcomable [the ethos of a game series like Dark Souls] is a different threshold for everyone. A lot of disabled players, when they ask for certain accommodations they aren’t asking because they want the game to feel easy. They’re asking because they want to lower that threshold so that they can have the same experience everyone else is having, where the game feels difficult, but is ultimately overcomeable.”
The core of the mission that Laura is on, is to help put all gamers on the same playing field. Equity is at the heart of the battle. But at the same time, we should all be free to approach our gaming experiences on our own terms.
Laura tells me that this is a conversation that a lot of gamers still aren’t ready to have, which just goes to show why an event such as the Access-Ability Summer Showcase is so important for the gaming industry.
Though big budget games are doing a much better job at implementing inclusive options, Laura tells me that some of the creations standing out as highlights to her presently are mostly indie titles, like BROK The InvestiGator, a game which was released with great accessibility features, and, in a post-launch update, made it possible to be played by “sightless players.”
Speaking to me about it, Laura went on to say: “It has full audio descriptions of cutscenes and gameplay moments, a high contrast mode—it even re-designs some tasks so that blind players have different puzzles that are more accommodated to playing with audio cues.”
Another game, Stories of Blossom, has been designed from the ground up to be manageable by sightless players, a feat which has been deemed incredibly “impressive” by both Laura and the wider community.
This is the first instalment of the showcase and Laura is understandably very excited about it. She even revealed that “we have some really fun announcements coming. We have some release date announcements for accessible video games that I know disabled players have been looking forward to, which is exciting. We’ve also got some games that haven’t been announced at all that will be getting their first showcasing.”
The activist also added that the showcase will feature some “really lovely guest contributors coming on to talk about what accessibility means to them.” Naturally, Laura is pumped to be able to work with other people in the gaming accessibility space and introduce something important to them.
She’s aiming for a 30-minute runtime of, as she puts it, “a bunch of cool looking games, from people who are putting in the effort to make sure as many people can play them as possible.”
Sure, the industry has come a long way, and Laura herself agrees with it, but there’s still work to be done. “The Last of Us 2 really opened the door for more conversations around accessibility in gaming,” Laura noted. From there however, it’s crucial that the conversation happens between “developers and disabled people,” which is why, as a disabled gamer, this showcase is so important to her.
So many people, regardless of ability, want the opportunity to play games. The creation and promotion of the Access-Ability Summer Showcase is definitely going to have an incredibly beneficial impact on this mission.
Every year, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) blesses us with its annual trade show, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where future-forward products are debuted, partnerships are forged and investments are made. CES 2023 was no exception, with countless inventions already making headlines worldwide.
Among them is Sony’s Project Leonardo, a brand new gaming controller for its PlayStation 5 that aims to bring improved accessibility to players with disabilities. After teaming up with several charities, including US-based AbleGamers and UK-based SpecialEffect, the Japanese multinational conglomerate revealed its “highly customisable kit” made of different buttons, triggers and sticks at the renowned event on Wednesday 4 January.
Speaking to the BBC about the promising controller, a Sony Interactive Entertainment official said that Project Leonardo would work “out of the box” to help gamers play “more easily, more comfortably and for longer periods.”
“We feel the breadth of hardware and software customisation options in Project Leonardo is unique and stands out from any other accessibility controller on the market today,” the official went on to say. Although Microsoft released a controller with the same mission back in 2018—the Adaptive Controller, which sells for £74.99 at its UK store though extra buttons and joysticks can cost much more—Sony seems to believe its own technology will go above and beyond when it comes to providing greater accessibility to gaming.
“Project Leonardo is a true passion project for our team. We’ve drawn on 28 years of design expertise at PlayStation to create a controller kit that we hope many players with disabilities will find useful.”
Manufacturers other than Microsoft, such as Hori, have also developed accessible controllers. In 2022, the third-party video game hardware company known for its special focus on retro-themed game controllers 8BitDo made one for gamers with spinal muscular atrophy after being contacted by a parent.
Not one to miss a good opportunity to show off, also at CES 2023, Sony unveiled the first trailer for the feature film based on the racing game Gran Turismo and revealed it had sold more than 30 million PlayStation 5 consoles as of December 2022.
Project Leonardo, which can be paired with an existing DualSense controller or used on its own, is currently in development and does not have a release date or price yet.