The act of playing video games is probably something you take for granted.
For many, gaming is as easy as connecting a console to a TV, booting up a PC or even whipping out a phone or tablet. But for an estimated 250 million gamers around the world with disabilities, it’s not so simple.
Whether it’s minuscule subtitles, complex input requirements or the lack of text-to-speech options, gamers who are visually impaired, hard of hearing or have limited mobility or cognitive impairment regularly find games that are difficult — if not physically impossible — for them to play.
For Canadian content creator and accessibility advocate Steve Saylor, this has been a lifelong challenge. He has a condition called nystagmus, which causes involuntary eye movement and makes it difficult for his eyes to focus.
Growing up with the likes of Mario on the NES, the St. Catharines, Ontario native says he quickly discovered that playing games was quite difficult for him. “I didn’t think that my disability was the thing that was getting in the way, I felt like, ‘I just suck at this.'”
These struggles made it difficult for him to keep up with games as he got older and the art form evolved. “At one point, I had sold all my consoles because I felt like the games were getting a little bit too complex and it was really hard for me to be able to play,” he admits.
In 2014, he eventually started a casual YouTube channel called “Blind Gamer” to illustrate these challenges. But something changed once he was invited to speak at a Ubisoft Toronto event that highlighted accessibility in gaming.
“I actually had a realization that [I’d] been telling myself for years that I sucked at games, but in reality, it was that games suck for me,” he says. “And it was at that moment that I realized, ‘okay, accessibility is the thing I want to do.'”
Ever since, Saylor’s been in an uphill battle to spread the word about the importance of accessibility and work with developers to implement much-needed assistive features into their games. At a base level, he says even just a handful of accessibility features would benefit many disabled gamers if they were more commonly implemented.
“There definitely should be a standard set of options for games,” he says. He says this should include features like larger text size, menu narration and higher contrast for blind or low vision players, adjustable subtitles and full captions for deaf and hard of hearing people, and remappable controls and the ability to not have to rapidly tap buttons for those with motor disabilities.
And while some elitist gamers have bristled at the idea of adding “easy modes” to notoriously challenging games like Dark Souls, Saylor says modular difficulty options could go a long way towards being more inclusive to those with disabilities.
“I think the ‘small,’ ‘medium’ and ‘large’ kind of difficulties need to go away,” he says. “That’s an older version of difficulty, but something that can be able to adapt to a player, or you can customize for difficulty, is something that every player with a disability would want to have.”
Getting developers on board
The problem, however, is that many games feature little to no accessibility options at all.
In fact, the Game Developers Conference’s recently released ‘State of the Game Industry 2021’ report found that out of 3,000-plus surveyed developers, 42 percent said they hadn’t implemented any accessibility measures into their current game, compared to 31 percent who had. A further 27 percent responded with either “don’t know” or “N/A.”
“There’s a lot of Canadian influence in the industry for accessibility, and it’s really cool to see.”
According to Saylor, accessibility frequently appears to be an afterthought to developers, when it needs to be taken into consideration early on.
“The real tricky part with studios adding accessibility is that you really have to start accessibility from the very beginning of the development process, because only then could you try to design the game around the idea of [having as many] people be able to play this as possible,” he says. “So when you’re finally going to lock down the design, at least in that aspect, accessibility is part of that.”
He notes that Canadian studios, in particular, are helping to lead the charge in this regard, regularly bringing in consultants like him to design robust accessibility features. “There’s a lot of Canadian influence in the industry for accessibility, and it’s really cool to see.”
For instance, he says Ubisoft has “a great accessibility team that they’re able to tap into and gather resources to be able to help those studios to create cohesive accessibility options across the board.”
He says this means that games like Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft Quebec’s Immortals: Fenyx Rising and Ubisoft Toronto’s Watch Dogs: Legion — as well games made by non-Canadian teams like The Division 2 from Sweden’s Ubisoft Massive — can all benefit from the same array of accessibility features.
Saylor also praised Xbox-owned, Vancouver-based The Coalition for having a text narration feature for Gears Tactics, as real-time strategy (RTS) games are often “very hard for me to see because of small font choices.” As a whole, Saylor says Xbox has done a commendable job with accessibility, be it through its Adaptive Controller or inviting him onto a keynote with Xbox chief Phil Spencer. Looking towards another angle of accessibility, he also applauded Vancouver-based Extremely Ok Games’ normally challenging platformer Celeste for having a “revolutionary” assist mode with various options like invincibility and time-slowing.
But it’s PlayStation’s The Last of Us Part II that he calls the current industry leader when it comes to having robust accessibility features in a single game. The Last of Us Part II made waves last year for offering more than 60 accessibility options, including text narration, customizable colour and contrast, a screen magnifier and the ability to skip puzzles. Developer Naughty Dog implemented these features after consulting with a team of accessibility experts, which included Saylor.
Saylor says he’s understanding that other developers are still working out how to add accessibility to their games, but he’s hopeful that Naughty Dog’s efforts with The Last of Us Part II can help set them on the right path.
“That game is a huge push in the accessibility community. I think within about five to 10 years we’ll start to see studios adopt [those features] — what that game did for the industry was it at least showed a process that other studios can duplicate and copy,” explains Saylor. “Because before, everyone was trying their own thing and figuring things out as they go.”
He also notes that there’s a cultural divide in the global developer space, where accessibility is “really starting to become adopted as part of the development process in Western studios,” but is “still not necessarily a focus” in the Asian market.
This was most recently on display in Capcom’s survival horror hit Resident Evil Village, which was criticized by the accessibility community for having barebones subtitle options and virtually nothing else for disabled gamers.
In fact, Courtney Craven, founder of the gaming accessibility website Can I Play That?, wrote in their Village review that the game is “an inaccessible mess,” continuing a disappointing trend from previous Resident Evil entries. It’s only after fans voiced these concerns that Capcom told The Gamer that accessibility features are now “under consideration.”
“I’m hoping that studios like Capcom and others [will make accessibility] part of the process,” says Saylor.
Letting disabled gamers be part of the preview cycle
Beyond studios implementing features into their games, Saylor says he hopes disabled gamers are given the same opportunities that traditional media are afforded.
Typically, select members of the press are invited to speak with some developers or even get an exclusive preview of a game. But Saylor notes that the accessibility community is often excluded from these events, which makes it difficult for those with disabilities to learn whether a game is for them before making a purchase.
“The common misconception is you need to make accessibility a marketing beat, like ‘here’s what we’re doing for accessibility.’ […] But what we’re trying to say is ‘yes, that’s great, knowing that this information is part of the marketing is awesome, but also, accessibility should be part of these previews across the board.”
He pointed to the recent Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart media preview event in which no disabled creators were seemingly present. Knowing that the game had at least some accessibility features after seeing a recent PlayStation presentation, Saylor reached out to various people in the games media on Twitter to see if they learned more during the preview. The experience wasn’t very illuminating.
“Really, no one knew about it or how to follow up to ask more information about it,” he says. Instead, he had to rely on random tidbits from those who attended to paint a clearer picture. “I’m like, ‘okay, but it would be nice to have all the information in one spot, instead of having to get it through several areas.” In its own story about Rift Apart, Can I Play That? only had the replies to Saylor’s tweet to go off of.
“It would have been great to have disabled creators at least be a part of [that preview], so we could ask questions if we needed to, or at least understand the context and be able to provide this information either to other outlets or just through our own channels or content,” Saylor says.
“We want to be included…”
He mentions all of this not to criticize Insomniac, though, as he’s grateful for its efforts in Ratchet & Clank and previous games. “We know they’re good [about accessibility] — we’ve seen it already in Miles Morales and Spider-Man [Remastered],” he notes. “I just think that marketing missed an opportunity.”
On that note, Saylor gives credit to the team at the popular entertainment content creator group Kinda Funny for giving him a platform to discuss accessibility. He says he’s given feedback to the Kinda Funny hosts about how their coverage of accessibility often lacked context for disabled gamers, and they’ve since brought him on the show multiple times to offer it, including, most recently, on a May 4th episode of its PlayStation podcast, PS I Love You, about the difficult PS5 exclusive Returnal.
“But it’s something that I think other outlets need to do as well, whether that’s having a full-time person that is strictly for accessibility, or at least [one who] can be a part of the news or reviews team to add that context,” he says.
This kind of pre-release accessibility information is essential for a disabled gamer to make an informed purchasing decision. Often, Saylor says, companies will say very little — or even nothing at all — about accessibility options before a game is released. This means that a disabled gamer might have to take a chance on a game only to discover firsthand that it’s unplayable for them.
For example, Saylor says EA didn’t reveal what accessibility options BioWare Edmonton’s just-released Mass Effect: Legendary Edition — the highly-anticipated remaster of the beloved Mass Effect trilogy — would have pre-launch.
“And I can see why there wasn’t any accessibility information being released — because there actually isn’t any,” he points out. In the case of Mass Effect, he says he understands why a remaster — a project that is usually given limited resources — might lack accessibility options, but in general, he just wishes that publishers would at least be transparent about which features aren’t in their games.
“We want to be included,” he says. “Not just to know the information beforehand so we can make our purchase decisions wisely, but also so we can feel like we’re part of this excitement for a game. Because when we don’t know whether accessibility is going to be in the game, we get very cautious about a new release.”
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
My conversation with @XboxP3 talking Gaming Accessibility at the @MSFTEnable Ability Summit is NOW AVAILABLE IN VOD!
Timestamp is 1:02:19 but you can jump to the section in the keynote with this link: https://t.co/nwCKqUVqco pic.twitter.com/WRqOiJ9dpz
— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) May 13, 2021
Unfortunately, disabled gamers are often left with little recourse after buying an inaccessible game — besides trading it in or selling it — due to stringent software return policies. He says services like Xbox Game Pass at least take away “the financial burden” of trying out full-priced games, but they’re still not a replacement for developers adding and promoting accessibility features.
How all gamers can help
But it’s not just up to game developers and media to step up. Saylor says gamers themselves can play a pivotal role in improving accessibility across the board. What often stops them, he says, is “a general lack of education” about accessibility.
“For instance, I am blind, but I don’t necessarily have the stereotypical [situation] where I am completely sightless, or that I need a cane to get around or a guide dog,” he explains. “In reality, nine out of 10 people who are blind actually do have some vision — it’s just what kind of condition they have is depending on what kind of vision they have. So the real education aspect that still needs to be done is that disability is a spectrum, not an on/off switch. And then we also have to educate on why accessibility is important.”
A big way he tries to do this is through his YouTube videos and tweets, which are full of infectious warmth but also highlight just how impactful accessibility can be. Nowhere was this more evident than in a viral tweet he made last year to show his emotional reaction to the expansive accessibility settings in The Last of Us Part II.
I've been reluctant to post this.
I recorded my reaction when I saw the #accessibility settings in #TheLastofUsPartII for the first time thinking it would be a fun video for posterity. I…did not expect this.
This is why we do what we do. 😢
Thank you @Naughty_Dog. pic.twitter.com/D5Or2B9Tfw
— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) June 12, 2020
“I was proud of the fact that it definitely showed a human face to accessibility where it hadn’t really been before,” he says of the video. “When people think of accessibility, they think of it in regards to options, settings and features. And yes, that’s great, but also, we’re sometimes forgetting that there are human beings behind that.”
Gamers can help remind developers of this, especially in the day and age of technology. This is what got Naughty Dog to push for these features in The Last of Us Part II in the first place, according to Emilia Schatz, one of the game’s lead designers. Speaking to CNN last year alongside Saylor, Schatz said she became more aware of disabled gamers’ plights after receiving a letter from someone who couldn’t finish a previous Naughty Dog game when he couldn’t repeatedly press a button.
“I think there hasn’t been a huge awareness of how games are inaccessible to a wide group of people,” she told CNN. “A lot of developers have — no pun intended — a blind spot for things that don’t personally affect them.”
Showing the human side of accessibility will also hopefully help quell the mocking comments that Saylor sometimes sees when advocates point out that games like Resident Evil are inaccessible, or those who sent “hate and jokes” over his positive reaction to The Last of Us Part II.
Overall, Saylor says he hopes that people will become more empathetic, especially since accessibility options will eventually even benefit gamers who aren’t disabled.
“At one point in everyone’s life, you’re going to need some accessibility options,” he says. “Whether that’s incidental, where you’re a parent and you want to play a game, but you don’t want to disturb your kid [who’s] trying to sleep, or you basically are getting older and your hand-eye coordination or reflexes are not as fast as they once were in your teens and early 20s. You’re going to need some of these options to help compensate so you can keep that hobby going.”
Adding credence to what Saylor says is this month’s revelation that 2016’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End — Naughty Dog’s precursor to The Last of Us Part II which was also praised for its multitude of accessibility options — has had 9.5 million players use at least one accessibility feature to date. That’s to say nothing of the 95 and 97 percent of people who kept opt-out subtitles turned on in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Far Cry New Dawn, respectively.
Ultimately, Saylor just asks that people do a bit of research to better understand accessibility.
“What it really comes down to is finding those accessibility advocates and following them and interacting and asking questions. Because when you’re able to ask questions about it, then that just educates yourself, but it also allows people to understand more about the accessibility side of the industry.”
Saylor says he understands that disability can be “an uncomfortable subject for some,” but he reassures people that the disabled community won’t be offended by earnest questions and they’ll normally be “very willing to answer any questions” you might have. “You just have to ask us and we’ll tell you as best as we can. Just be curious — search us out and find us and follow us online.”
This, he says, is how change will continue to happen.
“The Last of Us wasn’t the end of accessibility — it was just the end of the beginning. We still have a long way to go to make accessibility be a part of gaming in general from not only an industry, developer or media standpoint, but from the gamer standpoint.”
This interview is part of a monthly series of features focused on the developers and other figures at the heart of Canada’s video game industry.
It also coincides with Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 20th. For more gaming accessibility resources, check out Saylor’s portfolio, advocate Cherry Thompson’s website, the AbleGamers charity and DAGER System. MobileSyrup’s Dean Daley also wrote about representation in gaming and spoke to Saylor and AbleGamers COO Steve Spohn about the depiction of disabled characters in the medium.
Image credit: Steve Saylor
Corrections: This feature incorrectly listed “Can I Play That?” as “Can I Play This?” in one instance. Additionally, the story referred to Courtney Craven as “he,” when they identify as “they.” I apologize to Courtney for the mistakes and the story has been updated accordingly.