Accessibility June 8, 2021
These disabled streamers & advocates are helping to tackle accessibility issues in gaming
Video games are enjoyed by billions of people around the world, disabled and non-disabled. For people with disabilities playing video games is fun and rewarding and a great opportunity to connect with a larger community. Over the decades many big companies out there are prioritising accessible gaming and they are turning to disabled streamers and gamers for insights into accessibility in gaming.
Known as Rattlehead in the fighting game community, Carlos Vasquez, who is blind, has a formidable reputation for high level game play. Vasquez started streaming at age 29 but his platform took nearly three years to take off.
“One of the major challenges I encountered dealt with setting up a capture card and having the right settings to ensure the gaming console would display properly”, recalls Vasquez, who lives in Houston, Texas. “I would accidentally broadcast black screens without realising it, as I was led to believe my visual setup was fine because sound would play. It was also difficult to install drivers to get my PC to recognise the capture card in the first place”.
Vasquez researched ways to set up proper streams on YouTube, discovering the ElGato capture card. This is a device that allows you to record and stream games from your video game consoles. His streaming experience started to improve. He mostly learned by making major mistakes, changing methods when needed. “Eventually, I discovered a unique set up that allowed me to keep up with the chat in real time as well.”
Disabled streamers face multiple accessibility barriers
While Vasquez didn’t consciously set out to be an advocate for disabled gamers, his participation in competitive settings has contributed to greater focus on accessibility in the gaming industry.
I credit the moment that I appeared at the Evolution Championship Series in 2013 on the main stage of Mortal Kombat 9 as my first contribution towards accessibility in gaming. Taking one round from a top player changed the perspective of many viewers who did not believe that blind people could even play games. After that, I began connecting with fellow blind players. One of the greatest achievements was having Twitch include tags to discover disabled players. Another was having a triple A title offer the largest variety of accessibility options ever seen in a mainstream game so far. – Carlos Vasquez, Disabled Streamer
Vasquez now organises tournaments and is a member of a team that hosts weekly gaming exhibitions and a tournament called The Sento Showdown. This is dedicated to showcasing the skills and community spirit of blind and visually impaired gamers. “My team and I partner with major figures in the advocacy and gaming communities to bring opportunities to players like me”, he adds.
Chicago-based Chris Robinson started DeafGamersTV with the specific aim of bringing deaf awareness to streaming and gaming companies. “When I was watching other people streaming, I didn’t know what the streamer was saying so had to rely on the chat to try to follow what’s happening”. Robinson decided to spread awareness about the need for captioning on stream for deaf and hard of hearing viewers.
Captioning on stream is now possible but streamers have to set it up. On Google Chrome, there’s now Live Captioner though there are accuracy issues.
The most common challenges for hearing disabled streamers and gamers are scenes or dialogues with no subtitles.
“How can I understand something when I don’t know what is being said?”, asks Robinson. Then there are issues with audio cues not having visual cues. “A game would have a sound to tell you something is happening or when something is nearby. I would have no idea. Another issue is communication barriers, I’m more comfortable using text chat. A lot of times other people I randomly play with don’t like using text chat so I would get kicked off the team. I want to keep advocating until we bridge these gaps in gaming. We all should be having fun with gaming, not struggling with them”.
Robinson’s advocacy has led to opportunities to speak at events like the Gaming Accessibility Conference in 2018. Developers from Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, and Microsoft have connected with him. “I was able to give a helping hand with Ubisoft working on their games called Assassin Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion. I was honoured to help work on the game and to help improve the inclusivity in their games”.
Why Accessibility in gaming matters
Worldwide there are over 2.5 bullion people who take part in digital gaming. This includes people with and without disabilities. In the United States alone, there are over 40 million disabled gamers. Yet, making video games accessible to has become a top priority for big game developers and manufacturers only recently.
“It’s only in the last four years that we have evolved from advocacy to action”, says Mark Barlet, founder of West Virginia-based non-profit The AbleGamers Charity. Barlet realised the accessibility gaps in 2004 when a childhood friend did not turn up for their weekly game of EverQuest. “I am a person with disability but that doesn’t affect the way I play video games. My best friend has multiple sclerosis and I was seeing disability take away her ability to play”.
Barlet could not find a solution online and decided to solve the problem himself. That was the start of The AbleGamers Charity, which seeks to help disabled people play the games they love.
It was AbleGamers that developed Adroit Switchblade, a controller designed to be used by gamers with a limited range of motion. It caught the attention of Microsoft which reached out to AbleGamers to develop a first party product out of Adroit Switchblade. The collaboration led to the launch of Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018.
“Companies are coming to us and asking us ‘How do we do this’ and we have those answers”, says Barlet. AbleGamers has taken it a step further with a certification programme for game developers in Accessible Player Experience, APX. “It gives game companies the tools they need to start thinking about accessibility early. We have trained developers at Blizzard Activision, Volition, Avalanche, and Microsoft and created certified APX experts”.
Amplifying voices of disabled gamers
Key to making gaming accessibility a success is listening to disabled voices. And here the rise of social media has been critical. It has helped amplify the voices of disabled streamers and gamers, enabling them to share their struggles.
“Gaming is a hobby that is still riddled with gatekeeping by those who want to enjoy their favourite titles the way THEY expect them to be”, points out disabled gaming journalist Grant Stoner, who writes about accessibility in the gaming industry. “Whether that’s games with difficulty options or features that assist with mechanics such as other aiming, people don’t want their space to be invaded by ideas that will ultimately bring more attention to their favourite games”. Stoner believes this is changing with studios listening to disabled voices more.
However, expecting a game that’s accessible to all disabled gamers is unrealistic, says Stoner, who is a gamer himself. “If all barriers for all disabilities were removed, you wouldn’t necessarily have a game. For example, people with the same disabilities often have differing levels of strength/vision/hearing. It’s impossible to account for everyone’s unique disability. The best developers can do is create their titles to be as inclusive as possible, with the expectation that not everything will be perfect”.
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