Why can't they play? Barrie Ellis

Inaccessible controllers and inaccessible games are the bane of many disabled peoples lives. Many games have too many buttons to remember, are too fast, and have very little help to offer the player at all.

Many games won't allow people to use their favourite controllers, nor change the layout of their controls in a useful way.

These, and other barriers, cause frustration for many. Games a person might desperately want to play, frequently prove to be an unrewarding, uncomfortable, or impossible challenge in reality.

Disabled people regularly facing these barriers include novice gamers, physically disabled gamers, learning disabled gamers and many children up to the age of eight.

"In 1982, there were 44 million gamers. Today, there are 18 million. Where’d they all go? Complexity lost the casual gamer. Violence lost the woman gamer.” - Nolan Bushnell DIEC 2005


Introduction to the Accessibility Top 10

The following advice is not a prescription for creating games that will be accessible to all. I'm not sure if any one has ever achieved that. However, if your game design implements even just one of these accessibility tips, it can make a massive difference for some disabled gamers. Possibly, the difference between a playable game, and an unplayable game.

Some of the fundamentals to consider are:

Good luck, and thanks for reading.



Consider simplifying menus (Game Clarity)

Can your game be started easily and quickly? Can the menus be navigated using simple controls? Some games require seven or more different buttons to adjust options, which can prove impossible for some to get around. Consider using clear icons to describe the most important options, and including a quick start method.

More advanced considerations might include: Text to speech; Scan and Select menus with speed control (such as in Alice Amazed).



Allow all controls to be remapped (Accessibility of Controls)

Many people can benefit from tailoring all controls to suit themselves. This is especially beneficial when realising the great diversity of controllers that people may be using.

It is also very useful to include the facility to duplicate actions on to two or more controls. For instance a person may find firing continually with the same finger tiring, so to have an alternative control that can do the same thing can be helpful.

More advanced considerations might include: Aping the versatility of MAME in assigning controllers, but with a more user-friendly interface; Being able to save and load your configurations easily; Taking into account Tip 3 below.



Consider Alternative Controllers and Control Schemes (Accessibility of Controls).

Think about your game, and if an alternative simpler playing method could be used. Consider that there are gamers relying upon many different controllers to play.

Could your game be adapted to be playable with a single digital joystick and a few buttons? Could you reduce these controls further, to take into account an even greater range of disabled gamers? Could your game be made playable with a single button, even if only in an alternative mini-game form?

Head Tracker Games

If your game can be played using a mouse, it may also be playable using head-trackers and eye-trackers. Bear in mind that such gamers may be unable to activate a mouse click directly. For this, people can use "dwell clicking", where you hover for a certain length of time to activate a certain function.

One Switch Games standard control interface

For PC and Macintosh computers, The SPACE BAR and LEFT MOUSE button should both function as the default player one control. The default PLAYER TWO control should be operated via The RETURN key and RIGHT MOUSE button. The ESCAPE key should function as a way to QUIT. Allow users to user-define their controls if they wish to break from this standard. All this should ensure compatibility with vast majority of switch interfaces.

More advanced considerations might include: Creating a one switch game; Creating a Head-Tracker compatible game; Allowing for a range of game controllers methods. -The different controllers people use. – Head Tracker compatible games. – Free Dwell Clicking software for Mice and Head Trackers. – Games with very varied control methods provided



Consider gamers unable to hold down buttons for lengthy periods (Accessibility of Controls and Player Assistance)

Some gamers find holding down buttons for prolonged periods a painful experience. These include people with Arthritis and people using uncomfortable controllers, which one handed controls can be an example of. A simple "toggle button on/off" option would help solve this issue, where one press of the button locks the action on, and another press turns it off.



Provide a difficulty option that spans a very broad range (Adjustable difficulty levels and player assistance)

This is extremely important, and frequently overlooked. Perhaps some game developers are concerned that if they include an option making their game "too easy" it will serve as a game spoiler. Being frustrated and disabled by a game that is too hard must be the greatest game spoiler of all. The broader the range offered, the more inclusive the game becomes. There is no such thing as too easy.

More advanced considerations might include: A wide range of difficulty options with the easiest being as easy as you can make it; Training modes; Invincibility runs; Ghost town modes (no baddies or obstacles); Implementing a level designer, allowing for highly simplified games to be user-made. – "Aurikon" (PC) has excellent difficulty options.



Offer speed options (Adjustable difficulty levels and player assistance)

Where people's reactions are slower than average, due to ageing, for example, being able to reduce the speed of a game can help massively with playability. Again, there is no such thing as too slow. – "Aurikon" (PC) has an excellent speed control method. – Is a utility that slows a PC down. Games that implement frame skipping should offer the option to turn this off, to ensure a better chance of compatibility.



Provide gamer assist aids (Adjustable difficulty levels and player assistance)

The inclusion of training options can give players the chance to play at their own pace, with much less pressure. This can offer fun and respite for players frustrated by the main game. Other assist modes might include automatic targeting, and on-screen hints.

Sega's F355 Ferrari Challenge for the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 has some excellent gamer assist aids. These include four driver assist modes such as an Intelligent Braking System that slows you automatically in anticipation of corners. In the training mode, a helpful red-line marks the racing line to follow, with flashing icons and speech announcing sharp bends, chicanes and other obstacles.
– More on games with assistive features.



Audio options (Sound Options)

One of the most effective sound options is to simply provide separate volume controls for music and sound effects. One reason for this is to prevent the background music from drowning out the helpful cues that sound effects can provide. Another reason is simply personal preference.

More advanced considerations might include: Seeing if your game can be played with no sound on at all; Subtitles for dialogue (if any); Subtitles describing any essential audio events; Tying particular sounds up to particular actions (as with Sonic the Hedgehog, jumping has one distinct sound, collecting rings has another); Consider designing an Audio Game. – "Aurikon" (PC) has an excellent speed control method. – "Video Games Need Closed Captioning" article. – Games that can be played by sound alone.



Announce accessibility features on packaging and instructions (Clarity)

A standard needs to be agreed for categorising and announcing accessibility features, along the lines of the American ESRBand European PEGI age ratings systems. This will make life easier for game producers and consumers alike. This is an area that the IGDA's Special Interest Group in Game Accessibility is presently looking into.

In temporary lieu of an accessibility ratings system, any mention of accessibility features would be a good start. This was something that Atari did at the peak of its popularity, and would be simple to replicate.

More advanced considerations might include: Including your instructions in HTML format, in as accessible a way as you can. – Fairly simple pointers for designing accessible web-pages.



Consider universal access

The ultimate goal. Games that include the greatest numbers of people possible.

More advanced considerations might include: Swotting up on the following:

Game Law:
Closed Captioning:[CC]_gdc2006.ppt
Audio Games:
Physical Barriers:
Universal Accessibility:
The IGDA's GASIG Top 10 Accessibility Features:


Barrie Ellis 2007