How Xbox, Sony, and AbleGamers built a more accessible future for video games
From Xbox's Kinect to Sony's 'Last of Us Part II,' haphazard beginnings paved the way for innovations that make video games more welcoming to every player.
The Nintendo Wii is widely regarded as one of the only gaming devices fit for preschoolers and senior citizens alike.
For me, it’s been a symbol of frustration, limitations, and tears. I didn’t even have enough motor control to navigate the home screen.
The motion-controlled gaming console remains one of the most successful video game consoles ever made, with more than 100 million units sold worldwide since 2006. But the Wii made me feel like I had lost my ability to play video games.
I’ve been writing and reporting on video games for more than a decade, but I’m also a lifelong member of a millions-strong community of gamers with disabilities.
My Cerebral Palsy, and my associated muscle weakness and lack of fine motor control, left me excluded from a library that includes Mario Galaxy, Wii Fit, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I felt forever barred from using a platform that had brought joy to millions.
As Steven Spohn knows all too well, my story is far from unique.
“There's nothing more heartbreaking,” he tells Inverse. “I don’t know anybody who's in our situation who's never experienced opening up a game only to realize within 60 seconds, ‘I'm not going to play this.’
“There's no way to convey how much that sucks.”
Spohn lives with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. He’s the COO of AbleGamers, an organization that empowers disabled players to find ways to enjoy games and teaches creators how to make their content more inclusive.
While AbleGamers has led the charge, the last five years have seen a groundswell of efforts at some of the biggest video game publishers to include differently abled audiences.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which offered me an opportunity to better understand the history of the limitations within my community.
I interviewed representatives from Sony, Microsoft, Activision, and others to better understand past failures in accessibility, how it has improved, and what the future holds for making the most profitable entertainment medium a more welcoming pastime for every kind of player.
Despite their varied perspectives, a common thread emerged among everyone: Accessible design principles make gaming better for everyone.
Gaming’s earliest forays into accessibility were haphazard, with rare accidental successes. The failures of inaccessible tech often proved to be a stepping stone for future innovations.
Nikki Crenshaw has worked in the User Experience department of Blizzard Entertainment for the past four years. She says fostering a close friendship with a colorblind World of Warcraft player gave her a new perspective. Looking back, she feels gaming accessibility began with bonus features meant to pad the shelf-life of a classic titles.
”We saw things like Big Head Mode in GoldenEye as cheat modes,” Crenshaw says. “You're increasing the target, right?
“That could be helpful as an accessibility option for some players. So while we may not have thought about it at the time, we do have a history of doing this in games.”
Similarly, Xbox Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager Brannon Zahand says Microsoft’s early innovations came indirectly, through workplace software and operating systems.
“Nonprofits and advocacy groups, like the National Federation for the Blind, were interested in trying to find ways to get people into the workforce,” Zahand says. “They were really pushing tech companies and working on legislation to help people get jobs, which is great. But the problem was that those groups and those tech companies didn't really think a lot about entertainment.”
Zahand concedes that a gaming-specific accessibility focus was slow to develop inside Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters.
“For a long time, there were a lot of passionate people who were advocating for it, and — I'll be blunt — we were kind of hitting a brick wall.”
Strangely, it was the 2010 release of a now-defunct motion-control peripheral that kickstarted the accessibility discussion at Xbox.
“We got a lot of feedback from the community at about the time of the Kinect’s release,” Zahand says. “We had people asking us questions like, ‘I am an amputee, can I play? Will it recognize me? I'm sitting in a wheelchair, will it work for me? This game has voice commands, but I can't speak. Can I play the game?’ That was the first time that a lot of people who didn't really ‘get’ game accessibility started to see the challenges.”
Among those asking questions were Spohn and his AbleGamers colleagues, whose ghastly experiences demoing Fruit Ninja Kinect at conventions left them with little nostalgia for the peripheral.
“Anytime anybody came up in a wheelchair or a walker, the Kinect would immediately forget that they were human,” Spohn recalls. “We had to take the aid away from them, because otherwise the Kinect would refuse to see that they were a person.”
“The Kinect would immediately forget that they were human.”
AbleGamers worked with Microsoft to solve these shortcomings, a process that ultimately led to the Kinect using the spinal column to detect the player, regardless of whether they were standing, seated, or assisted. Zahand says the collaboration marked a dramatic turning point for the company’s approach to gaming.
“Kinect forced people to look at human interaction in video games through a new lens,” he says. “It opened up people's minds to how accessibility can impact folks.”
Since the foibles of Kinect, accessibility has expanded far beyond ancillary features and forgotten peripherals.
“There's not a single day that goes by that some triple-A developer or indie developer or publisher isn’t reaching out to us,” Spohn says of AbleGamers.
Developers have caught on to the fact that accessibility features expand a game’s audience and appeal. It’s not just good game design — it’s good business, too.
AbleGamers has expanded its focus to industry-wide education initiatives like the Certified Accessible Player Experienced Practitioner (CAPXP) course, which teaches game creators how and why to implement accessibility features. The new program has 250 licensed practitioners.
“No one ever comes up with the same solution twice,” Spohn says. “They all come up with different ways of solving the same accessibility problem.”
Activision Blizzard has 50 certified CAPXP staffers. Adrian Ledda, Senior Designer and co-chair of the publisher’s LGBT+ and Allies Employee Network, is one of them.
“This was so exciting for our developers because they wanted to do better with inclusion and accessibility, but may not have had the exposure to understand directly from players with disabilities,” Ledda says.
Ledda played an instrumental role in creating a “very, very robust” suite of subtitle options for 2020’s Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time at Activision subsidiary Toys for Bob. Players have the ability to change subtitle size, fonts, backgrounds, and display dialogue for different characters in various colors.
The project was born of a tough lesson: The studio released Spyro Reignited Trilogy in 2018 without any subtitle options, and company officials sidestepped backlash from disabled games and non-disabled gamers alike by saying: “There is no industry standard for subtitles.”
It was a major oversight that changed how Activision Blizzard approached subsequent projects.
These pipeline mishaps are among the toughest accessibility hurdles for developers to overcome. Once a game’s engine is in place, altering something as simple as text size can take as long as six months.
“It's easy to put the chocolate chips in the cookie before it's baked,” says Zahand, the Xbox accessibility manager. “It's a lot harder to jam them in without breaking the cookie.”
Microsoft channeled the challenges of Kinect into the development of the groundbreaking Xbox Adaptive Controller. To Zahand and his colleagues, designing a peripheral for those with limited physical mobility offered a chance to solve problems impossible to address with software alone.
“Software makes a few assumptions, and one of those is that the person is physically able to interact with whatever input modality is being used for the experience,” Zahand tells me.
The Adaptive Controller doesn’t make those assumptions. Instead, it allows for simplified inputs and acts as a hub to attach a multitude of assistive devices to simulate every button on a standard Xbox controller. It’s the brainchild of Microsoft engineer Matt Hite, and AbleGamers consulted on the project for three-and-a-half years before launch.
“There were golden, Microsoft-branded robots sitting right beside me in a closet, ready to beat me down if I said something about it,” Spohn says of the secrecy surrounding the collaboration. “The actual device was sitting a foot off-camera and they weren't allowed to show it to us.”
Microsoft recently made headway in the software space with its Xbox Accessibility Guidelines, a codified list of solutions to common problems introduced in 2020. Those solutions are regularly tested by the Xbox Accessibility Insider League, an opt-in program launched in 2021 that any Xbox owner can enroll in for free.
The branch has more than 60,000 members, who can provide accessibility-focused feedback on Xbox system software and storefront updates, as well as previously released and upcoming games. In addition to member-submitted surveys, developers are provided with tools to help them track accessibility shortcomings in real time.
Earlier in the development cycle, Xbox Research and Design works with testers with disabilities on a contract basis, under non-disclosure agreements. Zahand says these tests make it “much easier to bake in accessibility early on, rather than try to slather it on top at the end.”
“It's easy to put the chocolate chips in the cookie before it's baked.”
Few developers understand the value of effective planning on the software side better than Sony’s PlayStation Studios. One of 2020’s most acclaimed games, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II set a new standard with its comprehensive suite of accessibility features that made the game more inviting to all players, including customization options for players with mobility, vision, and hearing differences. The game’s Enhanced Listen Mode offers larger highlights for enemies and items, which can be hugely beneficial for those playing with visual and auditory impairments.
PlayStation Studios Senior Producer Sam Thompson vividly recalls watching consultant Brandon Cole use the feature to take down a zombie while the game was still in development.
“After a few tries, Brandon successfully defeated the enemy, sending the entire department into a raucous celebration,” Thompson says. “People watching the stream ran into the lab yelling and screaming, the entire floor erupted in a flood of emotion. Brandon yelled with excitement.
“We were all elated with what had just transpired. We knew that we were looking at something special, not just for the product, but for game accessibility as a whole.”
These little victories are becoming more frequent. They are moments of jubilation and sheer thankfulness for being considered and heard.
After being unable to finish The Last of Us due to my instability to navigate some of the game’s particularly dark hallways, I breezed through the sequel with an acceptable amount of challenge.
This year’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart marked the very first time I’d finished a game in that decade-spanning series. Games have never felt more inclusive, and the future looks bright.
The path of progress is rarely a straight line. Japan houses some of the world’s most prolific game creators, including Nintendo, Sega, and Capcom. But the region lags far behind North America when it comes to accessibility features.
“I still call them Nintendon’t. That's still my favorite thing,” Spohn says of the company behind Mario, Zelda, and Animal Crossing. “I did get a lovely email from Nintendo asking me to stop referring to them as Nintendon’t.”
Though known for its family-friendly software, Nintendo rarely highlights accessibility features in its games. It has also been notoriously uncooperative with adaptive efforts featuring controller modification.
While the team at Xbox discreetly “turned their heads the other way” when players adapted Microsoft hardware to suit their needs, Spohn says, “Nintendo will actually come after you if you try to make something like that.”
Kantan Games CEO and Japanese gaming market analyst Dr. Serkan Toto doesn’t expect the region’s game developers to change anytime soon.
“I still call them Nintendon’t.”
“Accessibility for gamers in Japan is still extremely underdeveloped,” Toto says. “Japanese developers, unfortunately, do not have accessibility on their radar right now, and it often takes time for trends from the West to travel over here.”
Until that time comes, companies who shirk accessibility concerns are only hurting themselves.
“I honestly feel bad for you if you are still resisting accessibility,” Spohn says. “We live in a global economy now.
“I can't say why Nintendo does what they do. I only know that it's frustrating Nintendo still continues to ignore so many people.”
Spohn shares similar frustrations about VR. While we’ve all had dreams of putting on a headset and being transported to a different world, cumbersome equipment has been a massive challenge for AbleGamers and its partners.
“In order to do virtual reality, you have to hold two wands in your hands and put a helmet on your head that weighs five to 25 pounds,” he says. “Half of our people can't tie their shoelaces, let alone do this hyper-coordinated thing without murdering themselves.”
Studios like Pennsylvania’s Schell Games are exploring innovative options to make VR more accessible. Having previously worked for eight years at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Director of Product Management Alexis Miller helped develop a system called the Accessibility Matrix, an inclusion-based metric used for the studio’s recent puzzle-based VR games, I Expect You to Die and its sequel.
The aim is to encourage creators to consider accessibility as early in the design process as possible.
“Instead of accessibility being happenstance, the goal is around it being intentional and documenting it,” Miller says.
The matrix outlines more than 100 common accessibility problems and their potential solutions. Leveraging this criteria means many puzzles in Schell’s games have multiple solutions tailored to different levels of modality. While one solution may require bending, for example, another may be more stationary. In contrast to using two VR wands, Miller says many of Schell’s games can be played one-handed.
Spohn is happy to see these outliers define their own accessibility standards.
“I hope we keep having more and more companies that go the extra mile to try to make sure they get it right,” he says. “They're struggling just like we are.”
For players like myself, games like The Last of Us Part II are extremely inclusive, while others are not. Sports games, for instance, usually feature control schemes that are too complex, leaving me feeling excluded from NBA 2K no matter how much I might enjoy watching basketball on TV. (Go Celtics.)
For now, that means I’m forced to specialize in single-player narrative content for both my work and casual play because those genres offer the most complete accessibility features. If I delve into multiplayer games to prepare guides, it’s much easier to do so for titles like Fortnite, which allows players to traverse the game’s map on a solo basis.
Is it time for a standardized approach to accessibility? The people I spoke with weren’t so sure.
“We don't tell developers how to code,” Spohn says of AbleGamers’ classes.
Miller of Schell Games seconds this hands-off stance: “I'm trying to help bridge the gaps, not necessarily define what the solutions are.”
“When you start telling people they have to do things, then you're giving them very strict boundaries to work within,” adds Microsoft’s Zahand.
He doesn’t rule out the possibility that Xbox could implement company-wide guidelines at some point.
“Right now, that's not the approach we feel is working best with our developers and designers,” Zahand explains.
The future of accessibility will be about moving beyond the laundry-list menus of the past and integrating features more organically into gameplay. Spohn and AbleGamers refer to these baked-in concepts as “helping hands.”
Here’s how they work: An animal or object can indirectly guide players with limited sight toward the location of a collectible. If certain combat sequences become too difficult for players with motor issues, a computer-controlled character could join the fight.
“Accessibility is a road that is never done being paved.”
Spohn sees educational courses like the ones AbleGamers provides as a path to making these ideas more pervasive.
“We're really hopeful that, in the next four years or so, it'll be on resume guidelines for people,” he says. “It'll be something you need for the job.”
Developers that create tools to create baseline accessibility would be a literal game-changer: Instead of building a subtitle engine from scratch for each new game, as is still common practice, a subtitle engine plug-in could save development time and resources, while also expanding the game’s audience.
Innovations in artificial intelligence could enable games to include virtual assistants that learn about the player based on in-game behaviors. Instead of developers having to predict potential pitfalls, the A.I. would tailor its responses to a player’s specific needs. It’s a fascinating idea, even if it’s still years away.
“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty, we are not building this right now,” Zahand says. “We're investing in how we can build it because the tech isn't there yet.”
Accessibility in games has vastly improved in just a few years. Despite obvious hurdles, the future looks brighter than ever for previously silenced populations that deserve unfettered access to a vital source of entertainment, escapism, and personal connection.
“I'm a pessimist by nature, and I will say accessibility has changed a little bit of that for me,” Zahand says. “From where we sat in 2006 and where we are now, it's a night-and-day difference. Nobody ever asks me, 'Why should I do accessibility?' Now they ask me, 'How do I do it?'”
Still, the people we spoke to acknowledge there’s no perfect end goal. “Accessibility is a road that is never done being paved,” Activision's Ledda says.
Despite creators’ best efforts, Spohn knows that not every game will be suitable for every gamer, even with advancements in technology and education.
“People want to hear the soundbite of ‘Everything's going to be accessible for everyone.’’ So I'm the bad guy, because I have to tell people that's not going to happen,” he says. “The probability that every single person's disabilities, challenges, and barriers will be overcome by a single video game is astronomically difficult.
“We're kidding ourselves to think that we can get to the point where everyone's going to be able to play every single game.”
For disabled gamers like myself, though, the goal isn’t to play everything as much as it is having a clear path to the experiences we want to enjoy.
Accessibility has helped Spohn rekindle his love of racing because games like Forza Horizon 4 include assists that clearly highlight the track and keep his car on it. The Last of Us Part II showed me I don’t have to be terrified to take on high-profile reviews out of fear that certain experiences may not be tailored to my needs.
The tears I endured while trying to play the Wii don’t fall as frequently as they used to here in the year 2021. Even if every game may not suit every person, the biggest victory is knowing that disabled voices are being heard and represented inside some of the industry’s most prominent brands.
With awareness at an all-time high, action is the next step. And it’s the growth in that space that leaves me feeling most inspired. Action is what transforms concepts into features that will bring smiles to the faces of millions of excluded gamers. Through education, innovation, and an honest effort on behalf of developers, the prospect of play-for-all may never be fully realized, but prospects continue to look better and better.