Pikachu And Precedent: A Brief Look At Accessibility In Gaming

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The holidays are upon us, and as Christmas draws near yet again, so too does the inevitable wave of big budget video game releases vying for the attention of the public and a place on the gift lists of children everywhere. Among November’s releases is Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu! / Let’s Go Eevee!, Nintendo’s latest entry in the Pokemon series coming in off the back of the public sensation that was Pokemon Go! for mobile devices. Pokemon: Let’s Go is playable on the Nintendo Switch gaming console, and features innovative motion-control based interaction. While playing in docked mode (with the game on your television), the player makes a throwing motion with the controller to simulate throwing a Pokeball in order to catch wild Pokemon. If playing in handheld mode the player instead uses the control stick to position the cursor, presses the “A” button to throw the Pokeball, and can use the gyro motion detector to make fine-tuned adjustments to their aim. This feature is innovative, unique, interactive, and—most importantly—cannot be turned off.

And that’s that. If you have any difficulties with hand/arm motion for any reason and you wanted to play Pokemon: Let’s Go, well… it’s going to be difficult for you, if not impossible. Inevitably, that brings us to the question of “why?” There’s no reason there couldn’t have been an alternate control scheme for those who struggle with the default settings, but no such option exists. The simplest answer comes from Junichi Masuda, director of Pokemon: Let’s Go himself. In an interview with Game Informer magazine, when asked why motion controls were required, he explained that he “just wanted people to try this new experience.” Unfortunately, in forcing people to try this “new” way of doing things, Nintendo has inadvertently locked out a not insignificant segment of the population from ever playing their game.

Such oversights are sadly not uncommon in the gaming industry, which, unlike other mediums and businesses, is not subject to legislation that requires accommodations for disability. Just recently, Activision released Spyro: Reignited Trilogy, a remaster of three old Spyro games that were originally released on the first Playstation console. This remaster, however, failed to include any sort of subtitling for voices—a rather glaring omission even in this industry. A lack of subtitles is obviously an issue for the hearing impaired, as well as those with processing disorders like CAPD. For people with these disabilities, subtitles can be the difference between an enjoyable experience and a wasted purchase. In response to fan outcry, Activision released a statement that, while stressing that they cared about accessibility for their audience, also marked that “there’s no industry standard for subtitles.” Such a statement, of course, can easily be countered with the suggestion that maybe there should be. This incident is perhaps the clearest recent demonstration that, when it comes to accessibility, gamers with disabilities often have to rely on the goodwill of developers and publishers, and hope they aren’t forgotten in the rush to meet the next deadline.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that the industry has made no progress at all towards a more inclusive future. Just this year, Microsoft pushed its way to the forefront with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a brilliant piece of technology that can be customized and modified to support gamers with all sorts of different needs. While it is a bit pricier than a standard Xbox controller, it features a wide variety of additional plugs, programmable buttons, and support for computer gaming. It also includes Xbox consoles in order to make gaming experiences easier to get into and customize depending on the needs of each individual. Not to mention that in the age of online connectivity, new features can always be patched into an older game, as Blizzard proved yet again with the addition of highly requested colorblind settings into Overwatch, a feature that earned high praise from both colorblind players who saw their experience vastly improve, as well as those who simply enjoyed the option to tweak certain colors to their liking. Even independent figures have taken to pushing for increased accessibility, like the talented folks at gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, which (like the name suggests) serves as a kind of “cheat sheet” for game developers who want to design their software with an eye for inclusivity.

As the gaming industry continues to grow and attract more interest from people of all backgrounds and identities, it’s certainly going to be feeling more and more pressure to include features that accommodate for disability, from both fans and activists alike. The question of who needs to be accommodated—and how much—however, are still up for debate. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to all entertainment in some form or another, but whether or not there is any legal obligation to provide that access has yet to be determined. There are several existing court cases that brush up against the topic, such as Stern v. Sony Corp., et al. (2010), but none of them have gone far enough to be considered definitive rulings one way or the other. As of today, the issue of whether or not the Americans with Disabilities Act can be interpreted to apply to video games is practically untested, and has no legal precedents. Regardless of legal issues, one thing seems clear: when it comes to the gaming industry, accommodation for those with disabilities is inconsistent at best, and nonexistent at worst. If game companies want to continue to expand their market share and appeal to wider audiences in future, they’re going to have to start thinking about these issues soon so that someday anyone can play their games—regardless of disability.

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