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The popularity of motion and button-less controls are ushering in a new era of accessibility in game design. However, as I look at this trend and my own physical problems, I see how inaccessible, accessibility can be.

Josh Bycer

July 2, 2011

4 Min Read

The popularity of motion and button-less controls are ushering in a new era of accessibility in game design. However, as I look at this trend and my own physical problems, I see how inaccessible, accessibility can be.

This past generation has given us new ways of promoting accessibility in games, in no small part thanks to the Wii and Nintendo DS. The Wii has given us motion controls, while the DS has the stylus and touch screen. Since then, both Sony and Microsoft have followed suit with the Playstation Move and Kinect respectively. These devices have given rise to more accessible content, thanks to offering an alternative to button combinations. However, with the recent release of the 3DS, I'm starting to realize that in creating new forms of accessibility, designers may have created something inaccessible to me, and perhaps others.

Being able to use a controller to manipulate a character or action on screen has always worked for me, as it takes the majority of physical action out of the equation. The problem is that by introducing physical actions into game design, I find myself in some cases physically unable to play games. I suffer from fine motor control issues in my hands, whenever I try to do something very fine or intricate, and my hands begin to twitch. For games that require the player to perform very specific gestures, the constant shaking of my hand gets in the way unless I concentrate more on that then playing the game.

The whole dancing genre is forever out of my grasp, which is alright as I hate to dance to begin with. I have nerve damage in my right leg and foot, and have little use of them. There is no way in hell that I could stand for long periods of time, much less perform dance moves. Learning how to play the drums in Rock Band became a painful exercise using my right leg, which required me to shift to my left leg. While these last two examples are broad, on the DS I have been effectively shut down from playing two of the biggest games on it.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, both make use of the DS's unique functionality in their game design. In Phantom Hourglass, there are spells the player can cast by drawing specific symbols on the map, and several doors that require a symbol drawn to open. The problem for me was that Nintendo made it so that the symbols had to be drawn close to perfection for the system to register it.

For me, due to my twitching hands I could not draw the symbols how the game wanted to move on. Another thing I noticed was how some symbols had to be drawn in a certain way, such as from left to right. Since I'm a lefty, I found it easier to go from right to left with some of the harder symbols, but the game was not accepting it. In order to keep going I had to grab a family member to draw the symbols on the DS for me, a first in my life of having to get someone to play a game for me to progress.

Unfortunately, with Spirit Tracks I wasn't so lucky. The game makes use of the DS's microphone to have the player play an instrument by blowing into it. Besides my physical issues I also have horrifically bad allergies, which leaves me with a semi stuffed nose at all times. For the life of me I could not get the game to recognize that I was playing the notes correctly. I spent roughly two hours attempting this to the point where I started choking, because I was running out of air trying to make this work; eventually I had to give up.

For the first time, I had to stop playing a game, not because I was stuck at a difficult challenge, or a boss fight, but because I was physically unable to play it. The prospect of not being able to play video games due to physical limitations is a scary one to me. There is a sense of irony that by creating tools to make games more accessible to casual gamers, that it has made them inaccessible to me, and perhaps others.

Thinking about possible solutions, the margin for error should be given a wide berth for people having trouble. Going back to Spirit Tracks for a second, I wonder if people who have asthma ran into the same problems I had. Having multiple options for performing the task would work as well. This would need to be handled on a game-by-game basis depending on the controls and actions required. Even having an option to take these actions and map them to a controller input in extreme cases could work.

Making games more accessible, has been a constant challenge for designers. From subtitles for hearing impaired people, to visual modes for color blindness, there are a lot of things for a designer to think about. As game design moves more into a realm where button presses are not the only form of input, designers will have more limitations from their fan-base to consider.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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