Video games are often scorned by parents and politicians who place more value on active hobbies like team sports and countryside hikes, but if you struggle to even walk then many of the more socially accepted pastimes are out of your reach. More engaging than television, video games can be an important diversion for those with a physical disability. Unfortunately, they can also bring their own barriers of which other players – and more importantly developers – are unaware.
Sam Mackley-Ward was born with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy. Some of his limbs are weaker than the others, and he uses a wheelchair. Given that he was independent enough to go to the university where we became friends, I never considered that Sam would have any trouble playing video games until he invited me round one day to show me one he'd been particularly enjoying. Vanquish wasn't my kind of thing at all, but when Sam paused the game and offered the controller to me I couldn't refuse to give it a try: without my help he wouldn't be able to finish the game.
“It's not so much the quicktime events,” he explains to me now, three years later. “They can be pretty problematic sometimes, but if you know what's coming then you can sort of plan around it. What I struggle with is games that have a rapid buttonpressing thing. It seems like almost every action game at one stage has these things where you have to hammer a button really, really fast.”
Sam has got used to planning around things, in games as in life. Every time he gets a new console he has to learn how to use the controller. He lacks the fine motor control to dance his fingers across a keyboard for a game like World of Warcraft or even for a basic WASD setup. He's never considered buying a Wii and knows that playing games with Kinect would be beyond him, which gives him more reason than most to resent that it's bundled in with every Xbox One.
Sam also avoids the performance pressure of online multiplayers except in special cases, like when he wanted to get the good ending for Mass Effect 3: “Some easy enemy flanked me or something and I apparently ruined the game for everybody.” He doesn't bother with games designed for skill and ego and competition, and regrets the one time he compared his prowess at Batman: Arkham Asylum with others online who turned out to be much better: “Suddenly all the pride kind of vanished.” He sticks to games led by narrative, not just because they tend to be easier but because – as the English Literature degree he's working towards would suggest – he loves stories.
￼Yet despite all of the restrictions Sam already places on himself when deciding what games to play, he still faces obstacles in unexpected places. As we talk, he remembers more and more examples. There's GTA IV, which he's never finished because right at the end you have to hammer A to get Niko to pull himself into the helicopter. He got about two thirds of the way through Arkham Origins, but then he had to wait until a friend was free to come over and beat Firefly for him. He couldn't save Meryl in Metal Gear Solid no matter how many times he went through those torture trials.
Many of us who play games on a regular basis are getting fed up of quicktime events and the like, but for Sam the emotional response goes beyond mere irritation. He describes feeling “incredibly frustrated”, “a sense of weakness”, and even “despair”. When he has to ask for help, he can feel “pathetic”.
“I've never been that keen on relying on people anyway,” he says, “Particularly not for things I enjoy doing, in a medium where I'm supposed to be able to do anything.”
That dissonance is the most frustrating aspect. For games based on reaction times and high scores alone, it's understandable that someone with weaker finesse motor skills would struggle, but with games designed to tell a story these quicktime events are just a cheap way to inject drama, and while they can work they often seem at odds with the abilities of the character. As Sam points out, “Niko doesn't need to struggle to get into the helicopter. He's just jumped into it with a motorbike.”
The more brazen among us might want to tell developers that they ought to drop quicktime events altogether, but Sam wouldn't go that far. For some games he's found workarounds – like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, which he can play if he uses only characters with super strength – and he'd just like to be able to do that for the rest, perhaps with an option to turn off these requirements or perform another task instead.
“I'm not very good at demanding things I want,” he says, “But yes, I suppose it wouldn't be too much to ask. If you can make a Batmobile that would take up an entire Xbox 360 disc, I'd quite like to be able to finish a game please.”
A huge fan of the Arkham games, Sam is quick to assure me that Origins is the only one that's caused him any trouble, and that he thinks Rocksteady is one of the studios that would probably take the time to implement the kind of feature he wants, along with BioWare. A representative from BioWare is even quoted on the website for the Game Accessibility Guidelines, where one of the suggested features at the Intermediate level sounds like just what Sam needs: “Avoid repeated inputs (buttonmashing/quick time events).”
Sam hasn't heard of the Game Accessibility Guidelines, which is unsurprising given that few developers seem to be paying them any attention. He also hasn't heard of Special Effect, the UK charity that creates custom equipment to help people with severe disabilities play games, but thinks it sounds “wonderful”. Sam doesn't need Special Effect, however. He wouldn't count himself among the severely disabled, but is part of a larger group of people with subtler difficulties: low mobility, epilepsy, colourblindness. Unfortunately, subtlety and unawareness often come hand in hand.
Of course, even with increased awareness some will question why developers should make the effort to design accessibility into their games. When I ask Sam what he would say to those concerned that making games more accessible is tantamount to “dumbing down” the experience, he says: “I don't want to sound particularly obvious, but you don't have to use them. The option is there. It makes life easier for certain people. It's like any other difficulty option.”
Besides, the players currently thwarted by these unnecessary barriers may be those who stand to reap the most benefit from playing games in the first place. As Sam says:
“I'm never going to traverse the Wasteland. I don't want to speak for all disabled people, but certainly from my perspective games allow me to experience things my disability keeps me from experiencing. Even if it's in a virtual sense, I can augment my life. It's very important I say 'augment', because I don't mean escape from my life. I mean be more.”