Accessibility Features Are Not Cheating

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Xbox’s Adaptive Controller built for accessibility in mind

Every once and awhile a new video game personality or streamer reignites the hot button conversation around accessibility in the video game community. This happened again recently and just like every other time, the conversation follows the same pattern; someone is upset about a feature that isn’t for them or they don’t have to use and comes to the conclusion that accessibility features are the same as cheats. This myth has permeated almost every conversation within the gaming community and it’s impossible to say it’s just trolls when streamers, YouTubers, and personalities with hundreds of thousands to millions of followers are contributing to the toxicity. 

Despite the ongoing efforts from accessibility advocates to counter this harmful sentiment, there is still a lot of misunderstanding as to what is accessibility and what accessibility features are used for. Accessible simply means “easily used or accessed by people with disabilities or adapted for use by people with disabilities.” And considering one out of four adults in the United States live with a disability, even if they do not consider themselves disabled, it is understandable that games would include accessibility features. Accessibility features can anything from offering subtitles and colorblind modes, to options like the button mapping. Most gamers use an accessibility option whether they call it that or not. Ubisoft accessibility project manager David Tisserand spoke about players’ subtitle use even giving specific statistics. “The Division 2 shipped with subtitles off by default and 75% of players turned them on at least once. About half of all The Division 2 players continue to play with subtitles on.”

The Division 2 Subtitles Accessibility
Subtitle menu options in The Division 2

Accessibility features are not meant to be cheats, they are meant to be equalizers. If you take the idea outside of the context of gaming it almost seems silly. Am I cheating because I take thyroid medication for a debilitating condition? Should I just tell my joints to “git gud” instead of going to the rheumatologist and getting treatment for the pain? No, I take medication or I use tools that help me live a normal life. That same idea applies to the way I play games. I use accessibility features so that I can play a game as normally as possible. 

But much like my life is still valid despite taking medication or needing any type of aids, the way I game is still valid no matter what features I use. When I started Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a game I pre-ordered and was incredibly excited for, I didn’t realize what accessibility features were offered. I couldn’t get past the opening of the game. I was stuck on a quick time event for nearly 45 minutes because my joints were not fast enough. To say I was upset was an understatement; I was heartbroken. However, a mutual on twitter reminded me the developer Crystal Dynamics expanded the accessibility of the game and added the ability to completely turn off quick time events. I completed the game without ever doing a quick time event. I refuse to believe that my use of an accessibility feature discredits that hard work. 

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Accessibility Options

Similarly, while playing God of War, a game I played on easy mode, I struggled with the Valkyrie boss fights. However, I love that game and it was my GOTY in 2018. I completed all of the fights but often had to ice my hands following the battle. My joints would physically swell from the rapid movement needed to avoid their quick attacks. My wins against the Valkyrie are just as valid as anyone else’s and I fought hard for them. And much like turning off the quick time events in Tomb Raider, playing on easy mode was not “easy” for me. Instead, it made the game possible for me. There is no difference between playing a game with button holds turned off or playing a game with a colorblind mode on. Both are accessibility options and both are being used so a player can play the game. Being able to play a game is far from cheating.

More and more studios are realizing just how many players are using accessibility options. Most recently, Jedi Fallen Order, from Respawn Entertainment, and Death Stranding, from Kojima Productions, featured story modes which allow the player to experience the story without worrying too heavily about the combat features which can be difficult, as I’ve explained.

Jedi Fallen Order has multiple difficulty options that clearly state what players will experience. This Story Mode offers more parry time which is ideal for people like me who have chronic joint pain and don’t have hands that move particularly fast. Options like this are made for players with accessibility in mind.

Jedi Fallen Order Accessibility
Jedi Fallen Order’s difficulty menu

Kojima, on the other hand, added the very easy mode in hopes of reaching more fans, particularly those of movies and not necessarily those who are there for gameplay. In a statement on twitter Kojima said, “Normally there’s only Easy Mode, but we added Very Easy Mode for movie fans since we have real actors like Norman, Mads, Lea starred in.” While that might be his intent, the option still opens the game to more people who may have otherwise struggled because of various impairments.

Comparably, Nintendo recently added a rewind feature to their older games that are now available on the Nintendo Switch. While the feature is hardly an easy mode, it does allow players to easily rewind gameplay if they make a mistake or just want to retry a section of the game. The mode is revolutionary for anyone who can’t physically complete a game in one go, which is a lot of players. This feature opens up older games to a whole new slew of players.

Similarly, more and more game studios are understanding accessibility is more than just difficulty, though that is one part of it. Crystal Dynamics and Ubisoft have created vast accessibility menus that allow for a lot of customizations – from puzzle difficulty to offering full captioning in addition to traditional subtitles – making games playable for many, many players with all types of disabilities or conditions. We still have a ways to go but the industry has made major strides in the right direction.

And with these changes, it’s important to look at how we frame them. Calling accessibility cheating is not only false, but it’s also extremely harmful. Doing so is a form of gatekeeping that hurts disabled players and constantly forces them to validate their place in the gaming community. At the end of the day, no matter how you play a game or what accessibility features you use, you are valid and you belong in the gaming community.