Video games and their respective consoles and technology have had expeditious growth in terms of technology. If you follow the gaming industry, it may feel like there is always some new accessory attempting to switch up the formula. Yet, the same cannot be said for disabled gamers, a historically overlooked fraction of the video game community. They are a community that fears new technology because of what it means for how it will affect the accessibility of what they play. However, one unexpected technology has risen in recent years that just might turn the tide: virtual reality headsets.
Looking at the options available for VR gaming, your last thought would probably be about how accessible they are. You will see images of people standing, boxing their hands around with funky-looking grip-style controllers in them. You will see funny videos of people walking along an imagined line. A TV screen in the background shows that they are walking a virtual reality tightrope between skyscrapers. And you will see that some of the technology requires you to set up devices around the room. Those devices create a sort of box that you can maneuver in. They all seem very anti-accessibility. However, the big brains over at Oculus, one of the primary headset developers in the market, would disagree with you.
Virtual Reality Checks
Oculus has created a set of development recommendations for video game developers to build games from the ground up with accessibility in mind. The recommendations are called Virtual Reality Checks, and in the accompanying video announcement, they list the following as “Best Practices:”
- Subtitle Options
- UI/UX Design
- In-Game Feedback & Direction
- Customizable Controller Configuration
- Distance Grabbing
- Display Setting Customization
- Color Blindness Support
- Multiple Locomotion Options
- Head-Tracking Alternatives
What These Mean for Accessibility
Let us take a minute and detail some of the less obvious points in that list. Customizable controller configuration involves simply picking which buttons do what per game. Essentially, you could open the settings menu, see all the control options, see a control you want to change, and change it to whatever button is easiest for you to press.
Multiple locomotion options are also a major decision factor in VR. It involves whether you want your character to move like they would in a typical video game (which can cause motion-sickness if you are sitting or standing still), or if you want to look at a certain point in the world you are in and press a button to teleport there, so to speak.
Distance grabbing is perhaps the biggest point. In VR, if you see an object in the world, you can walk over to it and grab it. However, if you have limited mobility, distance grabbing means you can simply look over at that object and press a button to get it to fly over to your hand.
In addition to those accessibility options, VR headsets are inherently friendly to disabled people who have low-vision. This is something that Carlos Cruz Cordero, a contributor with the organization Able Gamers, has written about. In his piece, entitled I’m Legally Blind and I Love My PSVR, Cordero has this to say about the Playstation VR headset:
[…] I loaded up Red Dead Redemption 2, a game infamous for its tiny on-screen prompts and text. I loved playing RDR2 on my 50 inch TV, but that text was very frustrating and really took me out of the game when I would have to get up and walk over to the top right of the screen to read the in-game instructions. On the giant movie theater-sized screen inside the PSVR however, I was able to read the same prompts with much more ease. Several hours later, I had my answer: the PSVR was not only a good purchase, it made my backlog of 2D games much more accessible. I had to stop myself from crying for joy inside the headset, I was fogging up the glass in front of my eyes.
An Option for Those with Limited Mobility
During an interview I conducted with Cordero about his love for the technology, he mentioned that many VR games are perfect for gamers who are in wheelchairs.
For instance, there are so many games that don’t even require you to stand up and move around. If you’re in a wheelchair, if you have limited mobility, you can just sit on your couch and you’re flying an X-wing fighter. All you have to do is move your head.
Additionally, Cordero addresses VR’s history of causing the aforementioned motion sickness. He indicates that issue has nearly been fixed with higher refresh rates in the device itself. According to Cordero, in the past, the low frame-rate motion would mess with the part of your body that senses motion. This works the same way astronauts get sick when they experience zero-gravity for the first time.
However, Cordero says VR has a long way to go in terms of both games and technology. He gives an example regarding technology in the headset itself.
One of the limitations right now is your field of view in the lenses, you know, inside the helmet. With lenses, the wider field of view that lens can project, the more immersed you are, […] that might go a long the way to reduce disorientation and nausea.
He indicates that the best experience in VR is not coming from big AAA games. Instead, it comes from indie games. AAA developers are not pouring money into VR games. Instead, they are opting to make games that will appeal to a wider audience. Indie developers, on the other hand, are more comfortable experimenting with the technology. Cordero says as a result, with the technology on hand, users of VR are sort of like beta-testers, rather than users of a finalized new piece of hardware.
Looking to the Future
That being said, virtual reality is an exciting peak into the future of gaming. Especially if it means opening doors for a community of gamers who have been locked out of mainstream gaming. Those who are unable to play many games because they have not been made with accessibility in mind. This technology could allow them to finally play the games they have had their hearts set on.
If you’re a disabled gamer with experience using virtual reality, or even just a gamer interested in the divisive technology, reach out and let me know in the comments below!