Forced Activism Fatigue in Games Accessibility

Christy Smith9 minute read

I have the privilege of being quite new to accessibility work. I am not nearly as worn-down as many of the people in our community who are sick and tired of being sick and tired for years as we wait and plead for game accessibility. I want to acknowledge that privilege upfront. What I’m talking about is not unique to me, and if anything, I don’t have as much experience with activism fatigue.

In that way, I’m coming in a bit fresh. This fatigue isn’t as ubiquitous to me, so I’m hoping I might be able to give some fresh thoughts on it. 

Accessibility activism is tiring. Full stop. Not only are we each dealing with the annoyances (or outright hostility) of being disabled in non-disabled spaces, but we are also trying to make additional pushes into spaces that were not designed for us. That takes so much energy. Non-disabled people often can’t fathom just how much energy it takes because they don’t understand that their spaces aren’t designed for us. 

Urban Flow Gameplay showing differently shaped traffic lights with button prompts

I’ll give a personal anecdote as an example. As you might expect, being blind, I am a voracious consumer of audiobooks. Years ago, I gave up on the free audiobooks that I could get through the library for the blind because the process was simply too cumbersome for me to manage. I am more than appreciative of the service and all of the volunteers who make it work, but it simply wasn’t serving my needs. I need a smaller, lighter player, and my phone is much more convenient than the DAISY readers. I also have sensitive hearing and mild hearing loss, making me less comfortable listening to volunteer narrators who occasionally cough into the microphone. 

However, getting professionally recorded audiobooks from the library is not always accessible given the multitude of proprietary apps, and purchasing audiobooks is expensive. A friend was recently recommending a book to me, and I told her I would buy a copy on Audible. She was under the impression that I was somehow given free credits to buy books because of my disability. 

I do not get free credits to buy books.

This is one of the many examples of how being disabled is more expensive than being non-disabled. If you’ve ever begrudged disabled people their (limited) tax credits or assistance programs, think of stories like these. Think of the hundreds of dollars it takes to fully equip the XAC. Think of the monitors and extension arms it takes to for low vision gamers. Take a look at the price of a basic screen reader (which is usually not covered for personal use).

Zoomtext magnifier reader product page, price $875

Outside of video games, disabled people face additional costs for grocery delivery if buying groceries in person isn’t accessible, additional housing costs to be able to live close to public transportation, and additional costs for necessary accommodations like glasses. These are just some of the costs that I have personally experienced, and I promise you, there are plenty more. And all of these costs are loaded on top of an already statistically lower earnings potential.

I bring up financial examples because they are easy to quantify, but the same concept applies to emotional resources as well. It takes energy to walk into a job interview and wonder if the interviewers will ask any illegal questions. It takes energy to inform people that they are enforcing access barriers. It takes energy to continue saying the same thing over and over without meaningful change. These are emotional costs on top of limited access to emotional enjoyment or assistance. Disabled people may not be able to access the same recreational communities that would help relieve those frustrations. They also may have difficulty accessing counseling and mental health treatment that would help them cope. 

True story – I once had a therapist refuse to work with me because she told me that there was no way I, a blind person, could take pills correctly since I can’t read labels on bottles. She also told me that she wouldn’t allow me to bring my guide dog. 

Needless to say, I left and looked for a different therapist. However, that rejection takes energy to handle, and it takes energy to try again knowing that the same thing could happen. This applies to nearly every aspect of our lives, whether it’s looking for a job, looking for romantic partners, looking for medical providers, looking for social communities, or looking for video games.

Splatoon 2

All of that fatigue takes a toll, so it’s even more important for disabled people to find inclusion, enjoyment, and excitement wherever we can. Reviewing games is exhausting when we feel like we’re writing the same review over and over again because each title falls into the same accessibility pitfalls. If we focus on all of the shortcomings, we will simply not be able to find the energy to continue. 

This problem isn’t just for game reviewers. Every disabled gamer, whether you like it or not, is engaged in activism. By putting yourself into the world of games, which was not designed for you, you are telling people that you should be included. It’s upsetting that that is a political position, but it is. We should not be forced into activism by merely existing in the video game space, but we are. 

If you only get one thing from this article, I want you to know that as a disabled gamer, you experience activism fatigue. You did not ask to be an activist, and you may not consider yourself one, which is perfectly fine. But you experience the struggle, whether you choose to be public about it or not. You feel the frustration when you see a game announced but have no idea if you’ll be able to play it. You feel the exclusion and manipulation when you purchase a game only to find that you can’t play it. You feel the exhaustion when it happens over and over and nothing changes.

We already experience emotional and financial drain because of our disabilities. We turn to games to experience accomplishment, community, the freedom of exploration, and yet we are met with that same emotional and financial drain when games are inaccessible. Our source of joy can at times compound the emotional work we must do already just because of our disabilities.

Burnout Paradise Remastered drifting toy car

Disabled gamers did not choose or consent for their mere existence in a space to be a political statement. There would be many, many more disabled gamers if games were accessible simply because it wouldn’t take so much energy (that we don’t have). People are actively being pushed out of gaming every day because of inaccessibility and the energy it requires to deal with it.

We pay the same amount of money for our video games as non-disabled gamers, even though they’re rarely marketed to us as we need them to be, and yet what we receive is a very different product because of how we have to experience it. Many games only unlock additional levels or modes upon completion of certain tasks, which arbitrarily limits the value of the game if those tasks are inaccessible for any reason. 

I recently beat the Octo Expansion in Splatoon 2 and was delighted to find that I could skip levels that were too difficult and still get the reward gear. Those who pay the $20 price tag and put in the time can unlock the Octoling character. This gave me a sense of value that I had paid for the same content as everyone else, because regardless of my ability to play Splatoon 2 in the intended way, I was still able to experience the game and achieve the content that I, and others, had paid for.

Color Jumper gameplay

I recently reviewed a game called Color Jumper, which is a platformer that I think of as what would happen if Super Meat Boy and Hue had a baby. From the moment I downloaded it onto my Switch, I was pleasantly surprised at its accessibility. It’s not perfect, BUT, for me at least, it’s darn good. 

I played it for a few minutes and then had a sinking feeling in my stomach. If I gave it a high review score (which it more than deserved), would I face a storm of criticism from people who can’t play the game? Was it even okay to be excited that I can play a truly difficult platformer when not everyone can? More often than not, in the disabled community, we face the fatigue from those who are disgruntled that they cannot have the same experience as others. And sometimes we face comments that make us feel guilty for being able to access something when not everyone can. If I spoke about my success with Color Jumper, would I make others feel excluded because I was included and they were not?

I never mean to make anyone feel excluded, and certainly not when that only compounds on exclusion from the games themselves. But how am I able to celebrate the success of being able to access a game? With all of the activism fatigue, it feels even more important to find the joy whenever it comes. There is enough room in the conversation for us to acknowledge that progress has been made, but work still remains. The accessibility movement is gaining traction by the day, and as it grows, our efforts and successes will become more nuanced. Acknowledging incremental success does not detract from the work left to be done. If anything, being vocal about partial success helps developers make more targeted improvements in the future.

Clubhouse Games Slot cars gameplay

For the first time in… ever… I feel like the developers of a game read something I wrote and took it on board when making their game. In the case of Color Jumper, I am almost certain that this isn’t the case because it would have taken far longer to implement any of my suggestions. However, playing the game, I feel like the developers read every word of my article about how to improve platformers and implemented it. It’s honestly even more encouraging knowing that they probably did not read my article. What that tells me is that developers are starting to be aware of the accessibility issues I discussed. Other people are seeing the same barriers I’m seeing, and they’re working to fix them. 

That is exactly what accessibility advocates are trying to achieve, and we need to take that excitement of progress and cherish it. There is enough room for everyone to be heard in the great accessibility conversation, whether their experience with a game is positive or negative. We should focus our energy on broadening the conversation and making room for everyone — not wasting it on making sure that every statement speaks for the entire community. 

There will be harder days. There will be games that refuse to implement accessibility. There will be publishers that say hurtful things because they don’t realize there is a large market for accessibility and think we’re pushing too hard. We will need our energy for those days. 

It is already hard enough to be disabled. Let’s not make it harder by refusing ourselves the small joys of progress.

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Christy Smith is a visually impaired gamer whose main goal in life is to snag a seat on the metro instead of having to stand so that she can play Switch on her commute. She/her/hers or They/them/theirs

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