Today’s gaming scene is perhaps more populated than ever before with games readily available thanks to subscription models such as Xbox Game Pass, EA Play, and others offering a huge library of games to their members. For many of us, there’s never been a better time to jump into a game world and explore. However, one of the more frustrating elements of having so many games to jump into can be the inability to do so because of situational disabilities.
This graphic from Microsoft Design’s Inclusive 101 Toolkit provides some insight into the different types of barriers to gaming that many people experience. It’s known as the Persona Spectrum and is helpful for us to consider our experiences through three different optics of hindrance; permanent, temporary, and situational. These optics are helpful for us when thinking about inclusive game design and digital accessibility as a whole.
While working to remove obstacles for those with permanent barriers to digital technology is vital, it’s also worth exploring the impact that temporary and situational disabilities can have. Many people who could perhaps benefit from the cognitive and wellbeing boosts that gaming provides, may be unable to do so due to temporary or situational disabilities.
Digital accessibility is important for all and can benefit those experiencing situational disabilities as well as those who are disabled. “Solve for one, extend to many” as Microsoft’s Inclusive 101 states.
What Are Situational Disabilities?
Situational disabilities are those that are transitory and/or context-based, rather than permanent. That’s not to say they’re not still barriers to gaming, just that they will pass in time. Temporary disabilities will also improve with time but are perhaps more immediately difficult to overcome, such as having a broken hand, for example.
There is a range of situational barriers to gaming time to consider, some of which are comparable to learning-based situational barriers. Here are some examples:
- Social constraints – e.g. appropriateness of using devices with audio in a quiet public space or group setting
- Noise-based issues – as above, but inability to access audio/visual elements fully due to being in a noisy environment or situation
- Poor lighting or situational light sensitivity
- Distractions in the environment
- Being a new parent
- Having to carry out other tasks that require you to use your hands/eyes/ears
- Impairments brought on by allergies or illnesses such as loss of vision or hearing
- Peer or familial pressures – where gaming time is seen as an indulgence or a shameful pastime and becomes something done in isolation or in secret
Those suffering from work-related financial pressures or difficult domestic situations may be unable to devote the necessary time to a gaming session, which may have a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing as a result. For many people, gaming provides an outlet for situational stressors, and so being deprived of that outlet may have an ongoing negative impact on their mental health.
It’s important to recognize that these situational impairments can happen at any point in time, so gamers shouldn’t feel that they’re exempt from needing accessibility purely because they don’t have a permanent disability.
How Do Situational Disabilites Impact Gaming Time?
One such situational barrier I’ve personally experienced recently is that of being a new parent. I spent a large chunk of the past year teaching my hands how to operate a controller from underneath my baby while breastfeeding at the same time! That sounds exaggerated, but for me, being able to occupy my brain for those hours upon hours of being glued to the couch with a feeding baby, is crucially important to my sense of sanity.
Next to my baby, my Xbox has been my closest companion during the last twelve months. Without the wealth of games I’ve been able to play whilst being slept on or fed from, I think I would have found the isolation of being home alone with a baby much harder.
However, my time as a PC gamer has had to come to an absolute standstill. I’m yet to discover a way of breaking down that particular situational barrier without the baby breaking my actual computer. When she was first born and I could wear her in a sling, it was a little bit easier to use the PC for short periods of time while she slept. However, that’s fairly limited to the newborn phase.
As soon as she outgrew the sling, it became much harder to access my computer. It would definitely help if more games had full controller support so that trying to operate a keyboard and mouse while holding a baby wasn’t an issue. Additionally, making sure text and UI elements are large enough to be legible from a distance would be a big help, as it’s often practically impossible to get close enough to or sit at the computer while trying to look after a tiny human. Believe me, I’ve tried.
While being a parent of a new baby is a situational barrier that will resolve over time, that timeframe is long, so I do feel that it is important to consider ways of improving the gaming experience for new parents.
Temporary Disabilites And Their Impact
Temporary disabilities such as injury or illness can limit people’s ability to play and even enjoy the games they love. These could vary, from having a broken hand, laryngitis, depression and anxiety, visual issues from allergic reactions or migraines, or perhaps hearing issues from ear infections or blocked ears, for example.
While the physical frustrations of having an injury that stops someone using a controller or keyboard are hard enough, the mental enjoyment and relaxation gained from gaming shouldn’t be underestimated. Withdrawing that outlet from someone suddenly because of a temporary barrier can obviously have a detrimental impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. It’s really important for gamers to not find themselves suddenly unable to access the tools that they enjoy and that help them deal with everyday life because of a situational or temporary disability that’s beyond their control.
What Features Help To Alleviate These Barriers?
Here’s a small list of examples of some features that could be implemented in games to help disabled gamers, and you’ll notice that they could all be used to help those with temporary and situational disabilities.
- Subtitles/volume options – vital for a range of situational contexts as well as temporary disabilities.
- Controller issues when holding a baby – options for remapping or wrist supports to allow you to comfortably hold the controller whilst feeding/holding the baby
- Pause functions in games – inability to pause a game when your child needs your full attention or when household chores need doing is frustrating
- Keyboard navigation – if unable to use your dominant hand to operate a mouse (perhaps due to a sprain or breakage)
- Visual notification alerts or controller vibration – these could be helpful to those struggling with temporary or situational hearing issues such as sound sensitivity or loss of hearing
- Display modification options and contrast settings – for those with situational or temporary visual issues such as light sensitivity, being able to modify a screen’s brightness and contrast can help prevent gamers from missing out
- Voice-activated technology and verbal commands – Something as simple as being able to tell your console to power on or off or start a game can make life a lot easier if you have your hands full
Things To Think About
It’s clear that one way to improve the overall experience for gamers at all points on this spectrum is for designers to create games with constraints in mind. Life throws a series of hurdles, in varying degrees of severity, at us all. By designing with situational, temporary, and permanent disabilities in mind, games can make better progress in relieving some of these barriers, ensuring everyone can access and enjoy games, no matter what their circumstances.
If gamers are held back from accessing their technology due to situational or temporary disabilities, really, it should highlight why having a variety of accessibility settings in games and in wider technology is a priority for everyone, and should be the norm.