“Can I play that?” This is a question facing gamers with disabilities, just about every time they pick up a new game. It’s also the name of a robust accessibility resource co-founded by activist and writer Courtney Craven to provide a platform to voices in need. There are reference guides. There are accessibility reviews. There are diversity, equity and inclusion workshops. And on a more personal note, there are pieces that explore how and why particular people play the games they do.
It all started back in 2014, when Craven had taken a 15-year hiatus from video games. “Games were not for adults when I was a kid,” they recall to The Hollywood Reporter. “I walked away from them for a while.” Then Craven received the original Xbox One, and was “astounded” at the progress that had been made in accessibility, and also in storytelling.
“The fact that the kinds of stories that I was reading in books were now being told in games was huge to me. When I played Mass Effect, it was kind of the moment that made me realize I want[ed] to be a writer, but I want to write in this industry.”
Originally, the site focused on materials for deaf and hard of hearing accessibility, and existed solely for players. Later, it expanded its advocacy to help others with cognitive disabilities, blindness and more — and also began catering educational content toward game developers themselves, who, as Craven explains, have opportunities to reach many disabled communities through their marketing materials, even if their game might not be the most accessible. “I think that’s the most important place to start, honestly, just making an inclusive community and letting disabled people participate in your hype.”
These days, Can I Play That? reaches an audience of 50 percent game makers and players. “I think that the amount of progress that I’ve seen, just in the last 2-3 years has been astonishing,” says Craven, who also works as a contractor doing captions for Epic Games. “I never thought we would see a game like The Last of Us 2 or Gears 5 because everything that’s in both of those games is everything we’ve been advocating for.”
Among the features, Craven explains that sound design of The Last of Us 2 has an audio glossary enabling players, such as those who are visually impaired or blind, to listen to each sound in the accessibility menu and be informed of its meaning. Gears 5 has a visual caption to indicate that music has stopped, and it’s safe for a player to emerge from where they had been taking cover during a shootout. That game, Craven says, is among the the first that deaf players could access and be offered the same experience as hearing players.
“It was kind of the moment of, ‘oh wow, they’re really listening,’” Craven recalls. “I think it felt that way throughout the community, because all of us who had been advocating for this kind of had that crying moment: seeing that this is everything that I need to be able to play the game.”
Elsewhere in the gaming community is Paul Martin, or Cerebral Paul as he goes by on Twitch and Twitter, who found computer games in middle school and realized he had an affinity toward technology. The fact that video games could be played by someone with Cerebral Palsy meant that he could expand his social outlet, both then and now as an adult, which has become even more crucial to him during the COVID-19 pandemic: “I literally have not left my house since January of last year,” he tells THR. “Hopefully that will change soon.” Martin is an IT technician and member of the Xbox Ambassadors Community, fostering a positive and healthy environment for other players.
As Martin says on his Twitch channel, his physical limitations continue to be both exciting and frustrating: “With anybody, if there’s something that’s really hard, and they beat it, they’re excited: wow, I finally got through it! Imagine that times 10. Because everything is really hard, by comparison.” He adds, “In that frustration, I keep fighting through.”
The first game that Martin can point to that was, in his words, “truly accessible” for him was Rockstar’s L.A. Noire: “It was the first game I ran into that, during the action sequence, if you failed like three times, it would say, ‘hey, you’re having trouble here, would you like to skip this part?’ That was the first time I’d ever seen a game take a step to say, ‘we know people are going to have trouble with this part.”
Martin says that many games focus on deaf, hard of hearing, color blindness and blindness — but, for him, the issue is dexterity. There are some games that he “absolutely cannot play,” just by design, though he doesn’t blame the game developers. “It’s just part of who I am.”
Some disabilities are harder to accommodate than others, Craven points out. Giving the example of blindness, they note that a fully accessible experience in that regard requires a design based on haptics, controller vibration and sound alone: an “uphill battle” type of challenge. Craven goes onto quote accessibility expert Ian Hamilton who once said, ‘A game will not ever be accessible to all people.’” They add, “I think that’s true, because accessibility is such a spectrum, and disability is such a spectrum. It can change day to day.”
Even though The Last of Us 2 was identified as having some of the most comprehensive accessibility features in a video game to date, Can I Play That? mobility editor Grant Stoner could not move past the start screen, Craven explains. “It was hugely accessible to so many people, but there’s still people that are completely walled off from it because there’s some things that they didn’t account for like system level barriers,” says the activist.
Craven, whose gaming preferences range from the role-playing Biomutant to the heartfelt narrative adventure puzzle The Last Days of June, continues to work toward accessibility goals and further education via their site. Meanwhile, Martin encourages others to “game differently” on his social channels, in particular, “learning to adjust what you can do with what the game allows you to do.” Whether he discloses his disability to other players or streamers is of course up to him, and regardless — he finds ways around problems in games, if and when that is possible.
He also stresses the fact that, as a player, you often do not know the other person on the other side of the controller. “The way somebody else can game differently is realize that they don’t have to be nasty,” he says, “They don’t have to be mean; you can politely ask if they are having trouble with this part, without deciding that they suck and they need to go back and play Roblox. A lot of it just comes down to attitude.’”
If there is one thing that Martin would like game developers to know, it is that disabled communities are there, willing, and available. “They need to reach out to more of us,” he says, suggesting that this occur via panels and play-tests. Among recent improvements to this effort, Xbox back in February launched a game accessibility testing program giving members of the disability community the option to be involved in test cases and provide feedback. For last week’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day, both Xbox and PlayStation shared their commitments to advancing accessible tools, products, and services for their disabled gaming communities.
As Martin points out, not every one identifies their disability in their Twitter account or other social channel, and therefore there are undoubtedly many more disabled gamers than companies even have statistics for. “There is no blue checkmark.”