Game Accessibility Goes Mainstream

The release of Gears 5 from The Coalition was a victory and not a small one at that.

My career in video games, and before me, Susan’s career, was built around our reviews that, after a couple of years, became something of a broken record. Over and over again, we would criticize the same things. Make your subtitles legible, provide sound captions, size options please, and give us a background option for the text. Most games got one or two things right yet continued to fail at something that made the game a more difficult or vastly different experience for players who rely on subtitles and captioning.

I don’t think it’s uncommon for those of us dedicated to improving game accessibility to often wonder why we even bother sometimes. Quite often, it feels like we’re shouting into the void, only to be met with horrible responses from other gamers eager to tell us that we’re not welcome to enjoy video games, simply because we enjoy them differently.

When I was asked if I’d like to review the Deaf/hoh accessibility for Gears 5, I’ll be the first to admit that despite Microsoft and its family of studios’ commitment to accessibility, I didn’t have high hopes. FPS games are notoriously difficult for me as a hard of hearing player, to the point of me not even trying to play them anymore. In this type of game, there’s often so much going on with so little visual assistance to help me prioritize my attention that my experience in FPS games is mostly dying over and over again until I give up.

So there I was on the day the embargo lifted, at 5 AM, starting up the game, prepared to be met with yet another game that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy. And then I took a look at the available options, adjusted those I felt I’d benefit from, and got into the game.

A few minutes in, I was sitting in front of my TV in tears. Not because I was right, but because I was very, very wrong. Gears 5 released with literally every single feature we’d been asking for so many times. There wasn’t a single barrier to gameplay for me that I could find.

Of the 200 plus reviews I’ve done in the past 5 years, Gears 5 was the first triple-A game I’d been able to give a perfect rating to in Deaf/hoh accessibility.

And then something amazing happened…

My review on this little site that Susan and I started out of sheer frustration (and a little pettiness) was being shared and read by thousands of people. Some, like me, had been waiting for a game to give them everything they needed to be able to enjoy a game, while others were learning about game accessibility for the very first time. Even Microsoft execs were reading the review! I was floored by the sheer number of people who genuinely cared about this thing that had previously left me feeling defeated so often.

At present, my Gears 5 review has been read by over 32,000 people, which is a pretty big deal for a site that previously hadn’t broken 500 reads on a single piece (though for such a niche site, even that was amazing). That’s 32,000 people interested in learning about game accessibility, many of whom according to the sentiment in the DMs and emails I received, had never even considered the things I mentioned in the review as being potential problems for disabled gamers.

It’s important to again note that we started Can I Play That? (and our original exclusively Deaf/hoh review site) out of sheer frustration and pettiness because we did so at a time when I’d been rejected from every single major game media site for submitting the very content we host here. The general sentiment in every rejection was that game accessibility pieces were simply not of interest to enough people to warrant publication. We’re here mostly because we were fed up with being told not enough people cared about accessibility.

We’ve gone from that to this in a very short time:

Video used with permission from Microsoft

Can I Play That? is right there below IGN and other major game media sites, our review score featured not differently, not with a little disclaimer, not on a special accessibility version of the commercial for Gears 5, but right there alongside the go-to sites for game reviews. And that is not only a personal victory but a win for the whole community. The simple fact that developers and studios do care about accessibility, they do value the work of our community, and they want to score highly in our reviews, so much so that they include it in their launch accolades commercial! What a time to be alive!

And I’m not the only one that feels this way:

I began writing about video game accessibility to educate and inform. I rarely heard about other disabled players, and articles featuring the disability community would be treated as niche pieces. To see video game developers take such an interest in Can I Play That?, and to see disabled voices being recognized is positively astounding. No longer are the disabled being treated as outcasts in the gaming world. Seeing Can I Play That? alongside IGN, GameSpot, and Game Informer is proof that the industry finally acknowledges and appreciates us, accommodations and all.

Grant Stoner

On a personal level, this success and recognition is bittersweet. I spent nearly five years working behind the scenes while Susan was a force in the game industry. She spent every day on social media advocating, encouraging game devs to do better, helping other members of our community, so much so that her passion made its way into talks given at conferences. Everything The Coalition included in Gears 5 is what she’d been working so tirelessly for. So the fact that she’s not here to experience the joy of seeing all of that finally pay off, to know that it wasn’t for naught, as much as I’m grateful to have been able to successfully continue what she started, it stings a bit. But I have no doubt that she would be simply over the moon to see just how much has changed in the industry even in the seven months she’s been gone.

The #a11y community is an incredible one and we do important and exhausting work every day. While I have no doubt that with leaders like Cherry Thompson and Ian Hamilton (to name but a few of the many) in our community we would eventually have taken accessibility mainstream, for lack of a better phrase, the morale (and readership) boost Can I Play That? got by being valued and appreciated by The Coalition and Microsoft has helped to put accessibility on the map, not as a special interest or a niche thing, but simply as the future of gaming.

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Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com

Courtney Craven

Co-founder and EIC of Can I Play That?, captioner of many things, occasional writer of fiction. Any pronouns. courtney@caniplaythat.com

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