I press record, put my phone to one side, return to the Zoom call on my laptop, and begin to ask my first question, ‘Uh, so…’
I’m interrupted by the appearance of a tail in the corner of the screen.
‘Oh, hello!’ says Kelly.
‘Oh, he’s here,’ says Geoffrey, in a rather different tone. His cat has joined us. The cat continues to whip Geoffrey in the face with his tail and disrupt the beginning of the interview. ‘Oh, no, not in the glass!’
‘Who is that?’ I laugh with delight.
‘That was my cat, who can’t bear to be away from me for a second,’ says Geoffrey. ‘He’s on the desk at the moment, chasing mosquitos.’
Kelly interjects, ‘I should warn you, if there is a cat I will compulsively talk to it. I’ll try not to!’
‘I don’t think he minds. He’s fourteen, and deaf. I don’t think he’ll actually be able to hear you, but you can try!”
‘Bless him,’ I say. ‘What’s his name?’
‘His name is Mitsi.’
‘Mitsi! Very good.’
‘I didn’t name him. My mother named him thinking he was a girl, but he’s not.’
And so commenced our slightly chaotic but extremely informative interview with Kelly Marine and Geoffrey Bunting, a pair of disabled gamers that I’d sought out to ask about their experiences of gaming in 2020. Little did I expect then (distracted as I was by Mitsi) that I was about to host a discussion that would not only educate me more about gaming as a disabled person, but also considerably alter my perspective on the current state of the gaming world.
What is your experience of disability?
I’ve always enjoyed video games, but when I was younger I couldn’t help but feel that they weren’t for me. I was gay, trying to play in a competitive culture that often used homophobic insults. My family struggled financially, so I dared not ask my parents to pay out hundreds of pounds for an up-to-date console and a stack of Triple-A titles. Mentally, I struggled to play, but I didn’t know why. I grew used to watching gamers on YouTube and Twitch because it was such a challenge for me to play games myself. I spectated games, admiring them from afar.
It was while studying at university that I discovered I have dyslexia and dyspraxia. I never had any idea until then that I’d found playing games difficult because I had specific learning difficulties. When I realised that I’d been facing cognitive issues while gaming my whole life, and that this put me at odds with the wider gaming culture, I started becoming increasingly interested in the social inequalities that exist within the gaming industry. If anything, my fascination with video games grew to new heights as I questioned how the industry handled representation and equality.
When I reached out to Kelly and Geoffrey, I did so with a strong desire to interview disabled gamers who are also keen about accessibility issues in the gaming industry. Additionally, I wanted to ask them about 2020, a year that saw gaming revolutionised once more with the releases of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. These rivaling next-generation consoles are loaded with new features and exciting games, but also major accessibility issues that have caused recent uproar within the disabled gaming community.
As it turns out, Kelly is quite the expert about accessibility in gaming. She works as an accessibility specialist for Haunted Bees Productions, the game studio behind recent releases Blockara and Crop Drop. She’s also multiply disabled, physically and mentally. ‘Most are the “invisible” sort,’ she tells me via email. ‘They interact with one another and affect gaming differently… I’d say that I’ve been using games to “escape” from my body all my life, but I didn’t really realise that was the appeal for me for a long time, in the same way that I didn’t always know I was disabled.’ Her issues leave her feeling estranged from gaming culture in general; she can get overwhelmed easily, struggles to keep up with complex control schemes, relies on a lot of custom control setups, and isn’t competitive.
When I talk to Geoffrey – a freelance book designer – he also identifies gaming as an important part of his life as a disabled person. ‘I have chronic migraines, chronic fatigue, and chronic pain,’ he tells me. ‘I struggle with passive watching (watching TV, for instance) as I’m too restless, and gaming provides a passive, low-impact thing to do that I can also have an active part in.’ However, he often struggles playing games. ‘With daily headaches I have a lot of issues with my sight and movement, especially in more recent games that just keep getting darker and with more contrast. I also have issues with reactions – due to cognitive issues – so things like QuickTime events and some precise games are very difficult for me.’
After a few days of trying to schedule a Zoom call for the three of us, I’ve organised the interview. In that time, I’ve also talked to Emily (our Editor in Chief) and Sam (our Arts and Culture Editor), eagerly discussing the conversations I’d already had with Kelly and Geoffrey. Intrigued from what we’d heard so far, we decided to run a poll on dubble’s Instagram to see if we could find out even more about the experiences of disabled gamers in 2020.
With the interview over and responses in, here I’ll compare the answers of our readers to those of our interviewees. The results are fascinating.
What is your games console of preference, and why?
‘Uh, so, I’ve already asked you both about your experience of disability,’ I say, referring to our emails. I’m restarting the interview now that Mitsi seems to have settled down. I have my first question ready in front of me, scrawled out on a piece of notepaper. ‘Just going on from that,’ I continue, ‘I was wondering what your consoles of preference are? Why have you chosen those consoles?’
Geoffrey has a thick, dark beard that he scratches in thought. ‘I don’t really have a preference,’ he eventually admits. ‘For the past few generations–‘ He pushes his cat from his face. ‘Uh, for the past few generations I’ve had a PlayStation. Not necessarily a kind of preference, just what I had and you get used to it.’
Geoffrey pauses for a moment, looking to one side. ‘I’m going to put him on the floor. Silly thing.’
I laugh as Geoffrey snatches Mitsi from the desk. The cat’s tail vanishes from sight.
He clears his throat before continuing, ‘Sorry, but yes, when I was growing up it was very much Nintendo, which I think is mostly due to the market share they had. They were pretty much the biggest games company of the time and obviously they’ve been overtaken in the last fifteen years. I did kind of have a brief foray into the Xbox but I didn’t quite enjoy it in the same way I do with PlayStation. This was before when I was ill and disabled. I didn’t really like the feel of everything. I quite liked the design of the PlayStation in terms of literally the controller and stuff, so.’
But Kelly doesn’t seem convinced. ‘That’s funny,’ she says, ‘I’m the exact opposite.’
Geoffrey raises his eyebrows.
‘Yeah, I don’t really have a preference, other than, you know, I go where the games are,’ Kelly goes on. ‘I used to have a wider range, but that was when I was slightly more capable. People have asked me that, and I would say, ‘Well I own a Virtual Boy, does that tell you anything?’ I like to play Virtual Boy Wario Land on it once a year. So, I will own hardware, any kind of hardware, if there is a game that I want to play. But as time goes on I find that I have this custom controller setup that works best on PC and Xbox, and Sony just really does not want you to use third-party controllers. They want their controllers to conform to the Sony controller as much as possible. I have a huge problem with the Sony controller, actually.’
I lean in closer to the laptop, absorbed by the conversation. In case you missed it, last November I discussed whether excitement for the PlayStation 5 undermined accessibility issues with its controller, the DualSense. Kelly’s depiction of Sony is accurate. PS5 games are not compatible with the DualShock 4 or any PlayStation officially licensed third-party gamepad controllers, leaving disabled gamers with little or no choice but to use the DualSense controller. For this reason, Kelly plays most often on the PC and Xbox, where she can use her custom controller.
‘It has more buttons in places that are comfortable for me to press,’ she says. ‘On the back of the controller primarily is where I do most of my gaming, because I have trouble reaching my thumbs across. The left thumb stick being right, as on the Xbox, is a resting position for me. I spent a lot of money on a controller that feels as much like the Xbox controller as possible and has buttons on the back. But it’s stiffer, so even with that one I have more trouble than with the Xbox controller. So, if given a choice, I’ll usually go with the PC or Xbox version.’
She smiles lightly. ‘That, and the Xbox’s been pretty good about backwards compatibility,’ she continues. ‘Sony’s a little hit or miss, but they do have more games that are unique to their platform. I’m going to end up with both of them but right now I’m grumpy because everybody’s talking about the new PlayStation controller like it’s got this crazy rumble in it.’
She refers to the DualSense’s haptic feedback, a rumble feature incorporated in the controller that is designed to move realistically in accordance to an activity the player is involved with in-game, such as travelling on a horseback or punching up an enemy. When this feature was initially announced, it faced backlash from disabled gamers because rumbles have serious potential to disrupt gameplay for people with a variety of disabilities. Sony later revealed in a blog post that the feature could be turned off.
‘All I can think about is like, “Well, if you can turn it off why is it making it mandatory?”’ says Kelly. ‘I spent hundreds of dollars on a setup to allow myself to play Sony games without pain. And they just said, “Well, you just can’t use them anymore for an arbitrary reason because we want you to buy and talk about the new one.”’
‘I’m not one-hundred percent sure what you’re supposed to get with the new PlayStation 5 controller,’ says Geoffrey. ‘I was very lucky that I somehow managed to get a PlayStation 5, but–‘
‘Oh, did you?’ Kelly asks.
‘Yeah!’ he says. ‘Obviously the big thing has been, ‘Oh, haptic feedback!’ I’ve no idea what that means in terms of what I’m doing.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ says Kelly. ‘When they announced resistive triggers I was like, ‘I don’t need the triggers to fight me! I don’t care how immersive it is!’’
Geoffrey laughs in agreement. ‘Yeah, that’s really uncomfortable!’
Resistive (or adaptive) triggers are another feature of the DualSense that have caused concern among disabled gamers. Though they are also a feature that can be turned off, the triggers themselves are more resistant than those on the DualShock 4 controller.
‘So it’s like, yeah,’ Kelly continues, adjusting her glasses, ‘I’m going to have difficulty? I don’t need that, actually. Making me pull back the drawstring on a bow over and over again. Then you really feel the tension. Like, great! You really feel me only being able to play for four minutes at a time, I guess.’
‘I mean, I think if I wanted to feel the tension I would do it in real life,’ says Geoffrey. ‘Get a bow and do it.’
Kelly laughs. ‘Yeah! I just find it distracting that, granted, it can be physically painful for me and it can set off my nerve issues, even. So I tend to turn the rumble off. It’s just a fancy rumble.’
Though Kelly said that she’d own any kind of hardware to play her favourite games, I can tell that inaccessible hardware enrages her. Moreover, a lot of her frustration at Sony appears to come from not being able to access titles unique to the PlayStation 5 because of its controller settings and the DualSense. I understand her anger, especially considering that Sony games won the most Game of the Year awards in 2020. It baffles me that the console with the best games last year also has the most accessibility flaws surrounding its controller.
‘I’m really grumpy about it,’ Kelly complains, ‘because you can open up PS4 Remote Play and play your PlayStation 5 through your PlayStation 4 using a PlayStation 4 controller, and it works just fine. There’s lag, of course, and that’s an absurd series of steps to go through, but it proves that everything would be totally playable on the controller I’ve got.’
Perhaps just as interesting, however, are the results of our Instagram poll. When we asked our readers for their favourite console, the most popular answer wasn’t the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X, but the Nintendo Switch. This surprised me, seeing as the console has such mixed reviews for accessibility in the media. However, it is widely recognised that the Nintendo Switch’s adaptability makes it a good option for many disabled gamers. One of our readers said they liked the Switch because of its lightweight, detachable joy-cons, which allows them to position their arms comfortably while gaming.
Have you ever encountered accessibility issues with your console that affect your ability to play?
While Kelly continues to complain about the DualSense, I realise that she’s been answering my next question before I’ve even asked it. I listen on in excitement, fascinated when she shows me her custom controller, demonstrating how it works. She describes the benefits of its design and various triggers and buttons.
‘It’s just so good that I’m spoiled,’ she then admits, having put the controller down. ‘It seems like… I understand why they wouldn’t let you use it on a competing platform but… I’ll stop talking about this. I’m just so grumpy about it.’
Almost immediately, she resumes, ‘It’s like, a whole new generation of hardware and they’re pretending you have to do it. It’s like no, I remember buying an Xbox One and they said I have to use the Kinect and there’s nothing they can do about it and it’s baked into the system and then, a year later, they’ve just patched it all out. It’s like, don’t pretend like there’s nothing you can do about it! Just say you want to sell more controllers. Say it’s better with the new controller, that’s all you have to say.’
After a little while, I turn to Geoffrey. ‘Have you found any accessibility issues with consoles or controllers in the past?’
‘Not especially, no,’ he says. ‘My issues with games tend to be more visual and auditory rather than physical.’
However, he tells me that though the PlayStation may be the console he’s played on generation after generation, he’s not had a great time with the PlayStation 5. Like many others, he’s also struggled to get used to the DualSense, mostly because it’s significantly larger and heavier than the DualShock 4. Additionally, he has issues with its buttons.
‘I’ve been playing Demon’s Souls a lot recently, which is perfect for me as someone who can’t track movement very well,’ he says ironically, ‘a game that completely relies on you tracking movement. If you use a bow in that game, it gets steadily more difficult to draw back the trigger on the control as you go forward. I don’t need to see my character getting tired and then feel it myself.’
‘You can turn that off, by the way,’ says Kelly. ‘They’re not making a big deal about it. If you go into the system options you can turn off the adaptive triggers.’
‘I’m sure I can, it’s just–‘ He pauses. ‘Generally, I sit down to play a game for about fifteen minutes. I don’t want to spend a couple of minutes going into the settings menu.’
I struggle to understand how Geoffrey can handle the DualSense without becoming infuriated. I’ve gathered that he doesn’t suffer with physical issues, unlike Kelly, but the controller still disrupts his gameplay. While I can accept that changing the DualSense settings would eat up his playtime, I still don’t see why he hadn’t yet taken a few minutes to alter the controller’s settings and improve his experience. I don’t see why he puts up with the DualSense working against him. Then I realise: Geoffrey is so accustomed to getting used to inaccessible controllers.
‘I mean, the bulk of my gaming when I was younger was with a Nintendo 64, which was the most bizarre controller.’
‘But you get used to it,’ Kelly suggests.
Kelly and Geoffrey are now discussing the ridiculousness of the Nintendo 64 controller, with its awkwardly placed joystick, it’s useless D-pad, and alien ‘M’ shape design.
‘You need, like, three hands to use that one,’ says Geoffrey.
I think back on controllers from the last couple of decades, and suddenly realise that those we use today are much more accessible than those of the past. It’s true that the DualSense is flawed, but only minorly when compared to the likes of the Nintendo 64 controller.
‘I’ll tell you, though; the Wii is when I started going, ‘Uh, oh!’’ says Kelly. ‘When the Wii came out, it was a cool idea if you could move your arms a lot, which I couldn’t, even back then.’
Kelly tells us that she was in major surgery around the time of the release of the Nintendo Wii console. Her friend lent her his Wii to play in hospital but it only led Kelly to despair: she couldn’t use it. ‘I remember feeling like, well, this feels like a peek into my future! If video games go down this path, and stay going down it,’ she says. ‘Luckily, it turned out to be kind of an evolutionary deadend, motion controls for video games.’
As Kelly and Geoffrey continue to discuss inaccessible controllers of the past, the pair begin to illustrate how the standardisation of such controllers have led to accessibility issues we see in controllers today. Although we are fortunate to have a recognisable standard gaming controller, its treatment from the gaming industry means that controls have become just as inaccessible as they’ve ever been.
‘Modern games are so complicated now that you can use all the buttons if you want,’ Kelly explains. ‘I tried to play that new Spider-Man game and I couldn’t, because you had to like hold the left trigger while pressing X and B at the same time while moving the camera with the right thumb stick and I’m just, like– I don’t know how anyone has enough thumbs!’
‘I think it has got better,’ says Geoffrey, comparing controllers of the 90s to those of today, ‘but it’s almost got so standardised that there’s no improvement, because it’s all the same now.’
‘It says volumes that the new Xbox controller is exactly the same in layout as the previous one, with an additional button for sharing, and it’s otherwise identical,’ Kelly adds. ‘That says a lot about how, yes, they’re standardised, but in terms of the things they’re expecting you to do with the controller? That just keeps on getting more and more complex. So instead of just remembering fourteen different buttons, it’s that holding the button might do something different than pressing the button.’
Complex control schemes in modern games only make controllers like the DualSense even harder to use, and there is irony in the fact that the standard gaming controller has enabled more complex control schemes. Suddenly, I see why Geoffrey hasn’t made much fuss about the DualSense adaptive triggers. Even if Geoffrey altered the DualSense settings, he would still struggle to play Demon’s Souls because of its complexity. I also begin to see the DualSense, with its fancy new features, as somewhat the embodiment of the gaming industry’s approach to gaming in 2020: creating complex, immersive gameplay for their non-disabled fans rather than suitably addressing accessibility issues.
In our Instagram poll, two in three people told us that they had encountered accessibility issues with a console or it’s controller that affected their ability to play games. Most of those who had come across issues struggled with their controller, whether that be because its size, weight, buttons, or joysticks. ‘I simply cannot hold the controller for more than 2-3 minutes,’ said one user.
In the second part of this interview, we’ll move away from companies, consoles, and controllers and turn our conversation to the latest games. I discover even more about the experiences of disabled gamers as we discuss disability narratives in Triple-A and Indie titles, cover some of the best and worst games for accessibility in 2020, and get into the importance of options. What’s more, I share further results from our Instagram poll and come to a startling conclusion when Kelly and Geoffrey tell me their one hope for the gaming world in 2021.
This is part of a monthly column looking at disability, accessibility, and visibility in gaming. Check out the previous articles here!