Meet the Disability Consultant Making Games More Accessible
Gaming is a huge part of accessibility activist Poppy Field’s life — but, growing up, she didn’t feel like it was a space meant for her.
“I sadly grew up under the impression gaming isn’t for people like me,” she told POPSUGAR Australia. “There was definitely a lack of representation. Gaming didn’t feel welcoming to those with femininity. Then adding in my physical and cognitive disabilities, it became something I thought I wasn’t allowed to do.”
Poppy was first introduced to games by her dad. She played classic arcade and shooter games, before the family purchased a second-hand PC with old-school CD ROM games to play. But it wasn’t until Poppy shared a Nintendo DS with her two siblings that she fell in love with games.
Poppy loved playing Mario Kart, Super Mario Bros, Animal Crossing: Wild World and Professor Layton, but as time went on, she realised a lot of games were challenging for all the wrong reasons.
“As part of my disabilities, I experience hand pain, migraines, as well as sensory, processing and mobility issues, which limited what I could do,” Poppy said. “It was heart-breaking at first. I could have easily just said gaming wasn’t for me. But my curiosity kept me going.”
When there was a level she couldn’t beat, Poppy would often ask her siblings for help — much to her frustration.
“It sucked. Not being able to game and knowing it’s not your fault is a demeaning experience. It takes a lot not to internalise yourself as the problem. It can have a big impact on your self-esteem, too.”
As someone who is also neurodivergent, Poppy says it took her a while to learn the language of games — that is, things that game developers already assume players know.
“It made me realise games should be made with us in mind. I stopped seeing myself as the problem when a game didn’t work for me. We are not the problem: the game is.”
Poppy was first introduced to the concept of accessible gaming in 2016 when she played the first Uncharted game, which lets you adjust things like the control mapping, the difficulty in between missions and the number of hints you see.
“I was overjoyed by the customisation available,” she said. “These settings weren’t intended for accessibility, but it was enough to kickstart my passion. I experienced so much joy being able to play around with the settings. Just having the choice was such a breakthrough moment.”
“I started to realise that other games could — and should — have options like this too. I realised that maybe with settings like this, I could play games without worrying about needing help from others.”
Put simply, accessible gaming is the ability to customise and tailor your game experience based on your needs. But accessibility isn’t just for people with disability.
“Accessibility benefits and enhances everyone’s experiences,” Poppy said.
“It’s also crucial for the inclusion of disabled people. And when you consider that 15-20 per cent of paying customers are disabled, if game companies want our money, they need to value accessibility.”
Things that can help games become more accessible include providing: full and customisable captions, audio descriptions and text-to-speech options, contrast adjustments, adjustable audio (including music and sound effects), remapping controls, prompts (especially traversal and navigational prompts), clear navigation, cues and the option to skip puzzles. Heads-up displays and invincibility options can also help.
Slowly, games are becoming more accessible with the help of accessibility consultants like Poppy who have a lived experience of disability. The Last of Us Part 2, for example, has 60 accessibility options, including handy pre-sets for gamers with low vision, difficulty hearing and difficulty with mobility.
“When The Last of Us Part 2 came out, I think people finally twigged onto what accessibility in gaming can look like.”
“I was fortunate enough to sit in on production of the game for a week with my partner, who consulted on its accessibility as a blind person. I spent the entire week in awe. I had never seen a game so considerate of so many disabilities.”
“It has modes for navigation and traversal assistance, cues, puzzle skips, auto pick up, dodge prompts, vibration cues, enhanced listening modes, slow motion in combat, subtitles, text to speech, removing gore and so much more.”
“There is also an option for high contrast, which removes environmental distractions and separates allies and enemies into bold colours. The original purpose of this was for low vision, but I use it for my cognitive and sensory disabilities.”
“That’s the cool thing about having choice with accessibility: you can make it work for you!”
Poppy’s first project as an accessibility consultant was with PlayStation for their 2019 game Dreams.
“My favourite part of this game is the cognitive accessibility, such as prompts. I struggle with processing and memory issues, and small adjustments like prompts, settings to lower the requirements of reactions and low-pressure modes make a huge difference in whether I can play a game.”
“It was a huge turning point for me. I realised there was space for me in the gaming world. It was so cool to be a tiny piece in such a huge production, and hopefully provide important life experience to make their game better.”
Poppy also works a lot with indie game developers. And while they don’t have a big budget like larger studios, Poppy says their growing commitment to accessibility is impressive.
“They prove that you don’t need a huge budget to make a game accessible — you just need people who care, and who see it as non-optional. Accessibility doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you treat it as necessary from the start.”
For gamers looking for accessibility, Poppy’s top picks are Celeste, Hades, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Hyperdot, Grounded and Fortnite. She recommends Moving Out and It Takes Two for playing with friends. She also suggests checking out games on Xbox’s Cloud Gaming as a way to try games without buying, so you can see what games work for you.
“Accessibility is absolutely the future,” Poppy says.
“I don’t think game developers have a choice. Disabled Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X gamers aren’t going to suddenly stop when we’re too old — we’re going to demand more accessibility, so game developers need to keep up with this demand.”
Zoe Simmons is an award-winning journalist and avid gamer. When not writing articles, you can find her running her copywriting and editing business, advocating for mental health and chronic pain, and writing her first book on the Black Summer Bushfires. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for more.