As a gamer with ADHD, who often plays games while multitasking other media, I am personally a big fan of handheld game consoles. From the ability to play while travelling outside the house, to shiny hunting on a second screen while watching TV, I really appreciate portable gaming’s place in the industry.

However, portable gaming is not as accessible as other forms of gaming for users with a variety of disabilities, and many of the issues start at the design stage for these kinds of handhelds.

So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about handheld console accessibility. We’re going to talk about some of the issues which can make handhelds difficult to play, potential solutions to these problems, and reasons some of these issues may persist for a while to come.

Just by the very nature of handheld consoles being portable, it’s an unavoidable fact that they are going to have smaller screens than your home TV setup for PC or Console gaming. Smaller screens can be more difficult for blind or partially sighted gamers to make out details on, which is often not helped by the resolution of those screens, or games running on those platforms. Many games, to be able to run on a handheld, have to make sacrifices to graphical detail, and as a result are more difficult to make out detail in.

While there will always be a limit to reasonable handheld console screen sizes, there are some things we can do to help with this. Making sure your handheld console has support for a system level screen magnifier, so users can zoom in on smaller details, helps, and game developers ensuring they include options settings to change font and UI size helps too. Additionally, settings such as High Contrast Mode seen in Sony first party titles would likely help a lot for games on smaller screens. Lastly, console manufacturers producing larger screen variants of their handhelds helps, as Nintendo did with the DS and 3DS console family.

Secondly, unless we’re talking about mobile phone games played vertically, most handheld gaming consoles require two hands to comfortably hold and operate. 16:9 widescreen format becoming the standard for games has necessitated modern handhelds moving towards a horizontal form factor, usually with controls physically spread apart on opposite sides of the screen. This places controller inputs further away from each other than they would be on a controller, with any attempts to stretch between them causing a hand to be placed over the screen. Many gamers who can use a single hand to operate a modern console controller cannot do the same with a rigid static handheld.

Handheld consoles also typically hand rigid input layouts, unable to be altered. With home consoles or a PC players can customise their layout with third party controllers or accessibility focused peripherals.

One handheld console that somewhat mitigates these issues is the Nintendo Switch, due to the fact it’s controllers are detachable and can be switched out. This allows players to swap in larger controllers if those are easier to hold, or controllers with additional buttons in different locations, or controllers with their sticks differently located for example.

Additionally, the Switch allows players to place the console on a table, and use their controllers wirelessly. This allows players who can use a standard controller one handed to place it on the table and play their games while travelling.

Beyond that, most modern gaming handhelds are heavy, compared to traditional controllers, due to their having to contain the console and screen as well as the controls themselves. This can be an issue for gamers with poor strength in their hands, or chronic pain exacerbated by pressure.

This is more of an issue with some handhelds than others, and largely depends on how the manufacturer has tried to balance portability with performance. The Nintendo Switch is not as light as some handhelds of the past, but is apparently considerably lighter than the upcoming Steam Deck. Again, the Nintendo Switch being able to be placed on a table using its kickstand mitigates this a little, but that formfactor isn’t always convenient, and as such having a kickstand and detachable controllers isn’t a substitute for considering handheld weight entirely.

This is a balancing act, and will continue to be as handheld manufacturers try to balance portable performance, but it is something I hope to see kept as a consideration for portable handhelds.

While some modern handhelds have started to adopt rumble as a standard, historically the functionality has not been a part of handheld gaming. This may not seem like a big deal, but for many gamers with disabilities physical cues are easier to follow than audio or visual cues. As such, the move towards their inclusion in handhelds has been a positive for accessibility.

Lastly, I want to take some time to look at Nintendo’s approach in the past to handheld form factor redesigns. Several Nintendo handhelds have, during their life spans, had redesigns which made them more accessible to hold for disabled gamers. The Gameboy Advance SP moved all of the handheld’s buttons much closer together, able to be pressed one handed without stretching over the screen, and with a smaller less wide form factor. The DS XL was easier to hold for many people with fine motor control issues, and the 2DS, with it’s single wedge design, was easier for many gamers with coordination disabilities to comfortably hold.

While many of these issues with handheld design are likely to stick around for a while, it’s important we talk about them, and keep them considered when talking about handheld consoles. Many non disabled gamers have different priorities in a handheld compared to disabled gamers, and it’s important we balance everyone’s needs when looking towards the future of handheld consoles, to ensure they are as accessible as possible, for as many gamers as possible.

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