When it comes to futuristic gaming tech, I am a big fan of Virtual Reality gaming. I bought an early Oculus Rift dev kit back in the day, I own a PSVR headset, I have the stand alone Oculus Quest headset, and was an early adopter of the HTC Vive. It’s safe to say, I am really interested in VR tech as a way to interact with games.
However, I recognise that I am really lucky to be able to play most VR games that release, in the manner they’re meant to be played. I can clear myself a space in the living room for room scale play, I can see in 3D, I am able to comfortably move around a 3D space, and I can stand up, sit down, crouch, or switch between these positions at a moment’s notice. I have use of both of my hands, I have decent mobility in my fingers, and I can interpret 3D audio in a pair of headphones and understand where it’s meant to be coming from.
VR gaming technology is fascinating and amazing, but it’s also often limited in who can engage with it. There are elements of VR game design that have become fairly fundamental parts of the experience, and many of them limit who can play certain games.
So, we’re going to talk today about what aspects of VR games limit certain gamers from playing, and why VR accessibility is such a tough issue to fix.
So, let’s start right at the top. I have fairly even vision between both my eyes, and as such can perceive depth reasonably well. For players who may have significant weakness in one eye, or only have the use of one of their eyes, VR games are often still technically playable, but may lack a sense of depth. While this isn’t an issue in all video games, a lot of VR games play around with depth perception as a gameplay mechanic because it’s a core part of what VR tech can do. From trying to catch things thrown to you with your real world hands, to throwing an item into a gap, often VR games assume you can perceive depth, and set up gameplay mechanics accordingly.
Beyond that, because most modern VR headsets come with motion controls available as a standard, most VR games are designed around two handed motion controls. There are some exceptions to this, the wonderful music rhythm game Tetris Effect springs to mind, but most big name VR titles focus on two handed motion controls with no alternatives. We’re talking games like Beat Saber, SuperHot VR, or Pistol Whip for example, you need to be able to reliably swing your arms around in multiple directions, on short notice, with no alternative playstyle.
And I mean, I get it. Moving your hands in the real world to interact with a video game, if you are able to do it, feels incredibly satisfying. These are experiences built around how cool it is to move your hands around in 3D space. The issue is, most of these games are so fundamentally designed around this idea that there is literally no way to change it. A really high percentage of VR titles are designed to be fundamentally motion controlled experiences, and that’s just a reality of how people design for the platform.
Furthermore, a lot of VR games require players to frequently switch between seated and standing positions. You might have to physically duck down and look under a virtual desk, or stand up to get the right viewing angle to see that final person you need to shoot. While some VR games allow you to set your default player height, so that someone seated isn’t positioned in a world that is too large to interact with, they usually don’t have methods in place for players to duck down or raise up without doing so physically.
So, what can we do to help players with disabilities play more VR games? Well, let’s look at some games that are already accessible to disabled players, and some steps being taken to make more games work for more people.
First up, I want to talk about a program called WalkinVR. WalkinVR is a driver which can be installed on PC, and works with most of the current PC VR headsets. The driver allows players a variety of options, which can work around limitations they may face in VR games.
Players can get a friend to assist them using an Xbox controller, mapping walking in 3D space to an analogue stick rather than real world walking movements. Players who are wheelchair users or bedbound, and may not be in a position to switch between being seated, standing, prone, and crouching, can use button holds and motion to switch between these positions. Players who may not have a full range of movement in their arms can use button holds and motions to move the virtual controller further than they can personally reach, and the software even supports using a Kinect camera to allow players who may struggle to hold controllers to instead use their hands as controllers.
On the topic of allowing players to use their hands rather than controllers to play, the Oculus Quest headset recently allowed players to do the same, controlling video games with their hands rather than controllers, without the need for additional cameras. The cameras on the headset that track position can also track your hands.
Beyond WalkinVR, and the Oculus Headset’s built in hand tracking support, let’s talk about some things that games are already doing to help disabled players engage with VR.
Earlier in this video, I discussed the fact that Tetris Effect is entirely playable sat down in a static position, without motion controls. The game still makes amazing use of the immersive nature of VR, but doesn’t default to involving motion controls in that experience. I am certainly not saying VR games can’t make use of motion controls, but it would be great if we saw a wider number produced that worked without motion. Games like Pixel Rift for example makes great use of inhabiting a physical space, without being based heavily around motion.
Games like The Persistance address another issue often not tackled in VR games, by providing on screen visual prompts for audio cues. Not every VR gamer will be able to hear where an in game sound came from, and just like other forms of video game, visual indicators make games more accessible to deaf or hard of hearing players. We recently did a whole episode about hard of hearing and deaf player support, which you can find linked in the description below.
Lastly, i would love to see VR games, as a standard, adopt options for players to teleport at will around environments, and to pick up things that are not in reach. Let players point at a location, and simply jump there. Let players point at an object they can’t quite reach, and just magnetise it to their hand a little. Allow as much movement and collection of items from an environment to be done with limited movement or reach.
As I said at the start of this video, VR gaming has a long way to go to be accessible. There are wonderful people making unofficial tools to help games become more playable, but many of the issues with the technology have become rooted in how VR developers feel a VR game should be played.
The medium has a long way to go, but we’re making slow, steady, eventual progress.