Emulation is a form of accessibility, that much is a fact, but it’s one that’s often difficult to discuss, because conversations about video game emulation often, if not always, devolve into discussions of the moral arguments for, or against, software pircacy.
For most gamers without disabilities, the only reasons to engage in software emulation are either to avoid paying for software, to gain access to improved features and quality, or to have the convenience of playing their software on more devices than are officially supported, and usually that’s the end of the discussion.
Price, quality, or convenience.
However, for many disabled gamers, being able to play video games via emulators is a matter of accessibility, and making sure that games are playable that otherwise might not be playable at all.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about video game emulation, and its role in making video games more accessible. We’re going to talk about some of the hardware options that emulation offers up to disabled players, some of the software accessibility options offered by emulators, and how game developers and console manufacturers could learn to be more accessible by looking to the emulator scene for ideas.
Let’s start off by talking about one of the most obvious accessibility advantages to emulation, hardware flexibility.
When playing a video game on original hardware, there’s usually several hardware based limitations that can impact a game’s playability, namely input device selection, and output screen options.
Most video game consoles released since our industry’s inception have had one standardised controller option that they officially support, and a series of aftermarket clones that attempt to mimic the core design of the base controller.
If you’re playing a gamecube game on original hardware, you need to use a gamecube controller. If you’re playing a PlayStation 3 game on original hardware, you need to use a PS3 controller. Handheld systems are even more limited, lacking aftermarket controllers as their controls are built into the device, as are their screens which are often small and low resolution.
For disabled players who experience pain when using controllers that are held together in front of them, split controllers like the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons might cause less pain when gaming. For some disabled gamers an accessibility controller such as the Xbox Adaptive Controller is vital for their ability to play games. For some low vision blind players, having a larger screen set at a higher resolution may make the difference as to whether or not a handheld game is playable for them or not.
Where original hardware may not support these more accessible controllers, or be able to be output at increased resolutions to larger external screens, emulation offers these altered input and output options, which can make gaming more comfortable, more feasible, or visible for disabled players than original hardware would support.
A disabled player may for example not be able to comfortably hold a 3DS with both hands, and see details on its small screen, but may be able to play 3DS games upscaled to 1080p, on a TV, and controlled with an adaptive controller instead.
Outside of discussions of input and output hardware, a lot of disabled gamers who make use of emulators do so for their software level support features. Outside of the aforementioned upscaling of resolutions for low vision players, most emulators feature a multitude of settings that can help to make games more functionally playable for disabled gamers.
As we’ve discussed in a previous video on this channel, Save States are a common feature of emulators, allowing players to save an exact copy of their current location and progress in a video game at any time, and quickly reload it without penalty.
Save States can be useful for gamers with motor control disabilities who may hit progression blocks in a game that they struggle to get past during an otherwise manageable experience, but they’re also useful for groups of disabled gamers such as those with ADHD, who may lose focus on a video game if they run out of lives and have to spend time backtracking just to keep retrying the singular challenge they’re stuck on.
Additionally, for disabled gamers who may struggle to make progress through video games as quickly or as accurately as they’re expected to be able to, features such as the ability to rewind gameplay a few seconds to an earlier state, or slow down game speed temporarily, can be invaluable.
For gamers with conditions such as ADHD, the ability to play games at higher than their original speed can help to avoid losing focus when doing things like backtracking, or when repetitively grinding levels in an RPG to build up toward progress.
For gamers with conditions such as chronic motion sickness, or players prone to migraines, emulators sometimes offer specific functionality for specific games that isn’t available on original hardware, such as the Dolphin based PrimeHack for Metroid Prime, which allows those players to increase that game’s Field of View to help alleviate those conditions.
This also leads onto another part of this discussion, the ease of implementing cheats, mods, and hacks into games on emulators, compared to trying to do so on original hardware.
When playing games through emulators, players often have access to player created rom hacks, mods, cheat engines, and other alterations designed to allow for customisable experiences, ranging from tweaked difficulty all the way through to altered abilities and game rules that can help a disabled player better navigate a video game they might not otherwise be able to play.
Beyond that, sometimes it’s just simple things, such as PC emulated games being easier to share footage of, in real time, with a friend over video call, so that they can help you through a colour based puzzle if you’re colourblind, or help to talk you through a tricky section remotely, something that’s much harder to do with original hardware for the average user.
Now, I am not unaware of the fact that video game emulation is inherently intertwined with piracy, and that the two will always, to lesser or greater degrees, go hand in hand. However, as much as I understand game developers in some cases wanting a world without emulation as a desirable end goal, I think it’s important to note that it does have legitimate uses, and for some gamers is the only way that certain games will ever be accessible.
So, what can game developers do to support disabled gamers who currently rely on emulation? Well, they could look toward what emulators are currently offering, and try to match that where possible.
Could your game support save states, as many official emulators such as those found on Nintendo Switch Online offer?
Could you implement a speed up or slow down game speed mechanic like the video game Celeste does?
Could you allow for rewinding gameplay, like Forza Horizon does?
Could you as a console manufacturer implement support for controllers designed by other companies, which Nintendo apparently wanted to achieve a few years ago with a multiplatform accessibility controller?
Can you release a port of your game on PC with upscaled visual options, rather than making your game exclusive to a handheld platform?
Emulation offers an experience that, by and large, is not being offered by mainstream console manufacturers and game developers, and it is important to recognise that, for many, emulators are the only way that certain games end up being playable at all.