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Video game creators are working to make games more accessible for disabled people

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I'm going to be honest with y'all. When I'm not working, I do like to try to relax and zone out, and just game.

OK, wait, wait.

I do it on the weekends with my kids.

Hey, oh my...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I won, I won, I won, I won.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

And at night, after I put the kids to bed, I fire up the Nintendo Switch.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME STARTING)

RASCOE: And it's just me and Princess Peach.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: On the case.

RASCOE: Oh, my goodness.

In the game, we're in this theater that's been taken over by these bad dark entities, and she's using her power, the power of sparkle, to fight the bad guys and make the world a little bit brighter.

I don't know about that one. That was tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: I love it. And I'm not alone. Video games are a national pastime. One report estimated that 65% of Americans play video games. But for a long time, there was a whole part of the population that couldn't easily play video games - people with disabilities. That's starting to change, as NPR's The Indicator podcast has reported. Indicator co-host Wailin Wong joins us now.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Thank you so much. Have you gotten to Sherlock Princess Peach? Oh, it's so cute.

RASCOE: No, I love, you know, the ninja, where she hides behind the wall to blend in, and it's like camouflage...

WONG: (Laughter) It's really cute.

RASCOE: ...To really go into the wall. They put a lot of work into that.

WONG: Yeah, they did.

RASCOE: So Wailin, one of the things you all looked at was the untapped market of the disabled community. And this is the third trend that you explored. Is the gaming industry becoming more accessible?

WONG: We found that, yes. It's been happening gradually over the last decade or so. But for most of video game history, accessibility was sort of an afterthought if it was thought of at all. Probably the biggest development was back in 2020. A company called Naughty Dog released a game called The Last of Us Part 2. This is an action-adventure game where you run, jump and shoot your way through a sprawling post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE LAST OF US PART 2")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: We're going to have to run.

RASCOE: I mean, I wouldn't think that would be very accessible for players with hearing, vision, or physical disabilities.

WONG: No, it definitely doesn't. But the developers of this game were thinking differently. They had had success making another one of their games easier to play, like just more player friendly in general. And so they started wondering what other options could they add to a game to make it accessible to even more people, including players with disabilities. They decided to do a lot of experimenting and consulting with gamers with disabilities. They eventually added more than 60 different accessibility options to the game.

RASCOE: That sounds like a lot. Like, what kinds of things did they add?

WONG: Yeah, it's so interesting. It's like players can have the option to reassign what each switch and what each button does, which can be really helpful for players with certain physical disabilities. Players with hearing impairments could turn on visual cues, and then there were options aimed at people with vision-related disabilities - people like Ross Minor.

ROSS MINOR: Growing up, so many blind people, including myself, have developed crazy, convoluted ways to play video games.

WONG: Ross works as an accessibility consultant and actually specializes in video games. He remembers back when this Pokemon video game was really hot when he was a kid, and even though he couldn't see the screen, he adapted.

MINOR: I literally went home and got my Gameboy and memorized every single sound in the game just to play alongside my friends.

WONG: Over time, Ross figured out how to play other kinds of games, even if they weren't designed with him in mind. But there were certain games that Ross thought he would never be able to play, what some called triple-A games. These are your big-budget, epic titles with epic story lines that often require players to navigate huge 3D worlds.

MINOR: I had these thoughts when I was a kid, like, o h, if they added this feature, like, I'd be able to play the game. But it always just seemed like a pipe dream.

WONG: That is, until Ross played The Last of Us Part 2, because the game had all these accessibility options for vision-impaired players. There was a screen reader that helped him navigate menus. There was a voiceover that described what was going on in scenes. And then lots of sound cues.

MINOR: Sound cues for when you need to vault over something...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: ...When you need to crouch...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: ...When you're aiming at an enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: Like, there's so many different sound cues, it's truly a work of art.

WONG: But maybe his favorite feature was an option that allowed a player to send out a sort of sonar pulse in the game.

MINOR: Then, like, in stereo, you know, it'll play like a sound to the left...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: ...Or a sound far off to the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: And then you can track that object and it'll guide you to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME SOUND EFFECT)

RASCOE: So yeah, you're literally able to go through the entire game. You're able to collect items and weapons and all of that completely by yourself. I'm not an emotional person, but, like, it literally brought tears to my eyes 'cause something like this was never done before.

RASCOE: I love the idea of making these games more inclusive. Wailin, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing all of this incredible reporting. I know so much more about gaming now, and I get to share all this information with my son.

WONG: Thank you so much for having me, and I hope you get to the Sherlock Holmes level in the Princess Peach game soon because it really delivers.

RASCOE: OK, I'm going to work on that. That's Wailin Wong, co-host of The Indicator from Planet Money. You can hear the rest of our conversation on the video game industry on the Sunday Story podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.