Video games–the eternal target of pundits and worried parents, and generally considered a waste of time, But like many forms of technology, they provide accessibility in a way that traditional art may not. I tried not to assume prior video game knowledge, but if I didn’t explain a term or concept well please do feel free to comment and ask for clarification.
Video games provide a level of interaction that almost no other art form does. (Tabletop gaming, most famously Dungeons and Dragons, arguably provides more, but that’s a post for another day.) Rather than sitting there passively while a movie or TV episode plays out, a gamer is activelyworking and involved. Many games have short videos (called cutscenes) for storytelling, but these are concentrated, intense moments and are usually kept short (long cutscenes easily annoy gamers as they break the flow of gameplay).
Video games often provide high entertainment value for money. While the initial price tag may feel expensive, a medium-sized game can easily provide over 25 hours of enjoyment, and players of long games often spend over 100 hours playing. Disability and money is a subject I have mentioned earlier, but suffice it to say that saving money is often especially welcome for disabled people.
Types of Games
If you’re not familiar with modern games, you may be surprised to learn the variety of styles available. Games are usually classified as indie (created by smaller studios, more experimental) or AAA (created by the largest studios, tend to have more expensive features like realistic graphics, but may be more repetitive-feeling). Many games have no combat at all, instead using mechanics like talking to characters or exploring items.
Games available include puzzles of all kinds, action games, RPGs (role playing games, which allow you to inhabit (and sometimes create) a character), multiplayer games, casual games (may be less stressful, and are generally played for less time), strategy games, and more.
For me, most activities recommended for relaxation either don’t work or even make things worse. When my mind is racing, taking a bath just leaves me anxious and also wet. Video games take up more brain power, and they’re specifically designed to be engrossing. When I’m anxious, I frequently turn to video games to give my brain a true break.
I tend to have a lot of ideas, but not the energy and time to do all of them. Many video games are loaded with side quests (the main quest is the central story, while side quests are small stories that fill out the world and provide various rewards), and the list of things to do can easily get very long. Video games often have achievements as well, a system which provides recognition for doing various things such as defeating a certain amount of enemies, which adds still more to the to do list. While I found this overwhelming at first, it allowed me to practice letting go, accepting that I can’t do everything at once, in a lower-stakes environment.
Video games also show us worlds both fantastic and realistic. For those of us who can’t get out easily, whether from disability, location, lack of transportation, or something else, this provides an opportunity to explore, to wander around, to enjoy an environment that we could not reach normally.
Games can also provide an important social outlet. While gaming communities, like the Internet more generally, can contain a lot of toxic behavior, they can also be valuable outlets for social interaction. Some games are multiplayer, allowing you to play with others. I find that having a designated activity tends to create more frequent interaction, rather than contacting friends whenever which often becomes rarer than we’d like.
While video games are engrossing, some games can be compelling in a negative way. Especially if you are stressed by undone tasks, you can feel driven to complete things even when you’re not having fun. I try to select my games carefully for that reason, and occasionally take a step back and see whether I’m actually enjoying myself.
Some games, especially phone games, contain microtransactions, purchases beyond the initial purchase price. When these contain new content, they’re called DLC (short for downloadable content), and can be very enjoyable. However, microtransactions can be predatory, sometimes involving gambling mechanics such as lootboxes (buying a digital box to get a randomized reward). I recommend being very cautious with in-game purchases, thinking carefully and avoiding randomized rewards.
Gaming can also be an expensive hobby to begin. While many people have a smartphone already, most larger games require the purchase of a console or a PC powerful enough to run the desired game. A PC can of course double as a tool for work and other activities, which may make it more cost-effective for some people. Older hardware or inability to afford the newest games may leave a person unable to play recent releases, which will affect their ability to participate in the community and discuss the most popular and current games.
Games can be played on a console (specialized device for gaming), a PC (Windows computer–while some games run on Apple computers, most work better or only run on Windows), or a phone. Consoles and many modern PC games use controllers, handheld devices with various buttons. These allow you to move around and play in several different positions, which may be more comfortable for some disabilities and for neurodivergent people, who often move and sit in unusual ways.
Modern games increasingly include accessibility settings, options to change either the difficulty of the game or the way the player interacts with it. Difficult games often involve fast reflexes, quick decisions, or simply a lot of time spent practicing, so adjusting difficulty allows more players to enjoy the game, whether they’re disabled or simply not as experienced a gamer. Interaction changes include things like subtitles, changing the keys or buttons used (which allows the player to adapt the controls for their own abilities and limitations), and adjusting sounds (for instance, making dialogue louder than background noise to more easily hear and understand it).
Options for those whose disabilities prevent traditional gaming are also increasingly available. Many options for one-handed controllers exist, and some games can be controlled with eye movements alone (this is still quite experimental, though). I’ve also seen a few games that are designed for blind and low-vision gamers, using sound cues to communicate rather than visual signals.
Another category of accessibility option are Let’s Plays and streams. Let’s Plays are prerecorded videos, usually posted on YouTube, where someone plays a game with or without commentary, and the video is often edited to remove repetitive sections (a boon for those of us with ADHD). Streams are live video, usually shown through Twitch, where a gamer plays through and usually interacts with their audience at the same time. Streams may be preserved for a later date in VODs (video on demand recordings), which are typically not edited down.
Both these options provide access to games that are difficult, that have playing styles the watcher does not enjoy, or that are too expensive. They can also provide a buffer for more dark games, as hearing someone process and analyze content as you experience the game can make it less intense and more contextualized. (I personally am a dedicated watcher of the YouTube Let’s Play channel PlayFrame, where all the players have a calm, relaxed attitude that works very well for my brain. They are also very aware of things like avoiding ableist language, warning for rapidly flashing lights, and so forth.)
In short, video games are a valuable entertainment option, particularly for disabled people. If you have a disability that prevents you from gaming or would like to help make gaming more accessibility, I’d suggest looking into AbleGamers, a charity focused on helping disabled people game by providing accessible equipment, working with developers to make games more accessible, and raising awareness. As always, I welcome your comments and questions, and would be happy to talk further if gaming has piqued your interest.