When games are hard on their hands, some players turn their voices into controllers

As both a software engineer and an avid player of strategy games, chaosparrot struggled to reckon with the damage his work and hobbies had done to his hands. By 2017, the consistent pain of his repetitive stress injuries was bad enough that he could no longer type comfortably or enjoy the games he loved to play. While searching for solutions, he came across a video of someone using speech recognition software to code. He decided to try using the same tech — not for coding, but for playing games.

“I started the process of trying to play the old games that I couldn’t play anymore with sounds instead,” chaosparrot says. The project started in Python, which he used to create a full voice control program that enables him to play games hands-free. And it worked: he was able to reach just one tier below the rank in Starcraft he had attained before his injuries, and he also beat Hollow Knight, a twitchy game that’s likely to frustrate players even with a traditional controller, using just his voice.

Games have slowly gotten more accessible over time, but when features are missing or controls don’t work, the onus falls on disabled players to find their own ways to play. Many disabled players use a combination of adaptive hardware — such as mouth-operated controllers and specially designed joysticks — and various apps to enable features like eye tracking, screen resizing, or voice control. Chaosparrot’s use of voice is just one of the many customizable, bespoke solutions players have turned to.

“That’s like life when you have a disability. Anything that I kind of want, or need, and it’s not available, we have to make it ourselves,” says Kyle Abbate, who runs onehandmostly, a YouTube channel focused on accessibility in games. That might be a cup holder for his wheelchair, attachments for his keyboard and mouse, or the software setups he uses to play games. “A lot of stuff for disabled people is trial by error, and making your own accessible tech, and whatever works for you, and experimenting and trying to find what’s best.”

Chaosparrot’s program, Parrot.Py, was inspired by Talon Voice, a freely available voice recognition software for writing, coding, and theoretically any other computing task. By teaching Parrot.Py specific clicks, hisses, and clucks and associating them with button inputs in a game, chaosparrot is able to vocalize commands — selecting units in Starcraft or attacking and dashing in Hollow Knight — in addition to using eye tracking for movement. He hopes to get it working in a variety of game genres, and has even tested it while playing Among Us, though that involved explaining to friends why he was hissing into his mic on the way to electric.

There are other players who use older, preexisting voice control programs like VoiceAttack and GAVPI as viable alternatives to typical controllers. But regardless of the program, there are still hurdles that come with voice as a control method. Voice controls create a time delay between giving a command and the move being executed in the game, which makes for a more difficult gameplay experience, especially in games that call for fast reaction times.

There’s also more mental labor involved in setting up voice commands before diving into a game. Both VoiceAttack and GAVPI require more tech literacy than just running a game by itself, and Parrot.Py requires at least a basic familiarity with coding. Using any of these programs involves extra steps on top of the existing barriers that come with playing as a disabled person. “It’s gonna be hard to bridge that gap,” says chaosparrot. Like Abbate has done for VoiceAttack, he plans to make videos explaining how to use his program.

Beyond the quirks of setting up voice controls, some games are just more difficult to play than others. A game like Celeste, which requires fast decision-making and movement, presents a challenge, but is more playable thanks to a built-in assist mode that allows for adjustments in speed, stamina, and invincibility. For games without an assist mode, adjusting elements like health or attack damage with a program like Cheat Engine can make the game adapt to the player, meeting them in the middle between what they’re capable of and what the game requires. “I think if you look at the future of accessibility, I think [an assist mode] is a great thing to add, at least to single-player games,” says chaosparrot.

Inclusive design requires time, careful consideration, and a willingness to solicit feedback from people with a variety of disabilities. Developers don’t always have adaptive play styles in mind, and don’t necessarily have the best track record for considering how disabled people might interact with their games, from button-mashing triggering chronic pain flare-ups to flashing lights potentially causing seizures.

Improvements in gaming accessibility have often been the result of disabled people advocating for themselves. Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was developed with guidance from advocacy groups like AbleGamers to better address the needs of disabled players. A letter from a disabled player is what pushed Naughty Dog’s team to consider accessibility in their games. They prioritized accessibility in The Last of Us Part II as a result, and the game was praised for its wide range of customizable options like remappable controls and audio cues for players with low vision.

Those pushes for more accessible features are also found on social media platforms, where disabled people band together to bring awareness to what’s missing in games and what fixes have been made. “The disabled community on social media has been growing and becoming more and more vocal,” says Courtney Craven, founder of Can I Play That, an accessible game review site.

Players continue to advocate for accessibility in games by reaching out to developers and showcasing and sharing the kinds of solutions they use. Chaosparrot’s Parrot.Py is designed to address his needs, but he and other players know that accessibility will never be one-size-fits-all.

“I encourage devs to take a look at their game and their mechanics, and then think about ‘how do we make these accessible,’’’ says Abbate. “And then when you’re making your next game, ‘how can we iterate again, and make those changes, make it even better.’”

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