It’s an unspoken downside of innovation: Sometimes a push into new technology can leave certain people behind. Ideas like virtual reality, touchscreens, and 3D television might promise new experiences for most of us. But for people with disabilities, they can mean motion sickness, muscle pain, or worse.
This innovation-disability gap is a major problem in video games, and one company is doing a particularly bad job dealing with it. While Nintendo rides high on the success of its new Switch console, people with disabilities struggle to enjoy the company’s games. These gamers complain of trouble navigating hits like Super Mario Odyssey — if they can play the games at all — because they’re packed with fiddly interactions requiring a flick of the wrist or sensitivity to a controller’s vibrations. Nintendo didn’t reply to a request for comment before deadline.
These problems with the Switch have actually plagued the company’s products for years. The company’s Wii console, launched way back in 2006, also relied on innovative motion controls that shut some people out of the system — ironic, because the Wii was supposedly designed around accessibility.
Super Mario inventor Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make a game controller that got away from the complicated buttons, sticks, and triggers you might find on a typical gaming joypad. Aware that nongamers might be intimidated by something like the standard Xbox 360 controller, Miyamoto created the Wii remote with an accessible design “that would make people want to pick it up and try using it.”
The remote ended up being painted in glossy iPod white, had few buttons to press, and looked like a stylish TV remote. But the secret ingredient was a motion-sensitive chip that could translate swipes, wiggles, points, and shakes into gameplay on the screen.
Suddenly, playing a golf game was as intuitive as holding the controller like the handle of a putter and swinging it toward the TV. The Wii remote could magically transform into a tennis racket or baseball bat, a conductor’s baton or a musical instrument, a sword or a pistol.
This opened up gaming to a whole new audience, just like Miyamoto dreamed. There were stories about Wii bowling leagues in retirement homes and reports about the console showing up in Buckingham Palace and Obama’s White House.
But for those with certain disabilities, the Wii remote proved to be completely inaccessible.
Riley Park, 28, told Medium that he’s always loved Nintendo games. The first console his family owned was the Nintendo 64, and they kept playing with it until the Wii came out in 2006. But around that time, Park was diagnosed with essential tremors, a nerve disorder that causes parts of your body, usually your hands, to shake uncontrollably.
“Small movements really cause my hands to shake, to the point where I sometimes require both hands to hold onto a spoon,” Park said. This made gaming with a motion-sensitive controller very difficult.
“I had continual problems,” he explained. “Whenever any game required you to hold the remote in a certain still position for a time, like with Mario Party or the Rabbids party game, I often failed those. I sort of stopped playing games that were like that entirely, especially around friends.”
The success of the Wii inspired other companies to dabble with controllers that created hardships for people with disabilities. In 2010, Microsoft launched the body-sensing Kinect camera for Xbox, which Wired memorably dubbed a “Wii-too product.” With games like Dance Central, it asked players to flail about, swing their arms up and down, and generally make massive fools of themselves. Needless to say, that was practically impossible for gamers with any number of physical disabilities.
Years later, companies would launch virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift. These technological marvels can leave people with inner-ear conditions like vestibular neuritis feeling queasy.
And when online multiplayer games started introducing voice chat, they left gamers who were deaf unable to communicate with team members.
Though innovations like the Kinect could largely be ignored, all of Nintendo’s recent consoles have focused on technical gimmicks that exclude players with physical disabilities. If you want to fully enjoy some of the most popular games on the Switch, you will have to deal with motion controls.
Hannah Wooffitt, 24, lives with chronic fatigue syndrome, and being bed-bound for multiple years has caused her muscles to atrophy. “Nintendo’s motion controls are my enemy,” she said.
“My boyfriend loves Nintendo games, but there are few multiplayer games that I can actually play,” she added. “He was excited for a new Mario Party on the Switch in the hopes we could play it together, but when he bought it, we quickly found out that it was motion controls only, so that was the end of that.”
Super Mario Odyssey, the latest entry in the long-running franchise, is littered with similar problems. The bombastic adventure locks many of its special moves behind motion controls. If you want to launch your buddy Cappy at enemies like a homing missile, for example, you need to frantically shake the controller (or, if you’re playing in handheld mode, the entire system).
“I love Odyssey, but I have found some of the advanced spins and jumps nearly impossible to do,” Park said. Wooffitt ended up having to watch her boyfriend play the game rather than enjoy it with him.
You can’t turn off those motion-powered moves, leading a gamer with Parkinson’s to rant on Reddit: “Is it possible to not throw Cappy every three seconds when your hands shake like a fucking washing machine on spin cycle?”
There’s a lot Nintendo could do to fix these problems. It routinely has basic commands tied to wiggling a controller, like pounding on the floor in Donkey Kong, pirouetting in Mario Galaxy, or swinging a sword in Twilight Princess. These moves could easily be triggered by a button press, if only there were an option to do so.
And if you look beyond Nintendo games, you’ll find that gaming is more accessible than ever, as game makers have figured out how to make them work with different disabilities.
The addition of symbols in the color-swapping puzzler Hue make the game playable even for people who are color-blind. Fortnite helps people who have trouble hearing with an option that translates the sounds of footsteps and gunshots into visual indicators. Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the two major rivals to the Nintendo Switch, let you change which buttons do what across the entire console.
Best of all is Microsoft’s new Adaptive Controller for Xbox One and the PC. This cool bit of customizable equipment can clamp onto wheelchairs and hook up to all manner of accessible inputs like foot controllers, one-handed joysticks, and easy-to-press switches.
But while the controller can even work on PlayStation consoles and Macs (with the right adapters), “the only place it does not work is with any Nintendo consoles,” said Steven Spohn, chief operating officer at AbleGamers, a charity that advocates for gamers with disabilities.
Spohn worked with Microsoft on its Adaptive Controller but said Nintendo has “repeatedly declined to work with us.”
“It breaks my heart every time someone with a disability emails me excitedly, claiming they are getting a Nintendo Switch, and they want to know how to make it accessible, because nine times out of 10, we can’t make it any more accessible,” he said.
Nintendo has offered some good accessibility options in certain games. Beat ’em up ARMS lets you completely customize the game’s controls. Colorful shooter Splatoon 2 is considerate of color-blind gamers. 1–2 Switch’s hyperdetailed rumble feedback makes it playable for gamers who are blind. Back in the 1980s, the company even came up with a bizarre-looking hands-free controller that made the NES playable for gamers who are quadriplegic.
But overall, in 2018, Nintendo is lagging far behind other gaming companies that haven’t had to leave gamers with disabilities behind in the pursuit of innovation and hardware gimmickry. If Nintendo truly believes in its mission to make gaming more accessible to everyone, it needs to work much harder.