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'The Indicator from Planet Money': How video games became more accessible

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For most of video game history, accessibility was sort of an afterthought. But that was before 2020 when a company called Naughty Dog released a game called The Last Of Us Part II. Our colleagues at The Indicator from Planet Money, Adrian Ma and Wailin Wong take us through the shift around accessibility.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: It was around the age of 12 when Steve Spohn discovered video games. He was at home, which is where he was most of the time because he has spinal muscular atrophy.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: It's a condition that gradually takes away a person's ability to use their muscles. And one time, one of the nurses helping him asked, have you ever tried playing video games?

STEVE SPOHN: And I told her that I was too disabled. There's no way that I could. And she challenged me that there was no reason I couldn't just hold the controller. I was using a powered wheelchair, so why couldn't I hold the controller? And she brought over a Nintendo, and it was like love at first sight. I ended up falling in love and beating Mario.

WONG: Fast-forward to 2020 and the release of The Last Of Us Part II. Emilia Schatz is a lead designer at Naughty Dog, the company behind the game. Years before its development, she hadn't necessarily been thinking about how to make it more accessible to people with disabilities. She was really thinking about how to make one of her games available to her mom.

EMILIA SCHATZ: I mostly was just like, OK, I want my mom to play this game.

MA: But a big obstacle for her mom was learning the controller.

WONG: At the time, Emilia was working on a game called Uncharted 4. And she thought, what if we added an option that players could turn on that would basically simplify the controls? These new features didn't make a gamer out of Emilia's mom, but they did get a lot of positive feedback from other people who played the game. And so Emilia and her colleagues thought, what other options could they add to a game to make it accessible to even more people, including those with disabilities?

MA: So, as Emilia and her colleagues started working on their next game, The Last Of Us Part II, that question kind of snowballed. And after a lot of experimenting and consulting with gamers with disabilities, the developers eventually added more than 60 different accessibility options to the game.

WONG: For example, players have the option to reassign what each switch and button does, which could be really helpful for players with certain physical disabilities. Players with hearing impairments could turn on multiple visual cues, and then there were options aimed at people with vision related disabilities, people like Ross Minor.

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

MA: Ross works as an accessibility consultant and actually specializes in video games, which he says he's been playing since he was a little kid. He remembers back then, this Pokemon video game was really hot, and even though he couldn't see the screen, he adapted.

MINOR: I literally went home and got my Game Boy and memorized every single sound in the game.

WONG: But there were certain games that Ross thought he would never be able to play, what some call Triple A games.

MA: That is until he played The Last Of Us Part II, because it had all these accessibility options for vision impaired players. There was a screen reader that helped him navigate menus, a voiceover that described what was going on in scenes. And, oh, the sound cues.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC PINGING)

MINOR: ...When you need to crouch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC PINGING)

MINOR: 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: And then, like, in stereo, you know, it'll play, like, a sound to the left or a sound far off to the right, and then you can track that object and it will guide you to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC PINGING)

MINOR: I'm not an emotional person, but, like, it literally brought tears to my eyes 'cause something like this was never done before.

MA: Since then, Ross says he's been seeing more and more game companies follow that example.

MINOR: I have hope that, you know, this trend will continue. I'm 100% positive it will, because at the end of the day, it also just makes great financial sense.

WONG: Right. Because a lot of people with disabilities play games. According to the Census Bureau, about 13% of the overall population has some sort of disability. And according to some estimates, the percentage is even higher in the gaming community. Ross says it's a big market.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong. NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "CHASING A RUMOR") 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.

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.
Adrian Ma
Adrian Ma covers work, money and other "business-ish" for NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.