Reviews are as synonymous with video games as double jumps and health packs at this point. They’re an essential part of the gaming ecosystem — good reviews can be crucial for a major release’s chances of breaking even, while a positive review can pluck one of the endless array of indie games out of obscurity and into the mainstream. But some reviews are simply more important than others for a specific population of gamers, especially when it comes to the work of DAGERSystem and the legion of disabled gamers who rely on the site’s reviews.
For a significant portion of the gaming population, the ability to even play a game properly isn’t something that can be found on the box or in a traditional review. Gamers with fine motor impairment or other disabilities need to know what options a game may have to accommodate their unique circumstances before they pick up a controller. It’s an area Josh Straub aimed to fill with DAGERS when he founded the website in 2012.
Intended to be a consumer protection site, Straub’s DAGERSystem reviewed games with a specific goal in mind: inform disabled gamers before they buy a game about whether that title is playable with impairments. Originally intended as a rating system similar to the ESA, the site largely provides reviews of games that focus on playability for disabled gamers. While many gamers don’t need to tinker with game settings too much, for some, having playability features can actually make a play-through possible in the first place. Whether it’s visual changes to help colorblind gamers or flexible goals in a game to help impaired gamers better navigate challenges, there are numerous ways to make games for a broad array of gamers of different abilities and limitations.
“The three broad principles I go off of are the three Fs of accessibility: flexibility, forgiveness, and fun,” Straub tells Uproxx. “Flexibility is how much of the experience can be tailored to my needs as a player.”
Straub explains that there’s no hard-and-fast list of features games need to be more accessible. But the principles can apply to anything from puzzle games, to sports sims, to first-person shooters. In a shooter, for example, Straub gravitates toward titles that let him use a shotgun because it “minimizes the challenges” that come from his own motor impairment due to cerebral palsy. That flexibility — and even options like button remapping or adjustable text sizes — seem like small tweaks but can help more gamers get a fuller experience from a title.
Straub studied the medical benefits of gaming for the disabled in college, and as he pursued his Masters and PhD, he started DAGERSystem to keep his writing skills sharp. But the site grew over the years, and along with others like CanIPlayThat have become part of a vibrant community advocating for more play options for disabled gamers.
In September, DAGER debuted the Accessible Games Database, an ever-growing searchable collection of information about games and their accessibility options. The Database is in its early stages, but cataloging the visual, auditory, and fine motor tweaks of titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is something most reviews of the AAA title simply never cover.
Straub stresses that progress is being made in gaming, albeit as slow as the notorious development pace of many sprawling AAA titles that take years to transform from idea to execution. DAGER’s most recent Diamond Award — given out annually to a game advancing the range of accessibility options in gaming — went to Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us Part II. And it’s not just because Straub himself worked on the game as a consultant: The title had more than 70 accessibility features, a far cry from the award’s origins as meeting a “reasonable standard” of accessibility, which usually just meant the game could be played at all.
“The terrain has changed drastically from mere playability being a standard that we’re trying to reach to now a features-based approach,” Straub says. That approach doesn’t come without buy-in from the people that make games, of course. But it’s clearly possible to make a Game of the Year candidate extremely accessible to a wide audience.
In recent years Straub’s for-profit consulting work has seen him work closely with several different studios to help programmers and game directors build more accessible games. The process, he says, often starts with largely the same reckoning period regardless of the project.
“If they have no awareness of accessibility, the very first thing they do is respond emotionally,” Straub says. “Either they get angry with themselves for not seeing this ahead of time or they get profoundly sad. I had a senior producer at PlayStation tell me that after he met me, he felt like he had wasted the first 30 years of his career.”
Straub calls that kind of drastic response “very common” because of the emotions involved with game development in general. But after the hyperbole fades, he says, things get “really interesting.”
“It’s actually really, really fun because then they start brainstorming,” Straub says. “The first thing they do is they jump headfirst into the literature and into best practices and they come up with ideas. I haven’t had to really drag anyone kicking and screaming into accessibility.”
Straub admits not everyone in the industry has embraced accessibility. Certain titles or studios make waves in the community for not addressing concerns or considering gamers hoping for more play options. Many of the simplest accessibility options center on overall difficulty. Straub noted disabled gamers enter fail states more often than others, so the ability to save more frequently and not need to backtrack as much after dying in a game makes it more playable, not to mention far less frustrating. But not every game maker wants to implement different levels of difficulty or appeal to a wider audience than they had previously considered.
“I will be the first one to tell you that games thrive off of diversity, and part of that diversity is the diversity of challenge,” Straub says. “And the diversity of challenge will necessitate that some games will be less accessible than others.”
That diversity, however, is what makes the Database essential for so many. And Straub and the community that relies on it are eager to see its catalog continue to grow as developers approach the process of making games — and who is playing them — with fresh eyes.
“One of the things we say around these offices is if accessibility is too expensive or too hard you’re doing it wrong because real accessibility is not about universal design — universal design is a myth,” Straub says. “Real accessibility is about understanding your limitations as a studio and working within those limitations — and the limitations of your creative vision — to create an experience that as many people as possible can enjoy.”