VR Gaming Is Not So Great If You're Disabled

VR Gaming Is Not So Great If You're Disabled
October 25, 2016

Being a person who uses a wheelchair to get around, video games have always provided me with a place I can turn to where I can be on par with everyone else. Since most games only require a person to have working hands, the limitations I face in daily life aren’t an issue in a game. When I play — especially online with friends — I’m on equal footing (pardon the pun). This is something I have always appreciated about video games.
Outside of some specialized arcade cabinets I physically couldn’t use, being in a wheelchair has never adversely affected my gaming until I started playing games in virtual reality. I’ve played VR titles at several press events over the past two years and always had issues. I’m not talking about what our senior editor Jordan Minor experienced when it came to VR headsets ruining his (awesome) hair; I’m talking about problems that arose because I wasn’t standing. My suspicions that sitting in a wheelchair negatively impacted playing games in VR were confirmed this past weekend when I got to spend extensive time with Sony’s PlayStation VR.

Playing the PSVR isn’t a simple matter of plugging in the headset, strapping it to your head, and playing. There is a good bit of work that has to go into it, especially when it comes to calibrating one’s PlayStation camera. The PSVR tracks the way you move your head with the camera and if you’re not in the correct position, things won’t work as they should. It was very challenging to get my head positioned to where the camera suggested because I was sitting down.
It would be easy to believe that an able-bodied person sitting next to a person in a wheelchair would be the same height. But this isn’t actually true. The average person who is sitting down will almost always be taller than someone who sits in a wheelchair. This may not be true for someone who recently became bound to a wheelchair since their bodies haven’t been shaped by years of sitting, but for someone like me, this is reality. Because I’m shorter than the average person even while sitting, I would always be six inches lower than where the PlayStation camera wanted me to be.

Despite not being able to properly calibrate the system due to my height, I began playing some PSVR games. For the most part, I didn’t have any problems with the main PSVR demo that comes with the headset. Though it was obvious my camera angle was lower than it was supposed to be, I was still able to play games like RIGS, EVE: Valkyrie, and DriveClub with little to no problem. In fact, my VR gaming experience was going great until I fired up Batman: Arkham VR.
When Arkham VR starts, it tells you that standing is the optimal way to play. Since I can’t stand, I had no choice but to go with the sitting option. I was able to position my body where the game wanted, but just like when I was calibrating the PS camera, I was unable to get my head where it needed to be because I’m a short dude in a wheelchair. Again, if I was an able-bodied individual that was sitting down I could have easily positioned my head where it should be. I skipped this part of the calibration and continued.

Unlike the games I played in the PSVR demo, Arkham requires players to physically move back, forth, and to the sides in order to complete certain objectives. This was a tricky proposition since I had to move my wheelchair while holding PS Move controllers in each hand. Making things worse was that I would almost always run over the piece that connected the PSVR headset to the PlayStation 4. There were even certain parts where I had to lean down to pick up objects. If I wasn’t careful doing this, I could have easily fallen off my chair. It was clear that Arkham VR wasn’t created with handicapped people in mind.
Now, I don’t know if it was because I was sitting in a wheelchair or if the game, in general, is just wonky, but the more I played Arkham VR, the more de-calibrated it became. It got to a point where my Bat-belt was no longer directly under me like it was supposed to be. Attempts to re-center myself caused me to bump into things in my room and get the PSVR wires tangled on my wheels. The more I tried to get my virtual belt and hands into the correct position, the worse things got. Frustrated, I just gave up playing the game altogether

My Batman Arkham VR experience wasn’t an isolated one. A few weeks ago when I attended a PSVR event hosted by Oasis Games, I had something similar — though not nearly as annoying — happen. While playing Dying Reborn, there was a point where I had to find a key that was on top of a box that was above a door. Because of my height, I was unable to see it. The developer who was showing me the demo had to put on the VR headset himself to get it for me. I have to let people get things in high places for me all the time, so having the same thing happen in a game made me feel downright embarrassed.
I’ve learned to accept that there are some things in life that I can’t physically do because of my disability. Perhaps gaming in VR is one of them. This doesn’t seem like a great personal loss since I’m not entirely sold on VR gaming in general (I’ll get to that in a future article), but I do feel bad for handicapped folks who were invested in the idea of VR gaming who won’t be able to fully enjoy every game because of their disability.
Some VR games work well enough for the disabled, but others simply don’t. This is a shame considering how VR can virtually let people who are unable to walk actually experience normal mobility. Virtual reality has the potential to deliver the most immersive gaming experience possible, but from what I’ve seen so far, it appears that only able-bodied people can fully enjoy it.

I’m not one to tell developers what to do with their games, and I don’t feel it is my right or anyone else’s to do so. However, I will say that it would be nice if, going forward, some consideration is made for those of us who are limited in our mobility and who would like to use VR as a means to go beyond what we’re physically capable of. Despite my skepticism about the technology as a gaming platform, I will remain optimistic that as time progresses, developers can figure out how to make VR gaming accessible to everyone.
Featured image comes from USC Institute for Creative Technologies

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