Most people play games with their hands, but AJ Ryan plays them with his feet. Born with a disability called arthrogryposis, Ryan lacks nerves and muscles in his arms and legs, which means he's unable to walk or use his hands, and navigates the world in a wheelchair. His toes, however, are a different story, with enough dexterity to use traditional game controllers—under the right conditions. But the right conditions weren't available for Ryan while trying to play the recent Splatoon 2 multiplayer test, which doesn't feature any options for button remapping.
Unlike the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Nintendo's new Switch console doesn't provide any options for button remapping. Previously, button remapping happened on a game-to-game basis, but both Sony and Microsoft implemented the feature system-wide. Nintendo has not.
A friend of Ryan's pointed him towards a page on Nintendo's website, which asks people to write in with accessibility concerns, as the company "endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities." Ryan wrote Nintendo a letter:
Because I play games with my feet, I was having trouble enjoying the Splatoon 2 Global Testfire last week. It's hard for me to press triggers on any controller, and the Nintendo Switch is no exception. I did poorly in the game as I could hardly shoot my gun. Because of the lack of remapping, I sadly had to cancel my preorder I was so excited for. I've also not been having a good time with the new Zelda game because of the lack of remapping. I can hardly shoot arrows! As a game developer, I believe it would be easy to add in button remapping to make games more playable for myself and up to 33 Million more gamers with disabilities worldwide. As AbleGamers' Fellow, I'm willing to help in any way I can. With your dedication to accessibility, I'm sure something can be done. Thank you.
Just a few days later, Ryan received received a response from the company:
Thanks for writing. I'm sorry to hear about your disappointment with the Splatoon 2 Global Testfire. I realize it can certainly be very frustrating to not be able to enjoy the same games as many others do due to having an unfortunate condition, and we sincerely empathize.
I want you to know how much we appreciate you sending your thoughts in to us, and so rest assured that your comments will be added to our records for future reference and will be made available for other departments at the company to review and thoughtfully consider.
Nintendo of America Inc.
Though appreciative that Nintendo had written back, Ryan took exception with a phrase the customer service representative used used to describe his situation: "unfortunate condition."
"An unfortunate condition is an extremely patronizing and demeaning thing to say to someone with disabilities," said Ryan. "Almost everyone I know was repulsed by the statement. Even a junior level representative should know better than to use such language. Empathy from a representative also isn't something that I needed."
What Ryan wanted from Nintendo was action, not empty corporate empathy.
Nintendo did not respond to my request for comment.
It's not the first time Ryan's been disappointed by Nintendo, either. When he excitedly purchased a Wii with a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, he discovered the Wii version wasn't compatible with the GameCube or Classic Controller. The Wii didn't have button remapping, either, but more problematic for Ryan was the emphasis on motion controls. It was a non-starter.
Ryan doesn't really expect Nintendo to change the design its games to accommodate him, only to give him options.
"This obvious lack of care is pretty standard operating procedure from Nintendo," said AbleGamers COO Steve Spohn. "Not only do we consider Nintendo platforms to be the most inaccessible, they are the only major publishing house to ignore our requests for accessibility improvements."
AbleGamers is a nonprofit organization (and charity) that works to raise awareness about disabled players and works with the industry to add more accessibility options into games.
The group actually honored Bayonetta 2, a game published by Nintendo, as its "AbleGamers Game of the Year" in 2014 because it featured a mode that allowed players to make their way through the game with the use of very few buttons. Spohn said developer Platinum Games was "excited to receive the award," and said the mode was engineered for people with disabilities.
"Nintendo declined to give us a comment on the award winner," he said. "It's frustrating. We want to work with everybody and make games more accessible while not harming any of the creative genius behind making video games."
Spohn said "most of the big publishers and a lot of indies" send AbleGamers copies of their games, often in early states, for feedback on how they might be more accessible options. AbleGamers usually advocates for colorblind options, subtitles for ambient audio (many games only subtitle the main dialogue), and other potentially useful audio/visual cues.
Though much of AbleGamers' work happens under NDA, Spohn said AbleGamers has worked with Blizzard on World of Warcraft's colorblind options and clickable on-screen movement. They've also helped with Call of Duty and Rock Band's approach to accessibility.
"Not only do we consider Nintendo platforms to be the most inaccessible, they are the only major publishing house to ignore our requests for accessibility improvements."
Nintendo has, so far, been frustratingly unreceptive to the plight of AbleGamers and players like Ryan, but Spohn is hopeful that things are changing. He's seen the change himself.
"Long ago, we had to hunt down who to talk to in these companies," he said. "At GDC 2009, we set up a camera and asked one question 'Have you ever thought about gamers with disabilities?' and most developers answered no; only one developer laughed at the question and walked away. Today, most developers will answer yes, they have thought about it and tried to design for inclusion. It's been an amazing change in the industry, and the long fought battle."
Ryan, though, just wants to play the games he loves. Despite his frustrations with Breath of the Wild, he's still trying to make it work. But if Nintendo were to take the time to add some accessibility options, it'd give him a chance to enjoy the game the way it's meant to be played.
"[It] makes me worried that I might be missing out on some good Nintendo games this gen," he said. "I would regret my purchase, but being able to play and speak on the system's accessibility in hopes that it will someday become accessible makes it worth it."