In late August, Sony shared details around how developers are making use of technologies like Adaptive Triggers and Haptic Feedback in the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controllers. From locking down the triggers when your weapon gets jammed in Deathloop to imitating the feeling of spider-sense in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, these features sound way more in depth than similar technologies like the Switch’s HD Rumble. Naturally, this makes them far more intrusive than what we’re used to, and that’s sparked many questions around accessibility.
“Among other reasons, dexterity used to press a trigger met by unanticipated resistance could result in injuries like muscle tears, sprains, general fatigue, & more for those with disabilities that affect muscles/joints or cause chronic pain,” tweeted Greg Haynes, lead games user researcher at AbleGamers, an accessibility-focused charity, in response to Deathloop’s gimmick. “Hopefully this can be turned off.”
Whether or not these features would be optional was the first question that came to mind. During my interviews with nine disabled players, I realized there were even more unanswered: Would haptic feedback be able to stand on its own without the proper sonic and visual cues present? Will the adaptive triggers be customizable at all?
“I think the move from controller vibration to haptic feedback will be amazingly useful,” founder and editor in chief of Can I Play That Courtney Craven told me, “but only if developers actually playtest what they program the haptics as with Deaf and HoH [hard of hearing] players, to implement what is actually helpful instead of just what they think is helpful.”
Craven makes the case that haptic feedback is different from the vibration we’re all used to, and this big change could prove to be a “huge cognitive barrier” if there isn’t any sort of uniformity in how these innovations are implemented across games. In the current console generation, we all know when to expect big vibrations versus subtle ones — a big explosion compared to climbing a mountain, for example. “With haptic feedback, the implementation and customization possibilities are really endless,” Craven notes, “so it’ll be a big hurdle to go from game to game without knowing what to expect and to what extent they’ve used it.”
In a blog post, Godfall’s creative director Keith Lee mentions that he’s excited to “to finally feel” which weapon he’s holding in his hands without looking at the user interface, as well as “sensing where an enemy is spatially even outside the field of view.” As promising as it sounds, the implementation of audiovisual cues is key, as well as providing as many options to blind, deaf, and HoH players as possible. As Haynes told me over email, granting the choice to tune and adjust these options is what’s important. “While some players may want more cues and channels of information,” he says, “there are of course players who could be overwhelmed by the stimulation presented by too much feedback”.
But as much as haptic feedback could be beneficial for some, if neither the games nor the PlayStation 5 itself allows for customization, many players with physical disabilities will be left out. For example, as Antonio I Martínez explained to me, players with any form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) or Muscular Dystrophy (MD) often have their controller resting on a surface, as they can’t hold it — and some even use custom adaptations to prevent it from changing its position. Vibration can displace the controller, just like an unattended phone vibrating off a table. “It is certainly a non-accessible feature for many of us,” Martinez says, “but as long as it can be disabled or adjusted it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Grant Stoner, mobility editor at Can I Play That, mentioned that not knowing if haptic feedback will cause the DualSense to continuously vibrate is one of several red flags. “When I used to play my PlayStation 4, my controller was placed within my lap at a very specific angle,” he told me. “Too much vibration would cause me to lose my grip, often resulting in me needing assistance to reposition my controller.” When I spoke to gaming accessibility consultant Vivek Gohil, he told me about his adapted PS4 controller, and the barrier that will come with the PS5 as the DualShock 4 will only be supported with backward compatible games.
“I can’t deal with vibrations as they affect my grip and hurt my muscles,” he told me over email. “Haptic feedback would be a big issue, [preventing me from accessing] the next gen using the DualSense controller. My current setup has taken me years to perfect, it’s not an easy process. I just want to use my PS4 controller on the PS5.”
Some of the players I spoke to don’t have high hopes for the adaptive triggers, either. Gohil’s muscle weakness prevents him from pulling too hard on them, which can cause fatigue, so his adapted controller uses soft touch buttons and triggers instead. “Personally, I know that adaptive triggers will not improve gameplay for gamers with muscle weakness or motor disabilities,” he adds. “I wouldn’t be able to press triggers hard — that’s the reason I cannot use an Xbox controller.”
Nick Battaglia used the action of firing a bow in games as an example: “It’s one of the hardest weapons for me to use. In most games, I cannot fully remap the bow’s commands to one side. So in order to fire one, I have to contort my arm and only hand in an uncomfortable way, which involves me having to utilize the right trigger instead of moving the commands to the left triggers on my controller.” With the prospect of DualSense having different levels of tension and travel, it’s unclear whether that will result in forcing the player to push down the triggers harder than usual. He adds that not being able to turn these features off would be a problem. “Sure, the feedback in the controller is nice, but if I have to contort my hand to swing and shoot webs as Miles Morales, what’s the point?”
The DualSense’s new design direction has also raised some questions. Errol Kerr points to its “lack of color-guidance in buttons and its seeming lack of grip on its surfaces,” which could lead to slipping. Vantezzle, a disabled player with MSA, said that he already wasn’t able to play anything on PS4 without disabling vibration, as it made the controller slide over his desk and out of his hands. In comparison, he sees Xbox as a “day and night” case thanks to the Xbox Adaptive Controller and Game Pass, which allows him to test first party titles without having to purchase them first, relying on the subscription alone to see how accessible they are.
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Nobody Left Behind
Microsoft’s efforts were brought up several times during my interviews. After the announcement from Sony regarding the use of the PS4 controller in the next gen console, Xbox quickly tweeted about Series X being compatible with all current Xbox One controllers. But as Martínez pointed out, it’s important that accessibility doesn’t become part of a console war. “Competitivity is good to bring change, but when gamers with disabilities look at the next gen the most important factor is if they will bring any substantial benefit or, at the bare minimum, not take away from them the capability to play games.”
Regarding Sony, pretty much all players I spoke to mentioned The Last of Us Part II as an excellent example for all AAA games to follow. Other recent games, such as Ghost of Tsushima, received an update after launch that addressed some of the concerns expressed by the accessibility community, such as the ability to tweak subtitles size and a less aggressive combat mode that eased some of its time-based actions, among other changes. These efforts are seen as steps forward, but it ends up depending on the studios behind each game. I reached out to PlayStation PR asking if the features around haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will be optional for players, and also mentioned the case of not being able to use modified PS4 controllers with next gen titles, and whether or not this could change in the future, but didn’t hear back by the time of publication.
As it stands, these new technologies could open many possibilities for players with disabilities, but they could also close many that were already established. Players can only foresee so much with the given information, as well as not having held the controller yet, a lost possibility this year as Sony couldn’t showcase neither the PS5 nor the DualSense in demo stations. As information about customizable options continues to be vague, many people from the accessibility community remain wary of next gen.
“With gaming being a multi-billion dollar industry and an incredibly impactful entertainment medium, companies have the power, and frankly the responsibility, to forge a more inclusive path,” Haynes concludes. “It would be awesome to see the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities considered as this upcoming and future generations kick off, so that they can enjoy gaming experiences from day one in the way that they want to.”