The Essay: On Inaccessibility: A Case for Game Refunds

By Bobby Kent

I’m certain game launches are complex beasts. Yet the disappointing, initial launch states of titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy have made it clear that the refund systems of digital storefronts like the PlayStation, Xbox or eShop stores are not going far enough to accommodate the demands of the customer base. It can feel outrageous to pay full price for a game that is widely considered unplayable, only to be told that once you downloaded the game, there’s no turning back. For many disabled gamers, however, this is a story we know all too well. The situation for us is even worse.

For instance, my excitement for Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! was high in 2018. I’m a big Pokémon fan, and this new take on Gen 1 looked promising. I’ve never played much with these creatures, and the art style was very appealing. I’d heard in early previews about motion controls and button control options, but nothing definitive was explained about either of them. I put my preorder in, and downloaded the game as soon as I could. Once it started, I was feeling immense disappointment within the first 15 minutes. I play on my Nintendo Switch in docked mode, as I can’t hold it up. Professor Oak was asking me to catch this Pokémon with my own hands, by doing a throwing motion with the controller. I felt embarrassment, shame and was upset. It was clear at that moment I could not play this game. For whatever reason, motion controls were only an option if played handheld, and these control options weren’t given to docked players. After the initial upset and frustration, I thought the rational approach was to email and request a refund. My rationale? It isn’t my fault that I couldn’t play it; I’d only played briefly and this information was not clear previously. My request was denied. That was effectively £50 ($60) that I’d given to Nintendo for nothing. If the eShop had a refund system, I’d not have lost my money over something I can’t control.

I think that the case for refunds being integrated into online stores on the basis of inaccessibility comes with a host of benefits, for the developers, the platform holders and the gamers. The most obvious integration should start with the disabled gamer – the ability to refund inaccessible video games gives us financial reassurance that the gaming industry will not punish us for our disabilities. A game being inaccessible is not the fault of the gamer, and therefore we should not be left with the cost of this inaccessibility being taken from our pockets. Disabled people typically hold a lower income anyway, with medical bills, living assistance, convenience goods and more all stacking up and taking more money out of our smaller incomes coming from welfare benefits or lesser job opportunities. These are, of course, generalisations, and vary for every individual. But they hold true for many disabled people, including myself and many friends and family members. The ability to refund inaccessible video games would also encourage disabled gamers to buy games in the moment without needing to take time researching if they’ll be able to play it, giving us greater independence and confidence as customers. 

Refunds for inaccessibility could also serve as a learning opportunity for the game industry. Developers would be able to see how many people are refunding their games due to inaccessibility. A feedback box or survey at the point of refund could allow gamers to communicate what they found inaccessible in the game and allow developers to act on this in future games and updates. This would also serve as a financial incentive for devs to release their games in an adequately accessible state, because they will be aware that if disabled gamers purchase their game and cannot play it, they will have the option to refund. 

As ideal as a refund system would be for disabled gamers like myself, it would come with some drawbacks, which I aim to address. The first and most obvious is the ability to abuse the system. It can be argued that people may return a game based on inaccessibility even if they’re not disabled, and only do it to play games for free. One solution to this would be to put a time limit on refunds, that gives enough time for people to find any accessibility issues they may face, but not long enough so as to be able to complete the game. A similar system is already in place on Steam, where games can be refunded if played for less than two hours. Inaccessibility can still appear later in the game, so perhaps it could be an option to still request a refund for a game through a contact form, and to converse with platform holder representatives directly to explain the situation and seek a refund. Also, I do like the idea of Xbox Game Pass – you can play a variety of games for a monthly fee. If they’re not accessible, you can play another game. It doesn’t solve inaccessibility, but you don’t have to worry about dealing with the psychic pain of trying to procure a refund.

Another potential way an individual might suggest to get around the issue of abuse of inaccessibility refunds would be proof of disability. While it is true that this would be a useful system for those with proof, and would have less time restrictions on it than a regular time-based refund system, it is a problematic solution. Proof of disability in many countries including my own is not free, not easy to get hold of and not reliable. Many disabled people exist with undiagnosed conditions and cannot provide formal proof of that. The cost of purchasing proof in the form of a doctor’s note can go upwards of £20 ($25 USD) based on my own experiences in the UK, making it hardly worth asking for a refund in the first place. If a disability-based refund system was to be implemented, it must be without putting discriminatory check in place to only allow ‘real’ disabled people. 

The refund system also has the potential to disproportionately hit small creators. Smaller game development teams tend to make shorter games, and a time-based refund system can be used against them specifically to play entire games without paying for them. A similar phenomenon was seen with Steam recently. A solution may be for the time-based refund to vary by game. A 60-hour RPG could allow for two hours of playtime, while a short two hour experience could have a 30-minute time limit. 

It is clear that whatever refund system could be implemented, precautions must be taken to ensure that developers are protected from abuse of the system. However, I hope to have made the case that a refund system in place for disabled gamers is also an important consideration. The industry is slowly moving towards accessibility, and the next place to start taking accessibility seriously should be on digital game platforms.

Bobby Kent is a writer and essayist living in the U.K. who contributes to the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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