What the VRChat controversy teaches us about accessibility in games

Social platform VRChat had a reckoning when it killed support for community-made accessibility mods. Here are the lessons to be learned.
VRChat and Accessibility

VRChat, a Virtual Reality social platform in which users can meet friends and new people, play games, and engage in online communities, recently came under heavy scrutiny for the decision to remove community-driven mods.

These mods can range from gameplay enhancements to accessibility tools – the latter of which are overwhelmingly supported by VRChat’s community as being necessary tools for the game. It’s the removal of these community-made accessibility tools that drove the majority of the most vocal complaints.

It shouldn’t have to be said that accessibility is important and necessary for video games, and the removal of accessibility options should be scrutinised. It excludes disabled gamers in need of alternative ways to play the games they love.

That said, the removal of community mods had been a long time coming for VRChat, as its own community guidelines do not permit the use of modding tools. However, the crackdown was sharp and sudden, developing from a decision to apply Easy Anti-Cheat to the software, which prevented modifications of the game’s original code.

VRChat and accessibility mods
Image: VRChat Inc.

These mods were developed by the community after ongoing calls for VRChat to implement missing accessibility features were met with silence. Some of these mods enabled things as simple as closed captioning, hearing drop-off (which silences other users outside a personal radius to help those with audio processing disorders) and menu adjustments for users who are laying horizontally.

The outrage that they’re gone is justified for many people, and has subsequently driven VRChat’s Steam review rating from ‘Mostly Positive’ to ‘Mixed’, with all recent reviews being overwhelmingly negative.

Once again, accessibility is important. Recently, certain video games have been making major strides in providing large libraries of accessibility options alongside the base experience. In recent years, big-budget games from PlayStation Studios, like The Last of Us Part 2 and God of War, saw the company making large strides with a wealth of accessibility options – something that’s since carried over to several other titles.

Read: How inclusive design in video games benefits everyone

Microsoft and Xbox, of course, have their Accessibility Controller, which allows players with accessibility needs to remap buttons and attach custom peripherals that may help them control their games comfortably. Forza Horizon 5 recently broke ground by including sign language interpretations in cutscenes

The concerted move to keep implementing and improving accessibility options in games is a welcome one. And in this day and age, there is really no excuse for removing accessibility options. 

I have personally been a user of VRChat for a few years. As an Autistic and ADHD gamer with processing disorders, I tend to get overwhelmed easily. When I started using VRChat, I tended to become overstimulated, resulting in disassociation. This happened a lot in public lobbies. But between these moments, I made friends in VRChat

VRChat and accessibility mods
Image: VRChat Inc.

Due to the lack of native accessibility options to help prevent overstimulation, I moved primarily to private lobbies, where I could customise the experience a bit more. It was in these private lobbies that I had the most fun with my friends. In controlled, comfortable and quiet sessions. My friends could invite their friends, and I would meet new people this way – and this is how I met my fiance.

VRChat was my main way of socialising and building friendships during the height of the Covid pandemic. However, I would also come to learn that this way of socialising was helpful for me, as someone with a disability that primarily affected my social ability. I found myself installing mods to help with accessibility, including ones to help with being overstimulated, on top of general comfort features. 

When VRChat took mods away, I felt I had lost the ability to use VRChat in a way that did not cost me all my energy. The platform had been destroyed for me, and many people felt the same way.

VRChat and accessibility mods
Horizon adjustment demonstrated. Image: VRChat Inc.

VRChat has now begun developing and implementing the most requested and popular mods into the base game, such as hearing drop-off and a horizon adjustment for users that are lying down or bedridden, as well as many other highly requested mods. 

It’s a welcome development, but it also raises the question: Why weren’t these accessibility options and gameplay enhancements implemented years ago, when the community was requesting them? Have these options only been implemented due to the outrage, the negative reviews, and the exodus of users?

The message here should be clear to anyone making something for other people: Accessibility matters.

The feedback from disabled people is important and should be listened to. To ignore us is not only ableist, but it is discriminatory. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard for the simplest things.

Nich is a Queer and Disabled First Nations Person from Erub in the Torres Strait, and is known for their informative Tiktok reporting, educational content, and entertainment on Twitch. They can be found at Twitter, Twitch, and TikTok.