If you've been playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Nintendo Switch this weekend, you might have noticed that the game has something called Smart Steering turned on by default. While most players have started the game by turning it off, the feature was a welcome addition for Molly, a four-year-old who suffered a stroke when she was only nine months old.
She lacks the coordination with her right hand to accelerate while steering with her left, but the Smart Steering solves that problem entirely, letting her focus on one or the other and doing it all from the hand she has full control of.
Her father, Keith, posted about the experience of being able to play the game as a family on Reddit earlier this weekend,
"Thanks to Mario Kart's new Auto Drive feature, she can now steer with her left hand and let the game drive for her or vice versa. I'm sure this feature will be an annoyance to many, but for my daughter, who would otherwise not really be able to participate, it is the best feature ever added to a Mario Kart game. She is currently sitting in my living with my other 2 kids and my wife and all of them are playing Mario Kart and laughing their heads off. This is truly a day I won't forget thanks to Nintendo."
Accessibility is a topic in video games that's often easy to overlook. With most games using audio and visual cues to elicit inputs and hand-eye coordination being a key element across genres, people who are deaf, blind, or suffering from some form of paralysis often have to come up with unique ways to work around these obstacles. Sometimes developers help matters by providing alternative modes themselves, like She Remembered Caterpillars, an indie game that utilises shapes to makes its puzzles playable for people who are colour-blind. Other times the players themselves practice interesting workarounds to make up for the game's shortcoming, like Sven, a Dutch Street Fighter V player who uses the game's sound to combat his opponents.
In Molly's case, the addition of Smart Steering and Auto-Accelerate options makes it possible for her to play one of her favourite games with her older sister and younger brother despite the complications resulting from her stroke. "My daughter's stroke made finding games that her and I could enjoy together different primarily in that it just limited what games we could play," said Keith. "She loves Mario Maker, but she could never participate in that game because of the complexity of the controls."
He's looked for games with simple control schemes for her, usually smartphone games utilising touch controls, but hasn't found that they can hold her interest for long.
"In my experience, when most parents start to play video games with their young kids, they basically look for a game where the kid can play around and not mess up their game while they do it," Keith said. "Most kids are going to have fun just pushing the buttons and watching their character move, jump, etc. With my daughter, because she could only use one hand, she would get very frustrated very quickly because she wasn't able to move her character and jump, or accelerate and steer, etc. at the same time like her brother and sister could."
In Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Molly can get it all done with a single Joy-Con. Her favourite level in the game is Sweet Sweet Kingdom (she loves to help her parents bake) and her favourite characters is Baby Peach (at least for now — four-year-olds have a tendency to be fickle).
"Being told that my daughter had had a stroke was the scariest moment of my life," Keith wrote on Reddit. While he says she will likely always have some disability on her right side, the stroke hasn't stopped Molly from being able to walk, learn to read, or any of the other things kids tend to do. And now it hasn't stopped her from playing flying across the stacks of fluffy, iced pastry on her favourite Mario Kart track either.
"I would love to see more features like this added in the future," Keith said. "I want the game to be fun and accessible for my daughter, but I also want it to eventually be a challenge and a rewarding experience for her. I think accessibility in games needs to be carefully thought out and implemented." For him this means making sure the experience of playing a game is as similar as possible whether the accessibility features are turned on or not, and he thinks the recent wave of story-driven games like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch show there's potential for that.