5 Big Ideas for Designing Accessible Video Games
Ask anyone what they like about video games — they’ll likely mention the escapism or immersion they experience while playing a game. After all, where else can you surf through dunes on a Sand Seal, construct a Stone Age empire, or barter for used spaceships in a massive intergalactic economy? But for players with disabilities or other limiting conditions, the design of games themselves can be a barrier to entry. That’s why it’s important to design games for accessibility.
When designers make games with people with disabilities in mind, they make better games for everyone. For example, including text captions not only helps people with hearing loss, but it helps those with situational impairments, such as someone with broken headphones or a parent trying not to wake up their sleeping baby.
As a game designer, you can solve for accessibility in infinitely creative ways. The details can seem overwhelming, so I’ve broken it down into 5 broad rules. If you keep these 5 rules in mind, you’ll be well on your way to creating a better game for everyone.
1. Say Everything Twice
Any time you need to convey a message to a player, whether that’s through cutscenes, dialog, tutorials, tooltips, or in-game actions and speech, say it to the player twice, in two different mediums. That means every message should use both audio AND visual communication. There’s a lot of creative freedom in how you may accomplish this, and using both audio and visuals creates a more immersive experience for players too.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018)
When enemies get closer, they get louder and their outlines become more opaque, so deaf gamers like Susan can get the full experience (more great examples on OneOddGamerGirl.net).
Five Nights at Freddy’s: Sister Location (2016)
Most of the instructions are delivered via cheeky voiceover, none of which is subtitled. Not only does this hurt hard-of-hearing players, many hearing players prefer subtitles so they don’t miss anything.
2. Allow Control Remapping
An ideal game would allow players to remap controls to any key on any input device. When that isn’t possible, providing different control schemes is a good option too. Many new players and players with disabilities appreciate simplified controls that reduce the number of buttons they have to use in a game.
I made this mistake in my first game, where I mapped character movement to the WASD keys. It’s a common configuration, but I heard several European people complain that the keys were awkward to reach on their keyboards because they are laid out differently! It’s a good example of why diverse user testing is important too.
Super Mario Party (2018)
Several minigames require players to shake and wave the Joy-Con with no alternative button presses, making it difficult or impossible for people with mobility issues to play.
3. Degrees of Difficulty
There’s a common misconception that game developers should have to “dumb down” their gameplay to accommodate players with different skill levels. While some players enjoy playing on “hardcore nightmare perma-death” mode, offering options like auto-aim and tank controls doesn’t affect their gameplay experience. Consider adding modes that eliminate timed events, like turn-based or puzzles modes, to accommodate players with limited mobility.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018)
Among plentiful accessibility options is the ability to tweak the difficulty of various aspects of gameplay so players can keep combat low-key while still solving challenging puzzles.
Remember Me (2013)
A gamer with multiple sclerosis told me she enjoyed this game until chapters of the game that required quick time events (QTEs) and hard-to-reach button combos made it impossible to progress.
4. Have clear visual design
According to the WHO, at least 16% of people worldwide have some form of vision impairment, so it’s a smart idea to follow general visual design rules to make sure even players with low vision can differentiate NPCs, items, enemies, and other objects from the background and each other. Allow players to customize color palettes or find other ways to make visuals colorblind-friendly, allow players to toggle between windowed mode and full screen, and make sure all your text is clear and readable.
Destiny 2 (2017)
Though it doesn’t feature fully customizable label colors, players can choose between several palettes to suit their specific type of colorblindness.
Red-green color blindness is the most common form of color blindness, affecting millions of people. The red and green Science Packs could be better differentiated by depicting beakers with different shapes or textures.
5. Put Feedback on Everything
In Rules of Play, the authors assert that just as every action has an outcome, every input should have feedback. For example, let’s say that when the player presses A, their character fires a bullet. You could give the player feedback by showing a muzzle flash and a smoke trail, giving them some kickback and haptic feedback, and playing a ‘BANG’ sound. Juice isn’t just a funny word, it’s a way to reinforce the player’s actions and inform them how they’ve affected the game. How you do this is hugely creative: via sound, animation, easing, particles, trails, screenshake, haptics, time manipulation, and beyond.
Mortal Kombat X (2015)
Unique sound effects for each character’s moves lend immersion to the game. Combined with dynamic stereo panning, the sound design allows blind players like TJ the Blind Gamer to locate his opponent and react to attacks.
Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric (2014)
It’s hard for players to keep track of their progress with no map or hints on how to find the next level. Make sure to include reminders to help people with cognitive disabilities or players that haven’t picked up your game in a while.
If every game designer kept these 5 major themes in mind, the video game industry would be a lot more accessible. Unfortunately, the majority of video games on the market today have barriers that keep people with disabilities and other limiting conditions from being able to enjoy games to their fullest extent. Video games are a limitlessly creative medium and it’s up to designers to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy them.
I am the author of accessiblegamedesign.com, detailed guidelines for game designers about crafting accessible game components. There are tons of resources out there, like gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, and advocacy groups like the IDGA-GASIG and AbleGamers. Thank you to everyone who is working toward a better designed world, and thank you to all the gamers I’ve talked to who have given me a better understanding of why accessibility matters to them.