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Accessibility and inclusivity in the metaverse

Excitement over the metaverse continues to grow, and it’s easy to understand why. After all, who wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of a deeply immersive, open-ended, and persistent virtual world? What was once a sci-fi dream is now an impending reality.

But the promise of the metaverse is inseparable from the quest for a more open and egalitarian future for the web. While established players like Meta may be seeking to shape the metaverse to fit their interests, our aspirations should not be limited by the demands of highly centralised corporations. Instead, we must ensure that the metaverse forms part of the larger shift toward a re-decentralised web — a shift called Web3.

This shift is often described as a return to the web’s founding ideals, which have not always been adhered to over the past three decades. Proponents of Web3 often focus on the principle of decentralisation. They highlight how blockchain will enable us to undo the centralised oligopoly that has shaped the web since the early 2000s. However, that was not the only principle the early web pioneers championed. Just as important were the principles of universality and non-discrimination. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee put it in his history of the web, the early web community believed that the web should “[allow] diversity to flourish”.

With this in mind, Web3 offers us the chance to rededicate ourselves to the web’s original vision in more ways than one. But, beyond re-decentralisation, can we also consider a renewed commitment to a truly accessible and inclusive online world?

The metaverse will be one of the major battlegrounds where the future of web accessibility will be decided. In this post, we’ll look at the problem of accessibility and inclusivity in the metaverse as the latest stage in a long struggle to make the web available to everyone. Next, we’ll consider how putting accessibility at the heart of the web will make a better experience for all users. Finally, we’ll examine some key developments and emerging problems for inclusivity in the metaverse.

Accessibility in gaming and on the web

While the exact form the metaverse will take remains debatable, there is agreement around a few key points. For a start, the metaverse will make the web more immersive and interactive, with persistent and open-ended virtual worlds navigated using augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) tech (often referred to under the umbrella of extended reality or (XR)).

For this reason, the metaverse sits at the intersection between the web and gaming, drawing on the socially driven nature of Web2 and the interactive virtual spaces of MMOs. Unfortunately, in both cases, the progress toward supporting the broadest possible range of users has been incremental at best.

Looking firstly at the web, it’s clear that almost a quarter-century of striving for accessibility has had a dishearteningly small impact.

In 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) launched its Web Accessibility Initiative to ensure that the rapidly evolving web would not leave disabled users behind. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), first published in 1999, were part of this initiative and have been updated regularly.

Despite the best efforts of the W3C, the WCAG has had a minimal impact. As of 2022, 96.8% of home pages fell short of one or more of the WCAG’s criteria. Over the past two years, non-compliant pages have fallen by just a single percentage point. At that rate, we’ll be waiting almost a century before even half of the web’s home pages are accessible.

By comparison, video games have made more substantial steps toward accessibility, especially in the past few years. Historically disabled gamers have faced significant challenges given the longstanding emphasis on physical dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and careful attention to auditory and visual cues. However, game developers have recently pursued innovative ways to make games more accessible.

Perhaps the most notable example is 2018’s Celeste, a retro platformer by the indie developer Matt Makes Games. Even though the game was designed to be extremely challenging — confronting and overcoming difficult situations is core to the game’s plot — the developer nevertheless included a range of accessibility options, including an extensive “Assist Mode”. By activating this mode, players could slow the game down, change specific game mechanics, or even skip sections entirely.

AAA developers have also taken significant strides toward accessibility in recent years. For example, 2020’s much-anticipated The Last of Us Part II was hailed as “the most accessible game ever”, offering more than sixty different accessibility settings. The forthcoming God of War: Ragnarok plans to go even further. The streaming platform Twitch, meanwhile, recently launched several new accessibility features, including allowing viewers to identify themselves to channel creators as audio- or video-only.

Of course, progress has not always been smooth. For example, the recent launch of the action RPG Elden Ring — another game that places difficulty at the heart of its ethos — reignited the ongoing debate over whether accessibility features can undermine a game’s artistic purpose. And despite the strides taken by developers, disabled gamers continue to struggle. A recent study by Scope found that 66% of gamers with an impairment say they continue to face barriers.

The question, then, is whether the metaverse will mark an acceleration of the current trend toward accessibility in video games or whether the race to enter this exciting new online space will leave disabled users behind.

Accessible design benefits everyone

Many factors complicate the question of accessibility and inclusivity in the metaverse. Indeed, the development of accessible tech is prime among them. The metaverse, as most imagine it, will require new peripherals that can support XR displays and interfaces. Still, the concept of a more immersive virtual realm poses accessibility issues. Unless the metaverse is built from the ground up with accessibility in mind, it could become even more exclusionary than the existing digital world.

Thankfully, many designers, engineers and programmers recognise that prioritising accessibility benefits all users. For example, features designed to support disabled users — haptic feedback and voice recognition, for instance — have become commonplace in digital devices and are now routinely used by non-disabled people to improve their experience. As the XR Association has stressed in its developer guidelines, “Designing for an “average” user can lead to inflexible and constraining configurations for all, while inclusive designs often produce more adaptable and flexible technology.”

With this in mind, accessibility features such as eye-tracking controls in VR headsets should not be considered additional or supplementary options to cater to a niche user group. Instead, they should be seen as providing a more open, flexible, and user-friendly experience for everyone, regardless of their specific needs or how they identify.

Of course, disabled users are not the only ones at risk of being excluded from the metaverse unless we take steps to build it equitably and inclusively. However, given the metaverse presentation as a highly interactive space centred on social engagement, all users must be able to express and represent their uniqueness.

But for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC users especially, this possibility can’t be taken for granted. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the Web3 space has inherited some of the inequities of the tech sector, and avatar creation tools will not always allow users to embody their identities fully. For example, a recently launched project by the skincare and cosmetics brand Clinique, Metaverse Like Us, aims to combat the narrow choices that tend to be offered for metaverse avatars.

Above all, we must remember that it is not a question of choosing which group to prioritise when it comes to accessibility and inclusion, nor should different identities be seen as mutually exclusive. After all, many disabled people are neither white nor straight. Tackling accessibility issues in isolation will likely only serve to reinforce exclusionary practices. At the very least, it will ensure that accessibility remains an afterthought designed to cater to specific groups.

The future of accessibility in the metaverse

Accessibility and inclusivity must be prioritised considering Web3’s promise of an open, decentralised, and egalitarian future for the web. The shift to a new web era provides us with the perfect opportunity to build accessibility into the very foundations — and the same goes for the emerging metaverse.

Thankfully, we can already see positive and proactive steps taken by the first movers in the metaverse. For example, on 24th June, The Sandbox will launch the “Valley of Belonging”, a diversity and inclusion hub that it produces in collaboration with People of Crypto Lab. As the COO of The Sandbox, Sebastien Borget, puts it: “Rather than replicating the biases and inequality of the real world, the metaverse must break barriers and forge an inclusive, welcoming global community.”

These initial steps are promising, and they sit alongside broader initiatives within the crypto space to promote accessibility and inclusivity, including the recent upsurge of NFT projects highlighting artists from diverse backgrounds.

Here at Cudos, we aim to power the metaverse by providing a secure and sustainable source of decentralised cloud computing. Our goal is to ensure that the metaverse — and Web3 more widely — can fulfil its promise to re-decentralise the web. But to do so, it must have accessibility at its heart. Only a web built for everyone will truly fulfil our most egalitarian aspirations.

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About Cudos

Cudos is powering the metaverse bringing together DeFi, NFTs and gaming experiences to realise the vision of a decentralised Web3, enabling all users to benefit from the growth of the network. We’re an interoperable, open platform launchpad that will provide the infrastructure required to meet the 1000x higher computing needs for the creation of fully immersive, gamified digital realities. Cudos is a Layer 1 blockchain and Layer 2 community-governed compute network, designed to ensure decentralised, permissionless access to high-performance computing at scale. Our native utility token CUDOS is the lifeblood of our network and offers an attractive annual yield and liquidity for stakers and holders.

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Originally published at https://www.cudos.org.

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