The Right to Play: Accessibility in Gaming


For Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2018, Ian Hamilton, a specialist in game accessibility, chats to Potato.

Why is accessibility in gaming a focus for you?

Accessibility in gaming is important because gaming is important. It’s a huge part of our culture and society, so it would be an equally huge deal to be excluded from it. It’s a $100 billion industry (for context, the global music industry is worth $16 billion and box office cinema $40 billion) — a great deal of revenue can be gained or lost through accessibility. Another important reason is of course the difference it makes to people’s lives. Games offer access to recreation, culture, socialising. These are things that many people take for granted, but if for any reason your access to any of those is restricted in day to day life, being able to access them through games instead can make games a really powerful contributor to your quality of life.

Personally, my initial interest in the area came from seeing play-testing footage of preschool games that had been adapted for accessibility switches. Accessibility switches are the same kind of technology that Stephen Hawking famously used, devices that send a simple on-off signal such as a button on wheelchair headrest. When I was at school myself we had an exchange program with an special education school, so through that I’d already seen kids with that kind of level of motor impairment just lying there being passive participants. But through what were really quite simple design considerations I was now instead seeing them laughing, smiling, playing, doing the same thing as their classmates, equal participants in society. It was pretty hard not to be inspired by that, seeing how our day to day work has the power to really fundamentally transform people’s lives.

What basic level of accessibility should every game developer be implementing?

A key difference between accessibility in games and accessibility in other industries is that they by definition must be inaccessible. To meet the definition of “game” there must be some kind of challenge involved, and any challenge will for some people be an accessibility barrier. To remove all barriers would mean it was no longer a game, it would be a toy or a narrative.

Every game has a really wide range of barriers. Some are a core part of what makes the game fun, and some are not. So unlike for example WCAG2.0 AA (medium level of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), rather than there being a long fixed list of what constitutes a reasonable level of accessibility, it’s instead an optimisation process. Figuring out which barriers in that individual game are necessary and which are unnecessary, and working to avoid the unnecessary ones.However, there are a few key accessibility issues that are complained about more often than others, and they are avoidable in most games. Text size, colour use, fixed control schemes and reliance on audio. The basic solutions are decent default size, using other signifiers in addition to colour, re-mappable controls and decent subtitling. They really aren’t rocket science, there isn’t R&D involved, it’s just a case of doing them.

There’s also now a legal requirement for accessibility of communication in games, due to a piece of legislation in the USA called CVAA (21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act). Any game launching after Jan 1st, 2019 must ensure that any communications functionality (such as team chat) and any surrounding interface used to navigate to and operate it must be accessible to people with a wide range of impairments.

What platform offers particularly interesting accessibility features beyond the minimum?

Xbox has done some great things recently. Some platform level functionality is in common with other platforms, things like text to speech for system UI, mono toggle for unilateral hearing loss, zoom, and so on. But there are two particularly interesting and, currently, unique things.

Firstly, an API for realtime transcription between text and speech. A player can choose whether they want to communicate with other players using text or using voice, and a player can also choose whether they want to receive communication from other players using text or using voice. The system translates in real time between the two; screenreader style text to speech combined with Siri style speech to text. It means even a blind player and a deaf player can easily communicate with each other. The tech isn’t perfect, and complicated by there being so much unique game-specific (e.g. “equipping my Drakon rifle”) and gamer-specific (e.g. “You’re a noob”) terminology, but its effectiveness is something that will only improve in future.

Second is co-pilot mode. It’s one of those ideas that’s so brilliantly simple that it seems odd that no-one thought of it earlier. It allows players to plug in two controllers, and have them both do exactly the same as each other. This opens up all kinds of possibilities. A parent can jump in and assist their child. Players can turn any game into a custom co-op experience, which can have accessibility implications itself; like a blind friend of mine who’s able to play the shooting aspect of Doom through audio alone, but not navigate the environment, so he has a friend do the walking while he does the shooting.

But the co-pilot functionality was actually designed as a way for one player to split controls across both controllers. So you can, for example, use the left-hand side of one controller with your left hand, and then because you don’t have a right hand, use the right-hand side of a second controller with your foot. Being able to split a controller like that used to solely be the domain of expensive custom-built setups, so to do it just with a couple of standard controllers is a really wonderful democratisation of tech.

Is anyone nailing it?

No-one is nailing accessibility in games yet, we’re still a way off yet seeing games that are as accessible as they could or should be. There are, however, a bunch of people making strides in the right direction, and it has been really encouraging to see bigger studios getting onboard over the past year in particular. Such as subtitle presentation in Assassin’s Creed Origins, motor accessibility options in Uncharted 4, and Madden 18 being made accessible to blind gamers. There are lots of smaller and independent studios doing great things too.

The different ends of the industry have different kinds of pressures and barriers to implementation. It’s about lack of awareness now; at the indie end it’s more often misconceptions about cost and time and thinking about it too late in development. At the big budget end, it’s more often misconceptions about market size and return on investment, how to get others onboard, and how to prioritise amongst huge backlogs.

Game menu systems are notoriously complex. Does this present a problem for disabled gamers before they even start playing?

Menu complexity in games can indeed present accessibility barriers, both motor and cognitive. The trick really is in exposing the right level of complexity at the right time to the right people. Some people want lots of detail and configuration, some don’t. So things like quick start modes, nesting, bundling options together into presets + custom all have real value. Keeping things simple has obvious value, but it needs to be balanced with providing enough affordance. Less does not always mean easier.

Voice control in games seems like an opportunity for increasing both accessibility and engagement. What can we expect to see in the future?

Ultimately, as with any new tech, it opens doors for some people and slams them shut for others. So the key is to offer it as an optional alternative, always ensure there are other means possible. For example in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, the option to execute your spells through either voice or through your controller.

What accessibility factors are unique to operating in a virtual 3D environment?

3D environments present unique accessibility barriers pretty much across the board. For example, the complexity of input devices and movement that are required to navigate 3D environments. The implications for vision that come from objects at different depths. How complex environments can be understood and navigated with no vision. The simulation sickness that can come from incorrect FOV angles. Then on top of that, there’s VR too, which brings a whole host of extra demands on the player. The immediate barrier of having to wear a bulky headset, which not everyone is able to do, and requirements to sit, stand, crouch, kneel, reach specific heights, and to be able to move two arms around while using two sets of working fingers. Even just simply not having a screen bottom to put subtitles along. A group of us wrote a more in depth blog about it that you can read here.

The good news is that while some issues — particularly with VR — are inherent to the platform, the vast majority of issues are pretty simple to address as long as they’re considered early enough in the development stages.

In competitive multiplayer games, how do you handle accessibility features that give an advantage or remove some element of the game?

As always, there’s a limit, some necessary barriers that can’t be worked around. But there’s still plenty that can be improved for competitive multiplayer games. It falls into three areas.

Firstly, considerations that don’t offer an unfair advantage, like being able to reconfigure your controls, or change the colour of map markers.

Then the considerations that address barriers to entry at lower levels, but for higher levels of play they are either not helpful, or an actual disadvantage. Aim assist is a classic example. It allows lots of people to take part and have fun who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, but it is slower and less accurate than a high-level player aiming manually.

Minecraft is another example, they started out working on a really in-depth system that allowed full 3D spatialisation of where sounds were coming from, but they figured that would be a competitive advantage for people who turned it on. So they scaled it back to a much simpler approach, with the goal of it being equivalent to using stereo speakers.

So it’s actually the same kind of approach that is used on TV; if the source of the audio is off-screen, there’s just a simple left or right arrow on the side of the caption saying which direction it is coming from.

Lastly, there’s matchmaking, which allows players to choose to play with others who have similar needs or preferences to themselves. For example, Grand Theft Auto V offering the choice to play with or without players who have auto aim on, Halo Reach offering the same with voice communication, Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds offering the same with players who use third person view.

Are there any good tools and resources out there?

Indeed, there’s gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, which recently had a content and functionality refresh for its 5th anniversary. It’s a free-to-use resource on barriers and potential solutions, backed up by quotes from gamers and developers, and with examples of good existing practices. There’s also a dedicated conference on game accessibility (GAconf) which has run for the past two years in San Francisco and is due to come to Paris this October. If you’re working on HTML5 games, it’s also worth checking out the BBC-driven accessibility manager in the pixi.js framework.

What’s the future of accessibility? What’s next?

I think a few things need to happen: inclusion of accessibility in undergraduate game development education, players being able to have a reasonable expectation that a game they pick up will at least manage to get the basic fundamentals like text size and remapping right, and greater inclusion of accessibility as part of the general day to day fabric of development, something that is considered as part of the process rather than bolted on at the end.

Part of that is companies caring enough to financially invest in dedicated resources. EA Sports now have a full time dedicated accessibility lead. To people working in other industries that may not seem like a big deal, but there hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a dedicated full-time accessibility person in-house in a game studio before. So it’s pretty important. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see more of it.

I’d also love to see continued progress at platform level. As of this year every major platform, such as Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, iOS, Android, PC — has dedicated accessibility features. That isn’t something that has happened before, ever. It’s something that needs to be built upon, and there are resources available to help.

In terms of specific considerations, I think the two areas we’re likely to see progress on are subtitling and blind accessibility. Subtitles in games are awful across the board compared to other industries, but we’re now seeing increasing numbers of games making efforts; descriptive captions for background sounds in Tomb Raider, optional speaker names in Assassin’s Creed, configurable background contrast in God Of War, choice of text size in Hitman. We shouldn’t be too far off from these efforts being consolidated, meaning we’ll start to see the kind of robust and configurable systems that are really taken for granted in other industries.

What advice on accessibility would you give to a developer just starting out?

The most important piece of advice I could give is simply to do something. Do anything. It may sound trite but it’s important to keep that in mind. So often I’ve seen companies, outside of game development as well as within, who see a huge mountain of possibilities in front of them and out of fear of not being able to do everything, decide to do nothing. That’s the worst possible thing you can do.

There’s no way that anyone can ever nail everything on their first attempt, there’s no shame in that. Just find yourself some quick wins and low hanging fruit, there are always some. Anything you do, no matter how small, will simply make your product a better experience for more people. You’ll learn from that experience, take important lessons through on to your next project. And so long as each iteration is always a step forward rather than a step back, you can’t fail to get to a good place.

About Ian

As well as a background in design and UX, Ian has ten years experience in the field of game accessibility. His focus was initially in gaming for preschool children with profound and multiple disabilities, but he now works in the wider industry with developers, publishers, academics and the like — to raise the profile and understanding of accessibility throughout the games industry.


Originally published at p.ota.to on 17th May 2018