Change the Game: Games Accessibility

Recreated for Google Play Change the Game mentoring program viewers. Please note that the text may not perfectly match, as these are my notes.

Hello! My name is Morgan Baker and today we will be discussing Games Accessibility. If you have any questions, I’ll save time at the end of the call for you. Additionally, I’ll be asking questions throughout this presentation. I ask that you drop your answers in the chat, and don’t hold back. There is no such thing as a bad answer, so I encourage you to participate as much as you’d like.

First a little bit about myself, I am games accessibility specialist and designer. I help studios ensure that they are not excluding players with disabilities from their gameplay, and you’ll find that my work stretch across many aspects of the field and industry. Sometimes I help with software, other times I help with hardware. I’ve worked with large groups like Sony, Xbox, and Netflix, all the way down to smaller groups like The Odd Gentlemen and Exploding Kittens.

Accessibility tends to touch every aspect of game development and a game’s development cycle, so I’ve worked with engineering teams, QA teams, game designers, artists, animators, sometimes sound designers or UX designers. No role in the games industry is exempt from the practice of accessibility. Which makes my job pretty fun, because I get to help developers take their vision to the next level by making it not only a fun and engaging game, but also accessible for everyone regardless of ability. 

Also you can see on this slide my two little corgis, Midna and Zelda. Can you guess my favorite game series? 😀

What is accessibility? There are tons of definitions out there, but they mostly boil down to “People can interact with things regardless of ability.” I say “things” because this can quite literally be anything. School, books, movies, buildings, restaurants, and in the case of today’s discussion: games. This means that any person with say, a disability, can access these things with ease and efficiency. Being blind, deaf, or physically disabled—or perhaps having a cognitive or neurological condition. A service, space, or product can be used regardless.

Accessibility is linked to practices of inclusive and universal designs, but it highly focuses on people with disabilities. Meaning, making sure someone who is disabled can, in our case, play our games.

What is an example of accessibility? This can be accessibility ANYWHERE! Here are some of mine:

  • An elevator or ramp
  • Automatic doors
  • Sign language interpreter
  • Screen reader or braille
  • Wheelchair or cane
  • Content warnings
  • Text to speech software

15% of the world has one or more disability. That is roughly 1 in 7 people, and that’s over a billion people on the planet. We learn about common disabilities such as hearing, vision, speech, cognitive, and motor. If you check any dictionary, you’ll find that disability tends to be defined as, “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities.”

What’s an example of other disabilities we know?

But in the context of accessibility, a sometimes better way of talking about disability is a mismatch between an individual and their environment.  Disability is created by how society is structured, and how we sometimes arbitrarily decided things need to be.

Is it someone who uses a wheelchair fault that there are stairs instead of a ramp? Is it a deaf person’s fault that humans ended up evolving to use speech instead of sign language?

Yeah, in many contexts, we can say it is a medical condition, for example I have rheumatoid arthritis and I’m not going to say it’s society’s fault that my hand hurts when I wake up, but it would be nice if controllers had better grips so I wouldn’t have to hold it so tightly and potentially cause a flare up.

So in the context of games, we like to focus on the mismatch between the player and the game, and what we can do as industry members to make it so a person can access the game with not unintended challenges. 

Therefore, accessibility means removing unintended gameplay barriers to ensure players can game, regardless of abilities.

A game is accessible to someone so long as no sorts of mismatches exist. For example, if someone is deaf and watching a cutscene in their game, we can provide subtitles so they can understand dialogue. 

If someone has one hand and cannot use the left or right side of a controller, we can let them remap the controls so that they can play one handed. Or better yet, make our games flexible with adaptive technology! Should it matter if someone is playing one handed vs. using a XAC and so on? Most cases, not really. 

What disabilities do you think would benefit from games accessibility?

Accessibility, however, is extremely universal and benefits everyone. It is a solve for one, but extends to many. 

We can break the reasons someone would need accessibility into three categories. The first is permanent meaning someone who has a condition that is unchanged in nature. The second is temporary, such as someone who’s has an injury, infection, or any other temporary situation. The last category is situational meaning perhaps someone who would still benefit from accessibility even if they may not necessarily fall under the category of having a permanent or temporary condition.

For example, closed captions or subtitles benefit people who are deaf, have a temporary ear infection that impacts their hearing, or patrons at a bar who cannot hear the television over the chatter and music of nightlife.

In general, the people who might benefit the most from accessible design are people who you might not even think of. By adding accessibility to our games, we are avoiding unnecessary barriers that would negatively impact people’s enjoyment, whether it be for permanent, temporary, or situational reasons.

What is an example of games accessibility? Here are some of mine:

  • Subtitles
  • Font changes
  • Scaling UI
  • Controller remapping
  • Camera sensitivity
  • No information conveyed via color alone

So we’re noticed a lot of different types of accessibility. But we want to make sure that when we are implementing accessibility, we can do more than just the bare minimum. For example, just because a game has subtitles, doesn’t mean it’s 100% accessible to deaf players. Sound cues might not have corresponding visual cues. Or in every deaf gamer’s nightmare, the font might be too small to actually read.

Accessibility can actually come in many forms! Sometimes you’ll find them in the options menu, where players can adjust and select options to tailor the experience to their individual needs. Other times you’ll find it baked straight into a cake, kinda like adding blueberries straight into a batter when baking a cake! Both are very viable, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. 

An example of baking an option would making sure your game is compatible with certain adaptive hardware.

An example of options would be like adding subtitle options to your menu for players with hearing disabilities. 

Have you played a recent game that offers accessibility in the options?

In fact, accessibility options go waaaaay back! One of the earliest publicly playable computer games, exhibited as part of the Canadian National Exhibition on Toronto, includes options to configure the difficulty over a wide range. It’s called Bertie the Brain and was made in 1950, and essentially this guy named Josef Kates created tic-tac-toe where players would play against a machine and could adjust the difficulty level based on their needs. 

Looks like not too much has changed, customizing is really overpowered! Here we have Horizon Zero Dawn and if you tab through all these menus, you will find tons of accessibility options.

Another favorite example of mine is the Nintendo Hands Free controller! Commercially released controller manufactured by Nintendo USA, consisting of a sip and puff controller for A/B/start/select and a chin joystick for d-pad directions.

As it turns out, it’s still being used today! You can actually check out all the cool tubes and gadgets this man uses to perform complex, input systems. All with his head!

And accessibility kept ramping up and up until eventually we have a bunch of great organizations! In fact I couldn’t even fit them all on one slide anymore, so here are just a bunch of honorable mentions…

To the point where there are now games completely playable for people who are sightless—meaning no vision at all. Here is an example of The Last of Us Part II, which uses optimized audio cues and visual components—for those who might still have some minimal sight—to make the game beatable from start to finish with little to now vision at all. In fact, it won the very first TGA Innovation in Accessibility Award back in 2020. See! Games accessibility has progressed so rapidly, we now have awards for devs and studios who push the boundaries. 

But where is accessibility going…? We’ve seen a little bit today on what people were doing in the past, and what folks are doing now… but what now. What can we do to keep pushing the boundaries?

Well, the future is accessible. Companies are now starting dedicated teams to help create accessibility initiatives. Whether it’s within individual studios as lead roles, or managerial positions publisher wide, every single year more and more people are engaging with accessibility. Accessibility is here, and it’s here to stay. 

But the biggest way we can continue to make our games more and more accessible is by embracing it as a mindset. Think of accessibility early, and think of accessibility often.

Remember at the beginning of this talk when I said my daily role involves talking to many devs within many teams? Animation, engineering, design, sound, UX, research, and so on? Well that’s because the only way for accessibility to work is for all of us to be on board. As you think about games, whether you are playing them or making them, be the one to ask, “how can we make this more accessible?” 

We can make games extremely accessible, so long as everyone has the knowledge and resources.

In fact, right now, you can go get your certification in gaming accessibility. Seriously, Microsoft offers a free course that doesn’t take too much time, where you can learn the basics. Honestly? No dev experience is really required, anyone can take this. Just look up Gaming Accessibility Fundamental.

Thanks for having me today and I hope you learned some new things. If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the chat, or you can connect with me on socials @momoxmia or my website 😀