Permission to Play: Accessibility in Gaming

For many of us when we sit down to play a game, we do not think twice about what we are doing. We turn on our PC or console, take our controller and begin to play. It is not that easy for everyone. Imagine you did not have full use of your hands; the mouse makes it more difficult to interact with the game and you end up frustrated, feeling left out of the experience. Imagine you were deaf and the game you bought did not have subtitles therefore you can’t understand what the context of your actions are nor what any of the characters are saying. There are many ways in which players are unable to interact with games due to disability and this issue is known as accessibility. Game Accessibility Guidelines, a website that provides many guidelines and methods of making a game more accessible for different types of disabilities, shows that around 15% of the population as a whole are disabled in some way (a disabilty is a physical or mental problem that has an impact on the individual’s way of life). As high as that sounds, the number rises to 20% within the increasingly expanding gaming community. There is no ‘typical gamer’ with each individual person having different needs; with disabilities some people have more extreme cases than others. The guidelines are so important that they won an award from the US-based Federal Communications Commission in the intellectual and disability category. More developers are becoming aware of the audience that requires greater assistance from them in order to play the game and experience it as the developer intended, but there still needs to be more awareness raised about the topic.

Battlefield 4 includes a colourblind mode, which changes the team colours for various types of impairment
Battlefield 4 includes a colourblind mode, which changes the team colours for various types of impairment

I first learned about accessibility in the 2nd year of my game design course at university. The module taught it as general accessibility when interacting with interfaces, but it applied to our degree field in particular. We learned how users with visual difficulties could use screen readers for websites and how websites could provide different colour schemes for users that were colour blind. When I entered my 4th year of university I was approached about a degree project working with a special educational needs school in Glasgow to create a game accessible for children with a wide range of disabilities. I agreed to participate in it because I was interested in the challenge and a topic area not many people had focused on before. I started by visiting my school and finding out about the range of abilities the children had and then investigating what was available to disabled players to aid their game play experience. This unlocked many questions: why were many games still being designed without considering users with disabilities? What tools were available for players to easily adapt their games to suit their needs? How easy is it to design a game and include as many methods as possible to allow players to adapt their game to their needs? What I discovered through this research was the staggering lack of work out there highlighting the importance of accessibility. It also became apparent that the audience being excluded from many games being released was quite large, especially considering the improving technology. Through this lack of work however there were groups that I discovered that were helping disabled players improve their experience in games.

There’s a limit to what can be done on the software side alone, but there is now a market for controllers for players who may not be able to use a mouse, Xbox nor PlayStation controller as easily

One case study of a game excluding an entire audience was Doom3, this game was released without any subtitling at all. Deaf players were outraged as they felt something out of their control prevented them from enjoying a game they were looking forward to. Without subtitles they did not understand what was going on. A project called Doom3(CC) was built around modifying the game and including subtitles for players who were deaf to be able to join in and enjoy the experience as much as everyone else did.

Developed by Ben Heck, the modular access controller was designed to work with PC, PS2 and PS3
Developed by Ben Heck, the modular access controller was designed to work with PC, PS2 and PS3

Through my research I found a large number of players with hearing difficulties to be very annoyed at the first person shooter (FPS) genre. When players wanted to try out multiplayer, their only guide to knowing if they were being targeted was through a dot on a map or seeing another player in front of them. They could not hear the footsteps, explosions or clip change. Through no fault of their own they were at a major disadvantage, and some have been finding this with many multiplayer FPS AAA games.

Meanwhile some players who have difficulty with hand and eye coordination, which in turn affects their reaction times, have found games that focus on timed events are not easy to play. For example, in Tomb Raider 2013 such ‘quick timed events’ (QTEs) require specific buttons to be pressed within a time frame. This is an often criticised game play mechanic that became prevalent throughout the previous generation. Due to these difficulties they struggle to press the buttons in time and therefore end up dead. There are not many modifications available to make it easier for players with such difficulties, although the recent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 allows you to turn QTEs off in the menu, which is a welcome addition.

Although there are cases of games not catering for disabled players there are projects that are being created to raise awareness of accessibility and charities to help cater to players. Some games for consoles and PC have options to adjust the settings to player preferences. Different levels of audio can be adjusted (master, SFX) which can suit people with cognitive difficulties, subtitles can be toggled and now some companies are showing how players with motor difficulties can play games with just a single switch, which often requires control mapping or slight modifications to games. There’s a limit to what can be done on the software side alone, but there is now a market for controllers for players who may not be able to use a mouse, Xbox nor PlayStation controller as easily. Celebrity hardware hacker Ben Heck, who previously created the access controller for eDimensional, has been quick to break down the PS4 and Xbox One controllers for one handed use, although his hourly rate of $125 for creating such solutions will no doubt be out of most people’s price range. As controllers become more sophisticated custom solutions become ever more expensive, and charities are appealing for funding towards these type of controllers to be made more available to players, and for game companies to consider accommodating easy modification to the game for these controls. During my studies it was extremely clear that fun games could still be made through one switch, two switches or a single stick with some modified buttons. Game designers just have to allow it!

Blindside is an audio only adventure game set in a 3 dimensional environment
Blindside is an audio only adventure game set in a 3 dimensional environment

An interesting project I came across was a game titled “Blindside”, designed for players who had very little to no sight at all. The game is driven mainly through sound that guides the player. It is an extremely powerful project that can highlight to developers how they can include features in the games they design to assist players who have visual difficulties. Meanwhile, in a less extreme example, Battlefield, one of the most popular shooters, includes palette swap options for different types of colour blindness, allowing players to be able to identify who is on their team, demonstrating that big studios are also starting to take notice.

This year, a new type of Game Jam, ‘Accessibility Jam’, was created in order to help highlight these issues and encourage inclusive design amongst developers. It was an opportunity for developers, current and future, to learn about how they can make their games more accessible by including features to allow players to adapt the game to their needs or including certain features/mechanics to improve their game play experience. It took place over three weeks and a total of nineteen games were submitted each with unique designs to challenge accessibility. One interesting game that was submitted was called ‘DF-Valkyrie’ which uses eye tracking software to control a spaceship and shoot enemies with lasers. This allows for players who have motor disabilities to play the game through use of their eyes. Another fun game created was called ‘Ears have Eyes’ where the player uses sound in order to find a music cube.

Accessibility-Jam

Ian Hamiton, one of the advisors at Accessibility Jam, has been raising awareness about accessibility in games. I asked him what direction he felt the participants of Accessibility Jam could take the issue of accessibility in order to promote inclusive play. He told me that he felt it was ‘important to keep the conversation going’ and that developers stated they were seeing things from a new perspective. This he felt was what the Jam was about: ‘letting go and seeing things from a different perspective, recognising you are not the target audience’. I also asked him how important the role of the Accessibility Jam was in highlighting to developers not just in the UK but worldwide about difficulties disabled players experience and he felt it was hugely valuable. Ian stated that ‘One of the most common misconceptions about accessibility is the assumption that it must be difficult and expensive’ which has, as he summarised, been ‘blown out of the water’ considering many developers managed to achieve accessible games in a three week long game jam. He finished by saying that game jams are generally a ‘great way for developers to escape from the daily grind and experiment with new ideas, things they’ve been interested in but haven’t had a chance to experiment with in their day jobs, and accessibility falls perfectly under that banner’.

Several charities now exist to help players with disabilities access the games they love. One charity called SpecialEffect helps children with disabilities access games, they have several success stories. One of them is of a young boy with cerebral palsy and how they helped him gain access to his Xbox through use of chin controlled switches and joysticks. Another charity called AbleGamers helps players with disabilities in many ways. They provide a social network for players to share ideas on the issue, as well as consultations to game companies on how to ensure their games are more accessible and, through funding, are able to provide grants to different parts of the gaming community. These charities and many more are essential in ensuring players with disabilities can gain access to the games they love and are not excluded from the games community.

DF Valkyrie
DF Valkyrie

Our own game QuadBox is not exempt from accessibility issues, but I only realised this after I had finished studying. During the semester large groups of school kids were visiting the games lab and had a go at the game, one boy was colour blind and that affected his play experience. We are seeking to adapt the game to colour blind versions in the future, however, there are many different colour schemes that need to be considered and that will take some further research. As it is a motion based game it also makes it difficult for players with motor disabilities to interact with, however, we would look at how we could adapt the game to include those players in the game experience. During the design of the game at Game Jam the team agreed on a very basic layout; no menus upon menus, basic text that was large with simple explanations. This simplicity was created in the hope that anyone of any age would understand what the game required them to do and that players who may have cognitive difficulties would be able to manoeuvre through the game with ease. This has still to be tested – what I have learned through my 4th year project is testing the game with players who have these difficulties can provide real data and inform the designer if there are any issues that need to be looked at. We hope if the game is successful and we gain enough feedback that we can expand the accessibility of the game by understanding what players need.

These charities and many more are essential in ensuring players with disabilities can gain access to the games they love and are not excluded from the games community.

Accessibility is a huge issue within the game development community and still requires work for developers to become more aware. It would be a huge step forward if more developers considered accessibility; they would open their games to a wider audience. With increased awareness more funding could potentially be provided for accessibility charities and more players could have access to technology to improve their game experience. Players do not choose to have disabilities, therefore they should not be excluded from games due to this. There are many charities showing how both indie and AAA developers can make their games more accessible, therefore it cannot be said that there is no way to make a game more accessible. It may be very difficult to make a game fully accessible to every player in the world, but it would create a better community if developers took a small step in the right direction by looking at their games and asking themselves “How can we improve these games for players who cannot hear/see or have difficulty with cognitive processing or movements?”

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