Accessible gaming: An interview with Ian Hamilton: Part 2

Thursday, 19 June 2014 10:46am

Media Access Australia spoke to Ian Hamilton, UX designer, accessibility specialist and co-author of the Game Accessibility Guidelines about accessibility issues in gaming.

The Guidelines, a free web-based resource created to help developers create games which are more inclusive of disabled gamers, were recognised at the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman’s Awards, picking up the prize for Advancement in Accessibility.

In this second and final part of a two-part interview, Ian spoke about how barriers to accessible gaming could be overcome, the creation of the game accessibility guidelines, and the best gaming platform for accessibility.

In the first part of the interview, Ian spoke about common accessibility issues, how accessibility has been addressed by game developers and device manufacturers, and some of the barriers to producing accessible games.

Media Access Australia: How can these barriers be overcome?

The really great thing about game development compared to other industries is that people are far more likely to be in it for the right reasons, passionate about their vision and creation being able to reach as many people as possible. So once people are actually aware of accessibility of a concept and aware that there are many simple answers, they're usually pretty keen. It's just a question of getting that initial awareness. There are people working hard at this, many individuals both inside and outside game studios, charities and organisations too, such as SpecialEffect, AbleGamers, IGDA-GASIG and Film Victoria. But there's a great deal of work to do, and hopefully this recognition by the FCC will help to spread that awareness.

There's another type of barrier too, particularly in larger studios and those with strong publisher relationships, which is misconceptions not amongst the developers themselves, but their management. Business people who quite rightly question value for money and business cases, but unfortunately often relying on incorrect assumptions about cost & reach.

There's a powerful tool available to fix that though. Games are usually riddled with analytics, gathering metrics on all aspects of gameplay. Put a few hooks into the UI as well, track how many people play with subtitles turned on, colour blind mode turned on, with reconfigured controls etc., and compare that data to cost to develop, and you then have a concrete dollar-based business case.

Some smaller studios have done this already, discovering gems such as MUDRammer having a 12% blind player base, Solara's most high value spenders on in-app-purchases being blind, The Last Door's 2 days of work creating a dyslexia friendly alternative font choice resulting in 14% of their first 150,000 players choosing to play through to completion using it, and so on. If someone like EA or Ubisoft was to gather and publish data like that, we'd very quickly see some wide scale changes.

What is the background to the creation of the game accessibility guidelines?

They originated in internal guidelines on game accessibility that I worked on at the BBC back in the first half of 2010. This foundation eventually evolved into a personal reference, building on later experiences with profoundly motor/cognitive impairment in particular, up until the point at which I started working on advocacy in the wider industry - talks and the like. I kept being asked the same question over and over —'you've sold me, so what now? Where's the definitive resource?' There were resources available, but nothing definitive, either short wish lists, or hefty tomes of design patterns, so I set out to expand that initial reference into a developer-friendly resource.

So I got it into reasonable shape, and took it along to the accessibility day at the Games for Health conference, and worked with others there to shape it into an initial draft. That draft was then worked on collaboratively by a group of like-minded individuals, all donating their time freely. It was an international group, including game developers such as Headstrong Games and Aardman Digital, specialists ranging from Barrie Ellis, a leading authority on switch accessibility, and Gareth Ford-Williams, the BBC's head of accessibility. Also leading academics in the field, Thomas Westin and Dimitris Grammenos, and standards consultant Ed Lee.

The knowledge and content was the easy part, the really critical part was getting it into as appropriate form as possible for developers, in language, depth, breadth and structure. That started with some basic categorisation rules, assessing each guideline on a balance of reach (number of people who benefit), impact (how strong the benefit is) and value (cost), so we would have some basic quick wins that would help large numbers for little effort, such as designing without relying on colour alone, advanced features for designing for specific niche audiences, eg. an audio sonar, and intermediate too, things that take a bit more effort and consideration than basic, but still help large numbers, such as being able to adjust difficulty during gameplay.

The inclusion of cost as a factor is something fairly unique in accessibility guidelines, but it's important, allowing the guidelines to be pragmatic. In gaming there isn't a set level that's achievable across all games, so there needs to be as much guidance as possible on how to prioritise features.

Then of course there was extensive testing, running the guidelines by as many studios as possible, and disabled gamers too, both before and after launch, including Stitching Accessibility in the Netherlands running a some extensive research with gamers with a wide range of impairments.

How do the guidelines help address accessibility issues?

The guidelines provide simple tips in the form of a simple checklist style list, with more detail available on each one if needed. This extra detail is kept light, and focused on two things: context and examples. Quotes from gamers and developers explaining the reason for and impact of the guideline, screenshots of games that already do it well, and links to external resources for more detail if needed. There's also advice on workflow, most importantly how critical it is to consider these issues from the outset, before any code is written.

Although they're a great reference, it's important to remember that guidelines aren't all there is to it. As in any industry there are three main ways of improving accessibility - following best practice guidelines, seeking expert advice, and testing with people with disabilities. These are pretty much the holy trinity of accessibility. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but if you can manage more than one of them, the weaknesses are cancelled out and you stand the best possible chance of reaching a wider audience.

Will accessibility in games ever become a mainstream issue, or gain the global momentum that something like web accessibility has?

It is inevitable. Momentum is growing, and what I've seen from working across different industries is that people in gaming are far more likely to be in it for the right reasons - because they're passionate about getting their creative vision out to the players. Once they realise there is a problem, game developers are often pretty unhappy about the prospect of people being unnecessarily excluded and want to do something about it, more so than other industries. It's just a case of getting to the point where enough developers A. know it's a problem and B. know how to address it. Hopefully publicity with this award will help to raise that awareness.

It's important though to recognise that games are a bit different to other types of media. They are designed specifically as little pieces of inaccessibility, to meet the definition of 'game' there must be some challenge to overcome. Without that, it would just be a toy or an interactive narrative. And any challenge will be an impassable barrier for some people.

What the challenge (i.e. core mechanic) is varies from game to game. So it's about looking at games on a case by case basis, looking at all of the barriers and working out which ones are necessary and which are unnecessary, to ensure that no-one is unnecessarily excluded. What in one game is a trivial design decision that could easily be reversed could in another game be the whole foundation of the gameplay.

So because of that it can't work in the same way as web for example, where you have a set compliance level that all websites should aim for. Essentially each game has its own set of accessibility considerations that are appropriate.

While that may sound like a complicated prospect, it's actually pretty simple. Even if you just spend a few hours at the outset of development, before any code is written, thinking about it from other people's points of view, thinking about the top level types of impairment (motor, vision, cognitive, hearing, speech) and whether any of those face unnecessary barriers that can be avoided, you'll make a huge difference; for all players, not just those with disabilities.

Can you offer any advice on whether certain consoles/gaming hardware and certain games are more accessible than others?

It depends entirely on what kind of impairments are involved. For vision impairments, the best option at the moment is iOS, by a very large margin. Deafness is fairly well catered for across the board, the majority of games across platforms have subtitles (even if they aren't generally done well!). For motor, in general PC, where remappable controls are more common. PCs also have a far greater range of assistive tech available than consoles, although technologies such as Kinect on the Xbox have seen some great results with people who don't have the fine motor control to operate a controller, but have good enough gross motor ability to make large gestures. Kinect's speech recognition is a boon too, reducing the motor effort needed to navigate the system, and cuts the cognitive burden too. For more profound cognitive impairment, low functioning autism and the like, again it's worth checking out iOS, firstly due to the direct cause and effect nature of the touch-screen, but also due to its 'guided access' feature, which allows parents/carers to lock players into a single app, and turn off certain areas of the interface.

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