Q&A: The importance of accessible gaming

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Friday, 20 February 2015 12:15pm

Media Access Australia spoke with accessible gaming advocate Ian Hamilton on the importance and value of accessible digital entertainment ahead of his presentation at this year’s annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference (CSUN 2015).

Xbox 360 controller resting on a flat surface. Image credit: Steve Petrucelli, Flickr

During your CSUN presentation you’ll be making the case that accessible gaming is an area that accessibility professionals should pay more attention to. Why?

There's often an assumption that gaming is trivial, just a timewaster, a niche interest, or just that in the grand scheme of things there are more important things for people to focus on.

In fact it's very far from niche. The games industry's annual revenue now tops US$80bn. To put that in context, the entire music industry is $15bn, and global cinema box office revenue is $38bn. To reach a figure of $80bn you have to combine all of the revenue from all filmed entertainment—TV, DVDs, streaming, cinema box office etc. So with the one exception of books, games are now the biggest entertainment medium going. They're a pervasive and deeply embedded part of our culture and society, so it's a pretty big deal to be excluded from it.

And also a pretty big deal financially for studios to miss out on the business. Blockbuster games, whether console titles such as Call of Duty or mobile such as Candy Crush or Clash of Clans, bring in figures measured in hundreds of millions of dollars (or sometimes even higher). So there's a great deal of money resting on simple design decisions such as use of colour to convey information.

And there's of course the human side of it. What games actually represent is access to recreation, to cultural life, to entertainment—these are all things that are essential for quality of life, things that mean the difference between existing and living, and of course things that are recognised by name in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). So for people who have limited opportunities to access those things in the physical world, gaming can be incredibly important.

If you're not working in the area yourself it's still worth keeping an eye on developments, as accessibility in the games industry actually has some nice potential to influence other sectors, through a combination of data gathering and settings. Games often have settings menus handling a range of accessibility options, from subtitles to controller configuration, and in online and mobile games in particular data is gathered on pretty much everything that happens in-game. So it's a relatively easy task to gather data on how many people play using which settings, which has some pretty interesting implications.

How does accessibility in gaming differ from an area such as web accessibility?

There are a couple of key differences. The first is that it is less about blindness. To be fair, web shouldn't be quite as weighted towards blindness as it currently is, certainly people with learning disabilities are neglected in web accessibility efforts, but still, a significant proportion of the barriers and the development work required in web are around alternatives for visual information.

In gaming it's a bit different. The motor and cognitive requirements for gaming are often many times more complex than using a website. Where in web you're dealing with tab/enter or a mouse with a couple of buttons, on consoles you've got a controller with 24 buttons on, some of which are analogue, two separate joysticks that need to be used simultaneously, and now with the PS4 and Wii-U even an additional touch-screen built directly into the controller. And the task itself is complex too, often with multiple simultaneous objectives and all kinds of rules and goals to keep track of.

So that opens up a whole other swathe of accessibility considerations about complexity and flexibility of controls, and how you communicate and teach mechanics and goals.

The other key difference is that to meet the definition of 'game' there must be some kind of goal and challenge, some kind of barrier. Without that you would just have a toy or an interactive narrative. Games are quite literally designed to be little pieces of inaccessibility.

So it's about evaluating the barriers in your game idea, and figuring out which of those are an essential part of the game mechanic and which are not and could be avoided. And what constitutes necessary or unnecessary barriers depends entirely on the individual game or mechanic, so it is by necessity far more pragmatic than other industries. You can't just set a bar of what's an acceptable level of accessibility in games, as what's reasonable or acceptable is unique to each game.

You’ll be arguing that game developers need to focus on two key areas: communicating information in multiple ways, and offering players flexibility in play style. Why is each of these important?

The prospect of accessibility can be quite daunting, so it's helpful to think that way, in terms of general principles. It also helps with misconceptions, as it's easy enough to see that neither of those things is about watering down your mechanic to a lowest common denominator. They're thing that are just good general game design.

Most unnecessary barriers in games can be avoided by one or other of those principles. So for communicating information in multiple ways, that would mean for example subtitles as well as audio, a diagram as well as some text, screen reader friendly text labels, or symbols as well as colour. For offering flexibility in play style, that means things like a choice of difficulty levels, being able to choose which button does what on your controller, configurable font size, or being able to choose whether or not you want to play using voice chat.

Developers and accessibility professionals may not be familiar with the Game Accessibility Guidelines you helped develop. Could you give us an overview of the guidelines and how they help facilitate accessible gaming?

Gameaccessibilityguidelines.com had its roots in work on accessible gaming that we did at the BBC back in I think 2009/2010. We had an initial set of guidelines online covering just core must-haves, and some ideas of how to flesh this out further into a nice developer resource. That didn't come off, but I did that fleshing out a bit myself just as a personal reference. Then in coming years after getting into the wider advocacy side of things, I kept being asked by developers at conference talks etc. where they could go for a good resource. There was plenty of good info out there, but nothing that was really in a practical day-to-day resource format, so I and a few other like-minded specialists, academics and game developers got together to remedy it. The bulk of that work was done throughout 2012, but it's a living resource. The pace at which both hardware and software evolve in gaming mean that unlike other industries it has to be open to frequent updates.

What's there now will look familiar to people working in web accessibility, a set of guidelines divided into three levels—basic, intermediate and advanced. However unlike WCAG they're not compliance levels. You can't really have compliance levels in games, they're there more just to give an easy way in regardless of what your level of interest is, whether you're looking for some easy quick wins or some info on how to cater for a specific profoundly disabled niche. Something really key is how the three levels came about. They're based on principles that are actually from the BBC's commissioning process. So a balance of reach (how many people benefit from the guideline, regardless of whether they're disabled), impact (the level of difference it makes to people) and value (cost/difficulty) to implement.

They're further sub-divided according to WHO (World Health Organization) category—vision, hearing etc. This again is different to WCAG's perceivable/operable etc., as the WHO categories actually map perfectly to the kind of skills that are challenged in game mechanics, in line with how developers think about their games.

The content is pretty broad, lots of considerations, so by necessity each guideline is brief. A quick overview of the problem and solution, screenshots of existing games that already do it well, and usually a direct quote from a gamer or developer about the difference it makes to them personally.

It's worth mentioning of course that as in any industry guidelines are not a silver bullet, they do not mean that someone with disabilities will play your game. It has to actually be a good game to start with, and also guidelines are open to interpretation. There are two other routes to improving accessibility, one of which is testing with gamers with disabilities, and the other is seeking expert advice. Any one of those three things will make a big difference to a game, but if you can do all three, you'll stand the best possible chance of your game being as enjoyable as possible to as many people as possible.

What are some of the recent advocacy initiatives around accessible gaming? How are they helping improve access?

A couple of the nicest recent developments are actually initiatives that started out in Australia and have gone on to be replicated elsewhere.

The first being inclusion of an accessibility category in industry awards, first in the GDAA (Game Developers Association of Australia) awards, and now also in the TIGA (The Independent Game developers Association) awards in the UK. This is obviously great for recognising the work of developers who are making the effort, but more importantly it's giving greater industry credibility to the effort, and raising a great deal of awareness about it too.

Another is inclusion of accessibility as a criterion in deciding which studios win funding from government funding programs. This was first done as a collaboration between Film Victoria and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)'s game accessibility group, with incredible success— just anecdotally since introducing the criteria they've never had a single applicant fail to consider accessibility, which is just unheard of elsewhere in the industry. So it was then extended out to a national level for 2013/2014's Screen Australia funding, and has as of January also been taken up by Creative Europe, which manages a 2.5m euro game funding program across all of Europe.

This kind of thing is a really nice carrot approach to accessibility. It gives developers a reason to really want to learn about it, rather than seeing it as another thing they're being burdened with. It also encourages them to be thinking about it at the very start of development, which of course has a huge impact on how easy and cheap it is to consider.

But again the really huge benefit is raising awareness. Many of the applicants will have not ever thought about or even heard of accessibility before, and the benefit isn't limited to them either, for every person who applies there will be many others who didn't apply but still read through all of the application information.

There are many other things that are helping too: people working on internal advocacy within the big companies like Microsoft and Sony, independent advocates and organisations working to educate developers in general, game jam events either dedicated to accessibility or with an accessibility theme, greater media coverage and more and more conference talks, and greater presence of accessibility in game development courses and the like. It's an interesting time to be involved in the field, seeing these various things really starting to take off in the last few years.

Accessible gaming is relatively under-developed compared to advancements in areas such as web accessibility. What can be done to advance this area of accessibility?

There are many advocacy goals that would help to advance the field. If anyone wants to get involved I've posted some ideas up here: Ways to further accessibility in the games industry.

But following on from the other answers, really one of the biggest barriers is still just a simple lack of awareness. And that's something that anyone at all can help with. Just keep the dialogue going. If you see someone talking about an accessibility issue on social media or on a game forum, lend a voice of support. If you see an accessibility issue in a game yourself, talk about it. Just talk about game accessibility in general, keep the conversation going, every additional person who considers it is one person closer to it becoming standard practice.

You can find out more about Ian’s presentation at CSUN 2015 on the conference’s website. You can read more about accessible gaming and Ian’s work on his website.

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