In 2020, accessibility moved to the center of game design. After years of ambivalence, activist campaigning, and a few well-meaning wrong turns, game companies are now placing accessibility as a priority.
BY COLIN CAMPBELL
Three trends, or events, marked the past year as a turning point. First, the arrival of new consoles – or updates for older consoles – featuring an unprecedented range of accessibility options. Second, major games like The Last of Us 2 came with detailed, multiple options that were clearly the product of learning, researching, and innovating towards an end goal of creating a space in which as many people as possible could play, and enjoy.
Finally, a cultural shift became manifest, in which accessibility is now the subject of widespread online debate, media critique, and corporate action. Game companies are hiring individuals, and even departments, wholly dedicated to accessibility. They are also sharing their findings, so that other companies and rivals can benefit for all.
It’s for Everyone
It’s now understood that accessibility is for everyone. I’ll take myself as an example. As I grow older, my eyesight is deteriorating. I need reading glasses for all but the largest font sizes. But on-screen, these cause me discomfort, as I lean forward and squint. Those games – particularly mobiles games – that fail to offer font-size sliders, or magnifiers, are unplayable for me.
My hearing is in a better shape, but I find myself easily confused by in-game music or soundscapes that interfere with my understanding of dialog. I like games that let me fiddle with audio sliders, so that my experience is as comfortable as possible, even if it’s significantly different from the designers’ original purpose.
That’s just me. Accessibility is about creating options in games that resolve the vast range of individual needs. I have mild hearing and visual impairments, but options are now available in many games for blind players, or those with color blindness. Solutions are available for gamers with motor impairments that make it challenging to use input devices like game controllers. Game designers are thinking about ways to help players with cognitive impairments, like short-term memory loss.
Pushback – and yes, it exists – is being set aside as morally retrograde and downright lazy. As Steven Spohn – COO of AbleGamers – puts it: “Gaming is for everyone, and anyone who disagrees with that is a gatekeeping bullcrap artist who hates others for no reason other than to feel self-important.”
PlayStation 5 and Xbox One X launched recently, and were widely praised for their accessibility options.
PS5 comes with an automatic screen-reader, button remapping, color inversion, text sliders, and controller haptic customization. In its review, Can I Play That stated: “PS5 players will be able to enjoy speedy and stunning gameplay while being able to design a play experience best suited to their needs.”
Xbox Series X / S offers similar options, but also adds a superb feature in which two players can control the same game. This “opens up a ton of options for folks with disabilities,” according to Game Accessibility Nexus’ review.
Microsoft has recently upped its commitment to creating accessibility solutions, launching the widely admired Xbox Adaptive Controller in 2018. The company also formed the Inclusive Tech Lab, an internal facility in which visitors, including designers and students “explore how people with disabilities play, how they want to represent themselves and interact online, and what they need to truly have fun and be productive.”
I especially admire the company’s informational efforts, including a series of short, smart videos (pictured above) about accessibility in gaming, and an excellent online primer.
There were other big moments this year. Nintendo updated Switch to allow for controller customization. Amazon’s Stadia launched with a stipulation that games must feature accessibility options to qualify for certification. Game creation tools like Unreal Engine and Unity added out-of-the-box tools for game designers to add accessibility options, replacing unwieldy APIs and third-party solutions.
Peripherals manufacturer Logitech launched the Adaptive Gaming Kit (image below), which Time magazine listed as one of the best inventions of the year. It’s a clever physical interface system with a dozen switches that can be attached to parts of the body, and at around $100, it’s far cheaper than previous switch-based offerings, which tended to be modular and expensive.
Perhaps though, it was the games of 2020 that showed how far we’ve come. The Last of Us 2 won the first innovation in accessibility award at The Game Awards last week. It comes with an option to highlight the player character, and other characters, in stark, primary colors, offering enormous help to players with color or vision difficulties. It offers in-menu text-to-speech functionality, navigational assistance and even single-button options for those who either don’t want – or who struggle with – QuickTime Event button-mashing.
Offering a keynote at the IGDA Game Accessibility Special Interest Group conference in October, accessibility expert Ian Hamilton praised TLOU2 developer Naughty Dog for committing to a detailed palette of options, right from the start. “The secret sauce is thinking about accessibility early,” he said.
“More game companies are getting better with thinking of accessibility in the beginning. They are now having guidelines for developers. It’s not something where you can just make a patch to make the game easier as an afterthought.”Jessie Hall, Director of Engineering at AbleGamers
The games come through
Hamilton also praised the designers of other games, including Minecraft Edu, Dreams, Gears Tactics, Sea of Thieves, and Control. “Compared to where we were a few years ago, it’s incredible to see,” he said, also praising the dozen or so charities and advocacy groups focused on this issue. “The industry would not be where it is without them, and neither would the gaming community.”
The work of advocates, bloggers, and websites is paying off, as game companies internalize, and share information. The Immortals Fenyx Rising team at Ubisoft shared their findings in an article, before the game even came out, offering a template for other designers. “The idea here is to open up the game earlier so people can enjoy it from the start and jump right in,” wrote Jonathan Bedard, director of user experience at Ubisoft Quebec.
As Meagan Marie, Senior Community Manager at Crystal Dynamics said: “We need to reach between companies and talk to each other, learn from each other. We all want the same thing, wins for disabled gamers.”
There is still much work to be done. In his annual round-up of accessibility in games, Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit celebrated that around half the games he’d played in 2020 offered excellent or innovative options (I highly recommend the video). But that still leaves 50 per cent that did not. Game companies are still making basic mistakes. CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 launched with flashing lights, and failed to signal appropriate warnings, until a reviewer suffered a seizure.
But the biggest indicator of change might be game company hiring pages. The biggest publishers and developers are, for the first time, seeking out and employing accessibility experts.
Hamilton said: “Traditionally we’ve seen a lot of external advocates, but internally, companies have people who already have a full time job, trying to think about accessibility as well. That’s starting to change. There are now roles created internally, full time accessibility roles, and it’s really nice to see the dawn of actual advertised jobs in accessibility.”
As those hires get to work, and share their innovations, their games become available in myriad ways to more and more people.