Accessibility in Gaming, Dialect

Why we need accessibility in video games

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

Players with disabilities deserve to enjoy video games.

The recently released Halo Infinite attracted broad critical acclaim for its exciting action, lush world, and compelling story. But one review will have caused concern for the game’s publisher Xbox Game Studios. Critic Ben Bayliss at Can I Play That wrote that the game is marred by “clumsy implementation” of accessibility features.

Bayliss highlighted “small text, tiny waypoints, and other hard-to-see elements” as problematic for players with sight impediments. While, he praised the game for its “vast array of accessibility settings”, he pointed out that “the number of accessibility options available does not determine if a game is accessible.”

To be fair, Xbox Game Studios and its parent company Microsoft have been at the forefront of providing greater accessibility in its games and products. Can I Play That, which provides news and reviews on games for players with disabilities, praised the company’s Xbox One Series X for its “nuanced approach to inclusion and accessibility.”

Microsoft is also responsible for the widely admired Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was designed by Spencer Allen who had an accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Using a variety of switch, button, and pad options, his invention allows players to create a custom controller at a reasonable price.

Game design with accessibility in mind has come a long way in the last few years, partly due to grass roots activism, and partly because companies like Xbox Game Studios finally recognise the moral imperative, and the financial advantages, of broadening their products’ appeal. But Halo Infinite‘s shortcomings show how much work still needs to be done to make sure that games are made with all players in mind, not just those who have perfect vision, hearing, mobility, and comprehension.

Bayliss is almost certainly correct when he notes, in his review’s conclusion, that Halo Infinite “feels as if the core game was designed first with accessibility being tacked on later down the line without much testing or input”.  Other critics noted technical problems with the game, suggesting that the development team at 343 Industries was obliged to cut corners in order to hit deadlines.

Leaving accessibility polish until late in development – or even until post-launch updates – is the norm in game development. Post-release patches are being prepared to fix glitches and shortcomings in Halo Infinite, and I don’t doubt that improving accessibility will be on 343’s to-do list.

Halo Infinite (2021) [From 343 Industries]

Why accessibility matters

For most of gaming’s history, designers made certain assumptions of the player, who were generally taken to be sighted, having use of both hands, and able to hear. Designing a game for players who do not have full capabilities of hearing, sight, and hands requires the addition of multiple tools and aids that factor in a wide spectrum of player abilities. This is a design challenge, as well as a time and financial expense, especially for teams with no experience of accessibility design. Game companies, frugal at the best of times, neglected to make the investment.

In recent years, this has changed. The Able Gamers’ Charity has spent 16 years lobbying for change. Its website offers a useful timeline of accessibility breakthroughs, most of which occurred within the last decade or so.

Sony added button mapping to the PlayStation 3’s operating system in 2009, allowing players to reconfigure the input actions of buttons on their controller. For players who have the use of, say, one hand, this is literally a game-changer. In 2014, Borderlands 2 added a colorblind option, something that is now relatively common. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 (2016) was released with unprecedented accessibility options, which were copied by other designers.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) [From Naughty Dog]

Since 2019, Able Gamers has certified more than a hundred developers as “accessible player practitioners” who “create real internal change … creating rich and accessible experiences in games and consoles that can be enjoyed by people with disabilities and the gaming community at large.”

Game Accessibility Guidelines is a living document that advises designers on how to avoid “unnecessary barriers that prevent people with a range of impairments from accessing or enjoying your output.” Tips and advice are divided into basic, intermediate, and advanced options.

Created by campaigner Ian Hamilton, it points out that 15% of the population are disabled, rising to 20% amongst casual gamers. That’s a big chunk of people, not to mention potential revenues. 14% of the adult population have a reading age of below 11 years-of-age, and 8% of men and boys have red-green color deficiency.

Accessibility isn’t just for people who consider themselves to be disabled. Most of us find our eyesight and hearing beginning to deteriorate as we age. Temporary impairments such as a broken arm are not uncommon. The Game Accessibility Guidelines rightly point out that we sometimes find ourselves “playing in a noisy room or in bright sunlight.” And, of course, we all have our own levels of ability. (Personally, I switch to easy-mode for boss fights, when the option is available, because I find them frustrating and dull).

Practical steps

As more developers fold accessibility options into their design processes, so increases a central body of tools, tips, and templates that benefit all. Developers now have plenty of examples to work from, and they understand that rudimentary accessibility is inexpensive.

The vast majority of games – even those built with limited resources – should come with basic options that meet common needs. These include (but are not limited to):

These are only the basics. Halo Infinite demonstrates that full inclusivity takes constant innovation, care, and prioritization. Tweeting on the game, the journalist and campaigner Grant Stoner wrote: “Accessibility is NOT a simplistic thing that can be switched on and off within a menu. It’s so much more, and requires more nuance when evaluating games. Let’s not bash 343 for Halo, but rather use it as an important lesson in the evolution of video game accessibility.”

For other campaigners, holding game companies accountable is the best way forward. “I want to see a director of accessibility on every staff that’s big enough to have one,” said disabled streamer and cosplayer ThatJayJustice in a recent interview with Good Game. “If you are making triple-A games, where is your accessibility director? Who are they? What is their name?”

Steve Saylor is a noted streamer and Twitch Ambassador (aka BlindGamerSteve). He has a condition called Nystagmus, which makes his vision extremely blurry. On a recent stream, he summed up the advantages of accessible gaming:

Whenever everybody is able to play, and play together, we all win.

Steve Saylor aka blindgamersteve

Want to see what innovative technologies game companies are creating? Check out the story behind Logitech’s G Adaptive Gaming Kit here.