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Accessible Video Games: Serious Fun, Serious Business

By Ian Hamilton

Video games are now a major part of our culture, but one in which accessibility for people with disabilities is comparatively low. Work in this field has been accelerating greatly in the past couple of years, however, making it a very exciting and fast-paced area of accessibility to be involved with.

Major players include the charities SpecialEffect and AbleGamers Foundation, and the International Game Developers Association’s game accessibility special interest group, alongside many other smaller groups and individuals working on advocacy and development in industry and academia.

A common question among people in the accessibility field is simply – “why games?” Why should we care about a few teenagers having a bit of fun, when there are so many other serious challenges that need addressing?

There are two key issues here: the scale of the industry; and the personal benefits. In terms of value the games sector is not far short of being a twelve-figure industry, roughly on a par with books, way ahead of music, films and DVDs and second only to television. Already, there are more twice as many female gamers over 18 as male gamers under 18.

Furthermore, research commissioned by US video game developer PopCap ( http://bit.ly/PYsRwl ) showed a higher proportion of people with disabilities among gamers than in the general population. Games can be a huge contributor to quality of life for people who have limited recreation options, but they also enable access to culture and socialising, and can have therapeutic benefits (even being prescribed by doctors in some cases). In multiplayer games and virtual worlds, everyone is able to participate on a level playing field, with players’ first impressions of someone being based on how they play the game and what they say, not on any disability they may have.

It is not uncommon to hear of games having a truly life-changing effect. For example, one young man was in a horrific accident which left him quadriplegic and in despair, thinking his life was over, but he was then brought back from the brink through discovering gaming. He had found something meaningful that he was able to do independently. What brought this about were game developers simply allowing button configuration so he could move essential controls from the front to the top of his controller, meaning that although he had little fine motor control in his fingers, he could operate the buttons by moving his arms and wrists.

There are a few differences to how accessibility in games works compared to other industries. To meet the definition of “game” as opposed to a toy or an interactive narrative, there must be a challenge to overcome, a test of some kind of skill. Every challenge will be a barrier for some people, so universal design in its truest sense cannot really exist in games. However, because games are so technology-focused, there is great accessibility potential and a great deal that can be done to avoid unnecessary barriers.

Some of this potential can be achieved through: inclusive design, such as avoiding use of colour as a sole means of communicating information; providing gamers with options such as a choice of difficulty level or being able to configure which button does what on your controller; and providing support for assistive technologies such as switches or screen-readers.

There are some very common impairments that affect gaming, such as colour-blindness or impaired reading ability, translating into huge amounts of lost business, yet many access problems are cheap and easy to fix if considered early enough. The situation is rapidly improving, but the games industry still lags way behind others, and a large part of that is down to awareness.

There have been many attempts over the years to produce game accessibility resources, but these have generally been either too short or too detailed to be a practical reference for developers.

So in 2012 a group of game developers, accessibility specialists and academics collaborated to produce a set of game accessibility guidelines, divided into levels based on a balance of reach, impact and – uniquely – cost.

The guidelines were launched in September 2012, at:
http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com .

They are communicated in developer-friendly language, together with examples of best practice, and have already been used by many developers, publishers and universities around the world. They have even been used by the Australian Government as part of the application process for its 20-million-dollar games industry funding programme.

Looking ahead, as gaming technology continues to change rapidly, each new generation of devices will bring its own new potential accessibility benefits and hurdles, from motion and speech detection to touch-screen interaction and multi-touch gestures.

Two developments that have made a really significant difference in recent years have been mobile screen-readers and connected gaming.

Blind-accessible games have traditionally been a highly specialist area, but mobile devices have changed this. Users can now navigate using a mobile screen-reader, by dragging a finger around the screen. The screen-reader then describes what element the user’s finger is over, meaning that the finger can essentially be used to perform the same functions that an eye normally would, and the user can explore the screen in a similar way to a sighted person.

Also, unlike console games, many mobile games are based on navigating simple interfaces rather than complex 3D environments. These two factors combined have made it far easier to develop blind-accessible games – so easy, in fact, that Zynga, creators of the popular Farmville and Words with Friends games, actually managed to make their Hanging with Friends game blind-accessible by accident, simply by labelling elements correctly.

Games also allow reporting back of analytics over the internet, and this, too, has huge potential. While it is very difficult to find out how many people enter a building using a wheelchair ramp rather than stairs, or to know how many people accessing your website are colour blind, in games you can find out exactly how many of your players configure their controls or turn on subtitles, meaning accurate business cases can be formed.

One example of this is MUDRammer, a recent game designed for Apple’s iOS operating system which was made screen-reader accessible by its developer, Jonathan Hersh. Based on prevalence statistics you might guess that 1% of the players might be blind, but thanks to a single line of code the developer was able to find out that up to 10% of the players were screen-reader users. His game sells for five US Dollars, so the 24 hours work he put into making it accessible generated a profit “more or less immediately”, says Hersh.

Overall, there is a great opportunity at the moment to spread knowledge, educate game developers, and build some good foundations that will stay relevant for years to come, making a real difference to many people’s quality of life.

NOTE: Ian Hamilton is an independent UX (user experience) designer and consultant who contributed to the Game Accessibility Guidelines.

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