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Xbox: Accessible games can “mean the difference between existing and living” for disabled people

But platform holder's Tara Voelker urges developers to add more accessibility options to their titles

Microsoft continues to position itself as a paragon for inclusivity - but it's also keen to get more developers, publishers and platform holders involved in the conversation.

The firm gained a great deal of attention earlier this summer when it announced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a device that enabled disabled gamers to adapt standard control schemes with a variety of custom inputs suited to their unique circumstances.

The peripheral earned praise from across the industry, but the platform holder stresses that there is more that needs to be done to make gaming as accessible a hobby as possible.

tara

Tara Voelker, Xbox

Ahead of her Develop:Brighton talk next week, we caught up with the company's gaming and disability community lead Tara Voelker. She is instrumental in organising events such as the Xbox Gaming and Disability Boot Camp for developers, which offers advice on how to make their games more accessible, and also helped arrange testing for the Xbox Adaptive Controller in people's homes.

"Games are more than just entertainment," she tells GamesIndustry.biz. "They're part of our culture, a way to socialize and even a means of escape. Games can be therapeutic and even help with pain management.

"These are all things that can be mean the difference between existing and living for someone with a disability."

Voelker tells us that Microsoft has received "amazing feedback" since the Adaptive Controller was first unveiled, particularly after having it on display at E3, where the device won numerous awards (including one from GamesIndustry.biz).

For Voelker, the controller was the culmination of a shift that's been happening at Microsoft, describing it as "the first product from end to end that fully embodied our Inclusive Design process - right down to the packaging."

"We learned a lot," she adds. "Now we need to apply these lessons to everything else we're working on."

There are also learnings to build on from previous accessibility ventures. Voelker reminds us of the Copilot feature that was added to Xbox last year, which combines two controllers into one input device (and, yes, it's also compatible with the Adaptive Comtroller).

Stepping away from the hardware side, the platform holder has also been pushing its more inclusive image with the redesigned Xbox Avatars, while Voelker believes are just as important as the controller.

"Games need more accessibility features implemented in the titles themselves. Remappable controls and good subtitles make huge differences"

"They were designed with inclusion in mind, which includes offering the choices of prosthetic limbs or a wheelchair for the first time," she explains. "We want people to be able to express themselves, and for some people using a prosthetic or a wheelchair is a large part of their identity - we want them to be able to show that.

"Right now, games tend to either fall into tropes about people with disabilities or make glaring errors in representation, such as giving someone a wheelchair they would never use. We need more characters with disabilities in games, but we also need to make sure they're good representations. That means talking to people who are knowledgeable in these areas and getting their feedback."

And here we come to both Voelker and Xbox's central point: improving accessibility in games needs to be an industry-wide effort.

In an interview with Ars Technica earlier this year, Xbox boss Phil Spencer has already he's keen to share the learnings from the Adaptive Controller with Sony and Nintendo in order to help progress the production of such devices across all platforms. He added that he's open to "collaborating with "literally anybody who wants to learn from the work we've done here-or even try to do more than that with the work we've done here" to allow more people to play video games.

Developers can do their part too, Voelker says, even without the need for specialist hardware.

"Games need more accessibility features implemented in the titles themselves," she says. "Features such as remappable controls and good subtitles - 'good' being the keyword - make huge differences. I would also love for game developers to request feedback directly from gamers with disabilities and have them more involved with user testing before a title ships.

"There are so many things they can do! I honestly recommend any developer interested in making more accessible games should check out gameaccessibilityguidelines.com to learn more."

Next week, Voelker will be on stage at Develop:Brighton discussing how gamers with disabilities are getting involved in the rise of streaming - both as viewers and broadcasters.

Her session, 'Beyond Gaming: How Live Streaming Brings Next Level Inclusion', takes place on Wednesday, July 11th. GamesIndustry.biz readers get a 10% discount on Develop:Brighton passes with the code: IDCQXO.

If you're interested in more discussion about how developers can make their games more accessible, download our recent podcast featuring industry charity SpecialEffect, which also consulted on the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

GamesIndustry.biz is an official media partner for Develop:Brighton 2018

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