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Accessibility in games is advancing -- now marketing needs to catch up | Opinion

The growing interest in accessibility within game development isn't reflected in the marketing of the very same products

There has been a notable push over the last few years to improve accessibility in game development. From behemoth studios such as Naughty Dog to indie developers such as Special Magic Games, new accessibility features are being implemented and innovated upon -- but there's some catching up to be done when it comes to the marketing and PR for those very same products.

Marketing takes many forms across different media -- online trailers, adverts in magazines, even altering London underground signs to promote a new console launch. In the games industry, social media marketing has become the quickest way to deliver promotional assets and information, and some companies have started sharing information about accessibility features prior to a game's launch, detailing what features will be available. Team17 published an accessibility-focused trailer for Overcooked! All You Can Eat, for example, and Naughty Dog presented an extensive blog post for The Last of Us Part 2.

Nevertheless, some still do the bare minimum. CD Projekt Red only confirmed one accessibility feature for CyberPunk 2077 through a Twitter reply, and that was that players would simply be able to adjust subtitles. Destruction AllStars only had its accessibility features confirmed through a Twitter thread from the accessibility lead at PlayStation. Some studios don't communicate anything at all.

Scrolling through social media as a disabled user is always a gamble, and we're usually dealt an inaccessible hand

And even when this important information is distributed, the effort made to improve accessibility in development often isn't carried over in communications. Scrolling through social media as a disabled user is always a gamble, and we're usually dealt an inaccessible hand. Images with no alternative text applied, videos with no subtitles, lowercase hashtags, strings of emojis for no better reason than being artistic, and inconsistency across different accounts -- all examples of inaccessible practices across social media.

Not only does this create a bad experience, it also excludes a potential audience. Specifically for unreleased games, it can bring into question how accessible the game itself is likely to be, given the effort made through marketing prior to launch.

It's not just down to ensuring that information on relevant features is being shared; it's about a commitment to accessibility in every part of a company. The scale of The Last of Us Part 2's accessibility features is renowned across the industry -- the most available in a game to date. Naughty Dog's initiatives for blind and visually impaired players are adored by many who need them, but its social media posts don't supply that same accessible experience.

This is a common problem. After installing the Chrome plugin Alt or Not, I've been able to scroll through Twitter and see a plethora of images from official video game accounts and studios that have no alt text applied. While Naughty Dog tends to have captions for its YouTube videos, ensuring that content is accessible, its Twitter timeline is filled with uploaded images that do not have alternative text -- a feature that helps make a blind or visually impaired user's experience more accessible. Not having alt text applied means that audience is excluded from the information being presented.

That introduced another issue I noticed -- inconsistency. Ubisoft's main account -- run by Ubisoft North America -- adds alt text to uploaded images. However, Ubisoft's other regional branches and even it's official game accounts do not. These efforts should apply across all accounts. Disabled audiences are being included in the game itself, but not the marketing that lets them know the game exists.

On social media, being part of trending meme formats is a fantastic way to boost visibility and familiarity with an audience. But while an abundance of emojis or ASCII characters can be on trend, they also cause havoc on screen readers. These posts may look visually interesting, but for those using screen reader support, every single emoji or character will be read out loud.

But there's a way to avoid being inaccessible while also staying trendy. Xbox's social media, for example, is known for jumping on the latest social trends, and that includes making use of emojis to create visual tweets. However, after facing criticism for making an inaccessible post, the company took the feedback on board. Instead of shying away from the same trends, Xbox adapted and changed its approach by using a screenshot of the structured emojis with alternative text applied.

Disabled audiences are being included in the game itself, but not the marketing that lets them know the game exists

Other areas of marketing need to be accessible as well, not just social media. Not taking the time to ensure assets are accessible, for example, means a chunk of your potential audience is left out of the excitement that others get to experience. Making a trailer, teaser, or even a dev diary? Make subtitles to go along with them. YouTube has a tool for creating subtitles, many editing programs are able to create subtitle files, and transcription programs can automatically turn audio into text to some degree. These methods can be used to provide closed captions -- a subtitle file uploaded to a video platform -- which usually allow the user to toggle and customise the presentation of the text.

Perhaps the stylistic choice of creating readable open captions -- subtitles that are burnt onto the source media -- is more fitting for promotional material. While subtitles primarily serve a function and are not supposed to be pretty, creating open captions on videos can still be done with style providing they're readable. Tag The Movie is a great example of achieving this on social media platforms. The animations aren't too distracting, the text includes the actual dialogue, its presentation fits the campaign's style, and it's shareable.

There's also the option to ensure videos have audio description. Xbox and The Game Awards hosted audio described versions of their livestreams in 2020, for example. Ubisoft also gained access to a beta of a YouTube feature that allows additional audio tracks to be uploaded -- it has used it to add audio description to improve the accessibility of its assets.

Sharing information so close to release means that a disabled audience is only just finding out whether a game will be suitable for them

Ensuring content is as accessible as possible can increase reach and allow marginalised audiences to feel a part of a game's community. The tools are readily available, and there are numerous guides online on how to use them properly: Can I Play That has PR and marketing guidelines and a course; WebAIM has information on creating alternative text; and there's a large list that explains and details problematic words, which was co-created by a number of marginalised people from different communities.

It's all well and good making a game itself more accessible, but games companies need to be more proactive with sharing this information. At the moment, too many studios don't share what they're working on regarding accessibility, resulting in players having to either purchase the game and hope they can play it comfortably, or wait and hope that a friend or specialist outlet shares their experiences.

When studios do share details, it is usually very close to launch. While that's not entirely an issue, sharing information so close to release means that a disabled audience is only just finding out whether a game will be suitable for them. Sharing commitments to accessibility early, on top of accessible marketing, will keep a disabled audience engaged. There may be NDAs in place that restrict this information from being shared, but it would be nice to see decision-makers allowing more accessibility information to go public earlier in the marketing cycle

Disabled players may require specific features to be able to play comfortably, such as remapping, larger subtitles, colour blind settings, maybe even support for third-party devices such as eye-trackers, the Xbox Adaptive Controller, or even just a gamepad. Knowing this information is essential for some to make an informed purchase, and when accessibility efforts aren't shared, that leaves disabled consumers at a loss.

And the process of sharing information with the community can provide feedback that can be used to make more improvements. HyperDot developer Tribe Games listened to its community and made positive changes, and Behaviour Interactive revised some of its decisions after sharing an updated HUD for Dead by Daylight. Despite this, in making a commitment to accessibility, it's important to hire disabled accessibility consultants to share their stories and ideas. This could be by speaking with a specialist, or running marketing focus groups such as Xbox's Design Sprints or Ubisoft's Accessible Design Workshop.

Accessibility needs to be a thought process that spans an entire company rather than just the development of a game. Marketing needs to engage a disabled audience in the same way it does a non-disabled audience, from updating development progress to ensuring assets are accessible. And that information should be allowed to be shared by those in charge, even if it's only to acknowledge the studio has plans in place -- a reassurance to disabled players that they should keep their attention on the game.

Speaking and listening to disabled audiences is the only way to learn what they need, and the best way to ensure that accessibility features are present in every part of the process.

As a Deaf hearing aid user, Ben is a freelance games journalist and accessibility advocate. He has a desire to spread awareness on disabilities and accessibility in video games.

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