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Empowering play for all: The path to true accessibility in games

Natalie Burns and Améliane Chiasson share their insights on how to tackle the challenges facing the games industry when it comes to accessibility

The behemoth that is the games industry has profound responsibilities towards its players, and these are ever-evolving. Unfortunately, right now, actions towards accessibility – making games suitable for their disabled audiences – fall short of where they should be. Thankfully, accessibility is gaining more attention and traction across the industry though.

Studios like Sony Santa Monica Studio, with its blockbuster sequel God of War Ragnarök, made significant improvements in accessibility features from the previous iteration of the game, from navigation assists to subtitles and audio cues, and last year's Forza Motorsport introduced Blind Driving Assists, making the game hugely more accessible for blind/low vision players.

The problem is that it is not shifting anywhere near as fast or as widespread as it needs to.

A win for everyone

There is a pressing need to ensure that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can experience the joy of gaming. Certainly, there's a clear moral imperative: disabled players are part of every game's target audience, so why wouldn't we want to include them?

Accessibility isn't just a moral obligation; it's a financially sound decision

However, there's also a compelling business angle. Disabled players account for 31% of US gamers and 29% in the UK, according to a recent study from industry analysts Newzoo, representing a vast and underserved customer base. The games industry, like any other business, thrives on profit, and accessibility isn't just a moral obligation; it's a financially sound decision.

That commercial imperative is multifaceted: the importance of diversity and inclusion is becoming much more widely accepted – and fought for – across society, particularly among younger generations.

This wider cultural shift means that any business will be judged on its attitudes towards DEI and face consequences if found lacking. Today, more and more companies are looking to understand how they can ensure their values of inclusivity are woven into the fabric of their brand identity – not just a tokenistic attribute or slogan on a recruitment page. Reputation is critical, particularly for industries facing an increasingly competitive recruitment landscape.

Addressing the issue head on

Still in 2023, many games are launching with ridiculously small text and poor contrast and colour-reliance for important information; many are even launching without fully-remappable controls. Having options for these are some of the first actions that developers can take that will have the biggest impact.

The problem is that, although the issue of accessibility in games is not new, advancing technology has added to or created new challenges. For example, take the issue of text size. Increasing screen resolutions and higher DPI have given developers the ability to produce microscopic text. Yet, while this might seem like a great innovation, it can alienate players with visual impairments.

Accessibility isn't a hindrance; it's an opportunity for innovation

Something as simple as allowing players to adjust text size can make games more accessible without compromising aesthetics or immersiveness. This also has a much wider impact as, by allowing users to adjust the text size, the game not only caters for people with visual impairments, but allows all users to adjust their experience to suit the context of their gameplay: whether they are sitting far away from a small screen or are up close to a larger monitor.

It shows that accessibility isn't a hindrance; it's an opportunity for innovation. If games are created with accessibility in mind, it has the potential to open them up to new opportunities beyond core audiences.

Pictured above: Natalie Burns (left) and Améliane Chiasson (right)

In-game remapping stands out as a frequently requested accessibility feature, but it should be a given. Actions like simultaneous or repetitive button presses, exact timing, compulsory motion controls, intricate gestures or extended button holds can exclude certain players. Yet, the ability to simplify button requirements is helpful and popular: Uncharted 4's single stick control option was embraced by a third of its players. Developers must ask themselves: are these intricate control uses necessary – or could they be made optional for a more inclusive experience?

Getting accessibility right is not an exact science, but disabled players are the experts of their own lived experiences, and their voices need to be heard

For many, the way that colour is used in games can cause a problem. For example, if colours alone communicate or explain information then it prevents someone with colour blindness from properly playing the game, but this can be tackled by adding a shape or icon to communicate information as well.

At the same time, checking whether there's adequate contrast between the text color and the background is another simple, but important action for developers. Other considerations are flexible subtitle presentation and how captioning important audio or musical cues work to accommodate those with hearing issues.

Cognitive load should be another consideration for game developers: it's important to address the amount of information presented simultaneously, the methods used to present and convey systems like inventory, economy, and progression, and the diverse learning paths available. This can alleviate cognitive strain for some players with disabilities.

Similarly, everyone is different when it comes to handling sensory load and it's important to consider how too many flashy visuals, simultaneous noises without volume control or uncontrolled camera movements can affect different people.

Where to begin?

Getting accessibility right is not an exact science, but disabled players are the experts of their own lived experiences, and their voices need to be heard throughout the process. This could be through playtesting or user research, beta questionnaires, workshops and focus groups or even social media callouts. Developers should never assume the needs of any group, especially when the spectrum of needs and barriers is vast.

One significant problem is that accessibility considerations often come late in production. Retroactively fixing problems is much more difficult and costly than designing a product that is accessible from the outset. This is especially crucial for smaller studios working with limited budgets. It means that collaborating with accessibility experts early on is essential.

It's why there is a huge opportunity for educational institutions to have a positive impact on the sector: if schools want to attract more top talents to help grow the game development workforce of tomorrow, ensuring that their classes are not only accessible, but also teaching accessibility in games would be highly innovative. It would also be attractive to financial institutions and government bodies that are currently investing in these types of initiatives (like Canada's Enabling Accessibility Fund).

Building an authentic brand

To truly make a difference, accessibility must become part of a company's culture. It's not just about making games accessible but also creating an inclusive workplace. Prospective employees' journeys often begin with a studio's websites, many of which continue to rely on auto-play videos, carousels, and inaccessible typography, creating immediate barriers to inclusive recruitment practices. Studios are missing out on incredible pools of diverse talent by not integrating accessibility principles across their actions.

Prospective employees' journeys often begin with a studio's websites, many of which continue to rely on auto-play videos, carousels, and inaccessible typography

So, auditing existing websites and understanding whether they hold up against contemporary web accessibility standards is a great place to start – because many don't. More importantly, studios need to spend time integrating the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion into their brand and culture.

Building a great brand means engaging the people who live it, rather than creating an identity, applying it, and hoping it works. Accessibility is the same, you need to include people from disabled communities to gain real insights and build authentic advocates.

For true change, accessibility can't be a checkbox exercise. The worry is that, for many, 'accessibility' is being used to virtue-signal in the same way as 'corporate social responsibility' was a decade ago. That disconnect will always exist while minority communities are only considered as target customer groups rather than both players and participants in the games industry.

Instead, engrain diversity and inclusion principles across the organisation, its employer brand, design and communication: engaging outside agencies can be very helpful here.

A cultural shift

It's important to recognise that no game is going to be 100% accessible, but progress is more valuable than striving for perfection. The future of gaming is inclusive and it's time games studios make accessibility a central pillar of their design philosophy and embrace collaboration as a means to achieve it. By doing so, they not only fulfil their moral responsibility but also ensure future growth and prosperity.

Natalie Burns is strategy partner at UnitedUs, and Améliane Chiasson is accessibility lead at Player Research, a Keywords Studio.
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