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The Changing Tides of Accessibility in Gaming

16/06/2016 17:23 | Updated 16 June 2016

tech-for-good

I've been working in the field of accessibility for disabled gamers for a while, and even now in the wider accessibility community you still from time to time hear the question "why accessibility in gaming? Why expend effort on that when there are so many other pressing issues facing people with disabilities?"

There's a simple answer. Accessibility in gaming is important because gaming is important.

Firstly, it is important financially. Gaming is a $90bn industry, compared to the $15bn music industry, the $50bn movie business. From a commercial perspective accessibility is a must, reaching broader audiences means greater revenue. Markets are large, disability affects 18% of the population, before taking into account colourblindness (8% of males) or difficulty reading (14% of UK adults). Everyone faces barriers at some point. Situational, such as sunlight on your screen. Temporary, like a broken arm. Or permanent, particularly as we age. When you're over 65, that 18% rises to 50%.

Secondly, part of what comes with gaming being such a big industry is that it is now a big part of our culture too, meaning exclusion from it is a big deal. And here's the thing - a good deal of accessibility elsewhere is aimed at the basics, making sure that people can access buildings, cross a road, use a government website and so on. But life is not about existing on those basics. Games mean access to recreation, culture, socialising. These are all critically important, they mean the difference between existing and living.

But despite all of this, gamers with everything from cerebral palsy to dyslexia, hearing loss to colourblindness are still often excluded.

Some exclusion is unavoidable. Without some kind of challenge there would be no game, it would be a toy, or an interactive narrative. But most exclusion is entirely unnecessary. A control scheme that locks 'fire' to a button that you can't reach, team colours locked to hues that you can't differentiate, text that's too small for you to be able to read.

These aren't difficult problems, it generally means allowing flexibility, or communicating information in additional ways. It takes awareness, and takes considering it early in the design process. And that has been happening more and more. Game development is on an exponential curve, every year sees ever greater leaps forward. The past year has been no exception.

One of the most significant recent advances has been accessibility functionality on consoles, on the Xbox One and PS4. Including text-to-speech for people with no vision, reconfigurable buttons, high contrast mode, and the ability to zoom in and out.

2015 also saw the start of accessibility in engines, which are frameworks that most developers use to build games with. Unity have built a tool to add configurable controls to your game, and Unreal added a colourblindness simulator to test with.

Sony and the BBC now having internal accessibility processes, taking existing best practice accessibility guidelines such as http://www.gameaccessibilityguidelines.com and turning them into stepped development checklists.

The charities SpecialEffect and AbleGamers have seen increases in their funding and outreach. SpecialEffect gained a new facility with cross-party backing, AbleGamers launched their Expansion Packs and AbleGamers Fellowship initiatives. The accessibility group of the IGDA (International Game Developers' Association) have furthered their initiatives, from educational frameworks to funding criteria.

Organisations, groups and individuals have been doing more awareness raising than ever before, and developers have been listening. GDC16 saw a 50% increase on GDC15's accessibility session attendance.

This year's Global Game Jam saw around 10,000 developers choosing to take on optional accessibility challenges. Creative Europe, a €1.46bn funding programme, introduced accessibility as a factor in judging game funding applications. Gamecritics added accessibility information to all of their reviews. Apple added the Switch Recipes feature to every iPhone and iPad, allowing thousands of existing games to be played with the same technology that Stephen Hawking uses.

Fruit Ninja on an iPad, being played with an external button
Many iOS games are now compatible with accessibility switches, simple external controllers such as a button mounted on a wheelchair headrest

And, of course, accessibility in the games themselves. Epilepsy and colourblindness in particular have seen big leaps forward, It was only two years ago that considering colourblindness was big news, now it's approaching standard. At the niche end of the scale there are even big name console games (Mortal Kombat X, and Killer Instinct) that have had time/money dedicated to ensuring their gameplay works for people who are completely blind.

Rocket League, MLB: The Show, Heroes of the Storm, To Be Or Not To Be. All recent awards winners for their extensive accessibility efforts, everything from multiple methods of team communication to one-handed controls, widely configurable difficulty to dyslexia friendly text handling. And the past month has seen two games launch that have done more than ever before to open up access to more players in their respective genres - Overwatch, and Uncharted 4.

So, what does it all mean? While each of these bits of progress is great in itself, they add up to an industry-wide shift, edging further towards lasting cultural change.

For that to happen we need as many people as possible pushing from as many angles as possible. Some of that means working on specific initiatives, but there's a simple thing that everyone reading this can do. Keep the conversation going. Talk to developers, talk to gamers, talk to anyone who'll listen. If you see an unnecessary barrier, talk about it. If you see a nice solution, talk about it. Let developers know when they've done a good job.

Games are important for so many reasons. They are used for entertainment, for physiotherapy, for socialising, for escapism, as a way to do things you can't in real life. To be able to take part as an equal, to be judged on your actions and words rather than prejudged on your appearance.

If more developers are starting to think about accessibility, starting to realise just how important what they're making really is, we have to make sure they don't forget. And if we can do that, if we can keep that momentum going, more people than ever will have access all of the benefits that games can bring.

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