by Hannah Soyer
Like most things related to technology and accessibility, the world of video games has come a long way in the past decade. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 requires accessible communication options to be available in television, video, and streaming services. It wasn’t until 2019, however, that this act finally applied to video games, meaning we still have a long way to go.
With the 2019 update of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, video games must have voice over, electronic messaging, and video conference options. Although gains have been made there is still more to do. More legislation, industry regulation, and lower costs of adaptive technology are needed to ensure gaming is as accessible as possible.
Gaming Companies Leading the Way
Xbox is one of the top video gaming companies in regards to accessibility in their games. They have their own accessibility guidelines, a publicly available set of best practices, along with their Gaming and Disability Experience Guide, a supplemental and holistic resource for game developers. The Xbox Adaptive Controller allows for gamers with limited mobility to have alternative methods of accessing buttons and switches, because it can connect to outside devices like wheelchair joysticks. The hub can be customized to each player’s individual needs, making it a cornerstone of accessible gaming technology. The best part is it was designed by Spencer Allen, a gamer who became paralyzed after an accident––an important example of the need to have disabled designers working on accessibility ventures.
The genius of disabled people leading the charge for access can also be seen with CanIPlayThat.com, a website run by deaf gamer Ben Bayliss. Can I Play That reviews video games for accessibility, discusses accessibility in video games, and hosts the annual Accessibility Awards. It’s no surprise that Xbox took a title in the 2021 Accessibility Awards: Tara Voelker from Xbox won “Most dedicated developer.” However, other gaming companies are also making headway. Insomniac Games won “Most dedicated studio,” and companies such as Playground Games, Falling Squirrel, and Square Enix also won categories.
Make Your Game Accessible
As evidenced by the Xbox Adaptive Controller, accessibility is often most successful and most far-reaching when users can customize an experience to fit their needs. It’s important that the need for a multitude of options is kept in mind when designing a video game for accessibility. Here are some tips on how to make video games more accessible to disabled people.
- Captioning – All speaking and narration should include full captions/subtitles, with options to adjust the size of the text and the background. In addition, there should be the option to show speaker names. Captioning is a mode of access for Deaf and Hard of Hearing players.
- Audio narration – Games need to have an option for audio narration of visuals and actions being taken. This allows blind and visually impaired players to access your game.
- Screen magnification is a necessary option for blind and visually impaired players.
- High contrast mode refers to an increase in color contrast for all features of a game, allowing access for blind and visually impaired players, along with players who are colorblind.
- Text to speech – Games should have options to type out something which needs to be spoken. This could include messaging systems between players, or
- Various game speeds – Being able to customize the game speed allows for some disabled plays to participate in a game. Various disabilities can affect both the pace at which someone does something, and the ability to process information.
- Adjustable difficulty levels – Like having various game speeds, having adjustable difficult levels allows for players of varying disabilities to join in.
- Content warnings should be given (through audio and text) for potentially triggering scenes, so that gamers can choose if they wish to play that section or skip ahead.
- Accessible hardware – Consoles and controllers must be accessible, which might mean having braille buttons, and might mean something like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Raised buttons and less resistance in pushing are common accessibility features in this area, but they are merely a starting point.
- Affordable – Accessibility must be accessible, meaning players need to be able to afford the software and equipment needed to access the gaming world. The Xbox Adaptive Controller starts at $99.99, and while this pales in cost to some adaptive equipment, it can still certainly be a barrier to someone acquiring it.
It’s also important to note that while an accessibility feature may be designed for one specific disability, it can end up benefiting people with various disabilities, and people without disabilities. Disabilities also often intersect, meaning an access need cannot be relegated to one condition.
The Way Forward
As game accessibility advocate Kyle Abbate noted in an article from The Verge, having consistent accessibility standards across the video game industry would be greatly beneficial, allowing for accessible features gamers know they can count on in any game they purchase.
And in order to make a space more inclusive and equitable, change can only happen when those most affected have a seat at the table. This is why large gaming companies should hire gamers with disabilities as accessibility directors and consultants. It’s also why the Xbox Adaptive Controller and projects like CanIPlayThat.com are so important.
The COVID-19 pandemic drove more people into the world of video games, and with no real end in sight, it’s likely that the gaming population will continue to grow. Given the intersection of virtual worlds and disability, it’s crucial that access is accounted for proactively, in all video games moving forward.
Hannah Soyer is a Freelance Writer for WID.