Accessibility: Creating Games For A Diverse Audience
Escapism—forgoing the ordinary or unpleasant realities of life in favor of a preferable experience—is considered one of the chief reasons gamers indulge in their hobby. The longing to encounter things unobtainable in real life is hard to ignore once your imagination has been unleashed. In the virtual realm, we can be who we want despite real-world limitations. We can defy the laws of physics and ignore the technological confines of our culture. We can create new universes, new worlds and new life. We can make the rules and mold societies to follow our philosophies. In the world of video games, anything is possible. Escaping for even a minimal amount of time through a digital experience can engage our imagination, elevate our moods and chase away the mundane realities of everyday life. Sounds good, right?
Role playing games are great examples of titles that facilitate escapism
The practice of escapism intuitively becomes more important to an individual who is disabled by society or their surroundings. Whether the individual has a physical, auditory or cognitive impairment, the video-game experience in theory should act as a great equalizer. As we said, Ii the world of video games anything is possible, if the capacity to engage in these experiences is not denied to us. What if a physical limitation leaves a gamer unable to use a standard console controller? What if the lack of subtitles prohibits the entire Deaf community from experiencing a blockbuster title? The bottom line is that the majority of video-game hardware, software and peripherals are unnecessarily inaccessible to many gamers with disabilities.
Through simple lack of awareness or an intentional marginalization of their demographic, disabled gamers routinely take the backseat in the game-development process. There is no denying that the vast range and degrees of disabilities makes the situation complicated, however, there are simple steps developers can take to improve the accessibility of their titles. By studying the basics of accessibility and usability, fostering an awareness of common disabilities and how they affect gameplay, and giving disabled gamers a voice through participation in game testing—the current situation can be vastly improved.
Accessibility And Usability: How Are They Connected?
So what is accessibility? How does it relate to usability and improving the gaming experience? The most visible applications of accessibility are elements such as brail signs or handicapped-parking spots, but accessibility refers to features integrated into daily life that make things more easily understood, accessed or available for all members of society. While the majority of accessibility features are designed with the disabled community in mind, nonetheless, they are more often than not used equally by the “able bodied” community. Closed captioning makes understanding the news easier in a loud bar. Wheelchair ramps help travelers with luggage avoid breaking their backs on the stairs. In gaming, adjusting in-game text size can compensate for a couch several feet back from the TV screen, or customizing your controller can counteract a temporarily broken finger. This is where the benefit of developing games for all facets of society becomes clear. Similar to the examples above, the whole gaming community can benefit from additional accessibility features in video games because we are never fully in control of our environment. Not to mention that our physical and mental capabilities vary through the span of our lives.
So how does accessibility relate to usability? High levels of accessibility go hand in hand with high levels of usability. Usability is defined by the dictionary as “The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment of a product. High usability means a system is: easy to learn and remember; efficient, visually pleasing and fun to use.” By definition then, usability is one of the constant goals game developers hope to achieve in their games. If accessibility features make gameplay more efficient and ultimately increase the satisfaction levels in playing the title, it then increases usability and meets an important development goal.
Barrie Ellis, creator of OneSwitch.org and member of the International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, helped to further clarify how creating accessible games ultimately leads to more usability.
“Well, it’s a fact that your gaming abilities do not remain the same throughout your life, linked to your physical and mental health,” Ellis says. “For everyone, when they are very young, they would likely struggle to use a standard joypad controller aimed at adults. I remember being unable to play Atari’s BattleZone in arcades because I was too short to peer through the viewing slot. I also couldn’t cope with Williams’ Defender, as the buttons were too far apart and the game much too hard.
“There’s a line of thought that all non-disabled people are ‘TABs’—Temporarily Able Bodied. Everyone’s abilities will lessen with time, either due to accident, illness or age.
“If designers can give some thought to implementing this, then we might start to see main-stream games featuring options for very wide difficulty levels, highly reconfigurable controls, closed-captioning (full subtitles of dialogue and sound), and visibility options and so on. If this happens, you might have a chance of continuing to play your games no matter what happens to you though out your life. The other beautiful effect of adding these types of options is that they can open a game up to a person whom might otherwise be too disabled to play at all.”
Accessible technology can counteract the restrictions we face in youth. The average gamer will use accessibility features to compensate for a dynamic environment and ultimately minor impairments that grow with aging. Companies who consider accessibly in their titles often develop a following in the accessibility community and avoid backlash for not considering the needs of the diverse audience itching to play their games (example: missing subtitles in the original Halo release left the Deaf community feeling slighted). The industry as a whole will benefit from implementing accessible technology by enlarging the audience of gamers able and willing to play their games. The increase in audience is clearly demonstrated by the Nintendo Wii—a system friendly to one-handed gamers—whose intuitive controls and simple interfaces proved to appeal additionally to throngs of non-gamers. While not perfect, the Wii is a fantastic example of accessibility and usability complementing each other. In the end the members of society with disabilities who have been routinely left behind are the group that will most benefit from the added effort.
Want proof that ignoring accessibility and usability features makes for a bad game? Try playing the “universally inaccessible” title Game Over. Co-created by game academic Dr. Dimitris Grammenos, Game Over was designed to be used as a tool to help developers understand the frustration disabled gamers face when playing games with low accessibility levels. The game is broken down into 21 virtually unbeatable levels, each supplemented with a description of the accessibility feature violated in that particular stage.
In this particular level of Game Over, the user must shoot only the “blue” ships. See the problem?
So it seems more than plausible for developers to make games accessible to a wider audience and therefore more usable. While the concept of a universally accessible game—a game where a sighted individual with limited mobility can play against a non sighted individual and have nearly the same gameplay experience for example—may still only be obtainable in the distant future, the ability to make changes now is within developers’ reach. Why then, has more not been done to make implementing these features standard? Do we have to wait till the gamer demographic has aged and closed captioning or customized controls are necessary for “mainstream” gamers to play? Lack of awareness about the needs of the accessibility community and limited amounts of time and resources are the main reasons for skipping over these features.
Ubisoft's Assassin’s Creed didn't include an option for subtitles, which was somewhat of a shock to accessibility advocates. In an interview with Game Informer Magazine, Patrice Desilets, creative director of Assassin’s Creed, helped us understand why the feature was not included. “Subtitles are important, and I personally wanted them in Assassin’s Creed,” Desilets said. “But because of time, to include some features others might have to get cut. For example, we are fully localized into six languages. My personal goal is to include as many usability options in an action/adventure game as you see in a sports title. Replay cameras, AI options…but in action /adventure titles, those things are often done at the end of the development cycle. Those things are important, but it is also important to ship on time.”
Without closed captioning, gamers with hearing impairments can not fully experience video games with heavy story elements
In other words, when business aspects of games are ignored, it has the potential to degrade the universal reception of a video game and even the reputation of its parent company. Sometimes the financial responsibilities of large game developers are a reality it would be a disaster to disregard. That said, if accessibility features are slated as being of high importance from the beginning of the development process—as opposed to a pleasant afterthought—it's possible to make these options an industry standard. Since the interview above Ubisoft has vowed to include subtitles in all their future titles—a huge triumph for accessibility advocates.
Accessibility Pioneers: Blazing The Trail For The Rest Of Us
Individuals and a handful of developers have been fighting the good fight to make games more accessible behind the scenes for quite some time now. OneSwitch.org features an entire section highlighting the pioneers of the accessible-gaming world.
“Atari in 1981 and 1982 included a ‘special feature’ in some of their most successful games making their games more playable to younger gamers. For instance, in Ms. Pac-Man, you could select how many ghosts you wished to go up against, from one to four,” Ellis explains. “And there are a ton of home-coders and developers that have been doing it right for years—just not in the mainstream.”
According to OneSwitch, in 1988 Nintendo was the first company to release an official controller for the NES accessible to individuals with physical impairments. The controller was implemented with a joystick controlled by the user’s chin and a sip/puff switch to use the A and B buttons. Sold at a price of $120—or $179 when packaged with the console and a game—the NES Hands Free-Controller was available to purchase directly through Nintendo Customer Care and came in three sizes.
An original advertisement for the NES Hands Free Controller
Real Sound: Kaze no Riguretto, was one of the first large-scale games developed to be targeted for blind gamers. Released for the Sega Saturn in Japan and the Sega Dreamcast two years later in 1999, the game was built to play as an interactive radio drama, entirely built around sound. OneSwitch also highlights Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997) as being one of the first games to implement subtitles for both dialogue and sound effects throughout the game.
Accessibility features are still present in modern release, but the percentage has failed to grow along with the industry. “Valve’s ‘Half-Life 2’ included closed captions enabling deaf-gamers to access the game. Pretty essential,” continues Ellis. “Electronic Arts included a ‘Family Play’ option in their Wii Madden U.S. Football game, enabling the game to be played without need for the secondary Nunchuk controller. [That was] essential for one-handed gamers and simply for making the game easier to play.”
Ellis himself is also an accessibility pioneer—specifically in the area of creating custom accessible controllers. The one-switch game genre—the namesake for his accessible-gaming Web site—is a pioneering effort in itself. “The philosophy of one-switch games is ‘To find/adapt/create ways for people using a single on/off button to take part in and enjoy otherwise inaccessible fun/creative activities,’” Ellis says. “As regards accessible gaming – the ideal for a one-switch game is for it to be completely accessible using a single button. This includes all menu options, starting, playing and exiting the game. Games like this do exist on PC and Mac, and even in a highly obscure Namco arcade game ‘Star Trigon’ – but not on consoles as yet.”
Another worthy mention goes to Benjamin Heckendorn. Best known for modding video-game systems, one of his other notable projects is a one-handed controller called the “Access Controller.” The device has five removable sections that can be placed wherever is most convenient for the player, making for a highly customized experience.
Benjamin Heckendorn’s newest project—the Access Controller
The subject of accessibility improvements for disabled gamers is a complex one, to say the least.
“The Disabled Gamer”: How Do Disabilities Affect Gameplay?
With an audience as diverse as the accessibility community, where do game developers start making these changes? As always, the best place to start is by understanding your audience. The phrase “disabled gamer” may seem to be an all-encompassing term, but in reality it fails to be helpfully descriptive on even a basic level. According to Cornell University’s Online Resource for U.S. Disability Statistics, in 2005 more than 12 percent of U.S. citizens reported having some form of disability. The variety and degree of these disabilities makes it almost impossible to design a game accessible to everyone. However, it helps to break the term “disability” into manageable chunks.
On a superficial level, disabilities are broken down into five categories: visual, auditory, speech, mobility and cognitive impairments. Some disabilities can be compounded on top of each other—another factor that makes it difficult to design games accessible for all individuals. A feature by Brannon Zahand, “Making Video Games Accessible: Business Justifications and Design Considerations,” provides a great foundation for understanding the wide spectrum of disabilities as they relate to video games.
According to Zahand’s article, one out of every 10 potential gamers may have an issue with their eyesight that affects the way they play games. Visual impairments can range from the simple need for corrective lenses to being fully blind. Impairments can also manifest in the form of low-vision capabilities, colorblindness or deterioration of vision associated with age.
How it affects gameplay
At one point or another all of us have had our environment affect the way we see—and therefore play—video games. The sun breaking through the blinds in just the right spot leaves the TV screen nearly impossible to see. We all have had to sit on the floor in order to read text too small to accurately interpret from the couch. Visual disabilities can affect gamers in a similar, but more permanent, way. Text may be too small to read or scroll excessively fast making it difficult to catch for a low-vision gamer. Visual cues may not be supported by audio or force-feedback features, making it hard to experience the nuances of the game. Prompting a colorblind gamer to press a specifically colored button might prove futile depending on the severity of their condition. Similarly, a colorblind gamer could have problems telling teammates from enemies online if armor color is the only indicator. On the more severe side, non-sighted gamers may not be able to participate at all without the addition of voice commands or other non-visual feedback in a game.
Colorblind gamers may have problems telling friends from foes when armor color is the only indication
Similar to most impairments, auditory impairments have many degrees of severity. A gamer could be hard of hearing, require a hearing aid to understand speech, or be completely unable to hear. Once more citing Zahand’s feature, auditory disabilities are the second most prevalent category of the lot. Auditory capacity also diminishes with age – another reason to try and balance audio and visual cues in a game.
How it affects gameplay
Again, most of us have experienced some form of hearing impairment by our environment while playing a game. The roommate might be blasting music upstairs, and no matter how loud you turn up the sound, you can’t hear vocal instructions during a game. Or you may have just attended a rock concert and the ringing in your ears makes it nearly impossible to hear your teammates strategizing over Live. The most obvious affect on gameplay for those with permanent hearing loss is lacking the ability to participate if all commands and dialogue are audio. For pure strategy or action games—where storyline takes a backseat to quick repetitive matches – not being able to hear an enemy running up behind you or the ricochet of bullets over your head can prove deadly. In addition, if text communication options are not available, a gamer with an auditory impairment won’t be able to chat it up with teammates and friends online.
Speech impairments represent a small portion of disabilities, but are often linked to other impairments and are more complex as a result. Speech impairments can range from having a slight lisp to lacking the ability to speak entirely.
How it affects gameplay
Games are becoming interactive on more levels every year. Voice commands are one of the newly popular features integrated into modern gameplay. For non-disabled gamers, this can become a problem if the player does not have a microphone or if they are trying to avoid embarrassing themselves by yelling out commands while on public transportation. However, if you are unable to speak at all, or have a strong accent or lisp, games requiring voice commands to progress are very restrictive. Similar to auditory impairments, if you don't have the option to enter text commands during online gameplay, strategizing with teammates becomes nearly impossible for a gamer with a speech impairment.
Tom Clancy’s EndWar can be played almost entirely by voice command—but will feature standard control meathods for those who opt-out
Mobility impairments are the most difficult to categorize and develop for because they vary so much in degree of severity. Caused by disease, neurological problems or accidents, physical impairments can range from limited movement in limbs to quadriplegia. A gamer may only have one hand with which to play games, or have a disorder like Parkinson’s, which causes shaking. Mobility is another function that naturally lessens as we age.
How it affects gameplay
Intimidation by complicated control schemes can also act as mobility impairment. New or elderly gamers may shy away from controllers with upwards of 10 buttons, believing the coordination required is too much for them to master.
Eitan Glinert outlined the phenomenon of increasing controller complexity clearly in his feature, “Designing Games That Are Accessible to Everyone.” “As games became more complicated, control complexity increased proportionally; the Atari 2600 had a joystick and one button, the Famicom/NES had a directional pad and four buttons, the Super Nintendo had a directional pad and eight buttons, and the PlayStation 2 had two joysticks, a directional pad, and 10 buttons.”
For physically disabled gamers, the complicated nature of these controllers often entirely prevents them from playing a game. Breaking an arm or finger could prove quite a hindrance to a hardcore gamer, causing them to try and feverishly adjust to their new situation. Having a permanent mobility impairment, such as being paralyzed from the waist down, would prevent a gamer from playing games such as Wiifit. Even more limited mobility can result in the inability to grasp a standard controller or push down on a directional pad. More often than not, PC titles are the only standard options for gamers with severely limited mobility due to simplistic control methods.
Aaron Baker, also known as BlazeEagle in the AbleGamer Forums, finds his gaming options restricted because of Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy —complicated by pneumonia. Traditional controller methods don’t work for Baker in his current state. Limited to a trackball and a point and click keyboard, his favorite games include World of Warcraft, Zuma, Dynomite Deluxe, Bookworm and Heavy Weapon Deluxe.
Tim Donaghy is another AbleGamer community member who is on the lookout for more gaming options. Injured in a personal-watercraft accident in 1997, Tim broke his neck and is subsequently quadriplegic. Tim has no hand movement, but some mobility in his arms. This limited mobility allowed Tim to play mainstream titles until the industry made a major change. “I found a way to play console games by using a joystick controller and my trusty typing stick,” he says. “This worked fine until game developers started making everything analog based. Joystick controllers aren't made with a way to switch between analog and digital controls. In fact I'm not even sure they're making them for the newer consoles.”
MMORPG’s such as EVE Online tend to be user-friendly for physically disabled gamers because of simple control methods
Cognitive impairments are another type of impairment that includes a broad spectrum of manifestations. Cognitive disabilities can range from a mild form of dyslexia to a serious case of Alzheimer’s. They can affect language, attention, reasoning, judgment, reading, writing and memory. Cognitive impairments may or may not affect intellectual capacity and are also associated with normal aging. Like the term “disabled gamer,” the umbrella-term “cognitive impairment” proves to be non-descriptive and clarify very little.
How it affects gameplay
Cognitive impairments can be virtually non-restrictive or make games completely inaccessible to an individual. Text scrolling too fast may not give a dyslexic gamer enough time to finish reading. An individual with a learning disability might not be able to pick up skills fast enough to move forward in a game without appropriate training time. It is also possible that a game could be just too difficult for gamer with severe intellectual impairments to process and play. The affects of cognitive impairments on the gameplay experience are far reaching and hard to compensate for entirely.
What Exactly Are Disabled Gamers Looking For?
Even with our newly acquired understanding of accessibility and usability and a stronger knowledge of how specific disabilities affect gameplay, it still may be unclear as to how these features are best implemented. Communities of gamers with disabilities such as AbleGamer.com and Game-Accessibility.com often work with advocacy and special-interest groups to make their voices heard. So what are they saying? What do disabled gamers want to see changed? Some gamers with disabilities are fine having “niche” games to play, such as games developed specifically for the blind. On the other hand, some want in on the newest technology and are looking for mainstream titles to be more accessible to everyone. Who can blame them?
“From my experience and understanding, some are happy to at least have something to play,” Barrie Ellis of OneSwitch clarifies, “However, many are deeply frustrated by not being able to play on the latest machines with the latest games.
“Being told that you can get old arcade games like Space Invaders arcade perfect, playable with a single large switch or head-tracker, slowed down, with the aliens bullets switched off just doesn’t impress some. They want that kind of flexibility with the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii—now!”
Not only are they looking for advancements in the software side of things, but greater accessibility in new platforms and peripherals. “Because of my disability, I'm limited to a trackball,” says AbleGamermember Baker. “What I'd like to see is companies make a special controller for people with limited hand/finger strength and wrist rotation. If a PlayStation 2 controller was split into two equal parts and it took less strength to push the buttons, I could likely use it again. Because I was so weakened by pneumonia on top of having Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, I can't hold my hands/arms together to grasp a single part, two-handed PlayStation 2 controller.
“For me, controlling the games is my difficulty. Even with Duchenne's muscular dystrophy, I was able to play Nintendo, Sega and PlayStation 2 games. But after the pneumonia weakened me much further, a trackball is currently my only control method. For me at least, the games themselves aren't the problem. Being able to control them is.”
If official accessibility products like the NES Hands Free Controller are not a practical or economically sound option for large developers, other options are available. Specialty companies, charities and garage engineers are willing to pump out alternative solutions. “The real desire is for people to be able to use their favourite controllers on any games machine or PC, and not have them rendered obsolete at the onset of each new generation of games console,” explains Ellis. “You’ll understand this better when you realise how hard it can be to find the right solution, and how expensive.”
Alternative control methods are available, such as the head-tracking Trackir 4: Pro by NaturalPoint
“If Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft could come up with a standard interfacing technique, life would become so much easier for physically disabled gamers. The best we have at present is the ability to connect PlayStation 2 style controllers to most games machines via adapters for consoles – and the USB standard for PCs. It ain’t good enough.”
Focus On The Industry: What Can Developers Do?
Finally, we come to arguably the most important topic of this feature. What can developers do to increase accessibility in video-game hardware, software and peripherals from today forward? Below you will find a laundry list of many features—some easy to implement and others that are more complicated—which developers can keep in mind when making new games.
The first and most important step developers can take in making their games more accessible is to include gamers with a variety of disabilities as part of their testing audience. “If a team of sighted individuals is making a game that is supposed to be accessible to the blind, it is not enough to have sighted testers shut their eyes and play the game,” says Eitan Glinert. “Simply having the ability to see dramatically alters, and likely invalidates, their feedback.” Not only will including gamers with disabilities ensure the product is accessible for its intended audience, the diversity of the team may bring up other quality issues that can be addressed at an early enough stage to be conveniently fixed.
There are also many simple accessibility features that can be helpful to disabled gamers across the board. Including multiple in-game difficulty settings is one of these features. Some gamers with physical disabilities simply might not be able to move their hands fast or accurately enough to keep up with extra-tough AI. Gamers with a cognitive impairment might not be able to process information quick enough in an increasingly difficult title. “There’s never such a thing as ‘too easy’ for some gamers – ‘super easy’ might well equate to ‘just playable’ for some,” says Ellis of OneSwitch. Along a similar line, allowing cheats or codes can compensate for a lack of multiple difficulty settings. Giving unlimited ammo or lives can make a game much easier to beat for a gamer looking for a complete experience.
Including “sandbox” levels for gamers to test and hone skills is also an important and relatively easy feature to include in games. Especially important in FPS, racing and action/adventure titles, the feature allows gamers to test skills and get used to gameplay before being thrown into a situation over their heads.
Call of Duty 4 not only has a training level to test a gamer's skill—it additionally recommends a difficulty setting based on the players performance
Many additional and more disability-specific features can be implemented into modern games to make them more accessible.
Visual Accessibility Features
- Allow text size in dialogue, user interfaces and audio captions to be adjusted
- Allow users to adjust or control the scroll rate of text
- Include brightness and contrast-adjustment settings
- Don’t rely on color schemes as the only visual identifiers; the game Astropop is accessible to colorblind gamers because of a mode that places symbols on top of specific colors
- Allow users to choose custom color schemes for interfaces and text to adjust for their needs
- Offer text-to-speech features for not only dialogue, but interfaces and audio captions as well
- Include force feedback to complement visual indicators
Audio Accessibility Feature
- Close caption all dialogue, including those during cinematic sequences
- Close caption all sound effects, including notes to give the viewer an understanding of the mood being set by music and other noise
- Provide force feedback options and visual indicators instead of only audio queues; a deaf gamer playing Tomb Raider won’t know how much time is left to solve a puzzle if they can’t hear the ticking sound
- Allow text chat during online play sessions in addition to voice chat
Speech Accessibility Features
- Don’t limit functions to only speech recognition – allow users alternative control methods
- Allow text messaging or the use of preprogrammed relevant phrases during online play
Mobility Accessibility Features
- Put additional thought into menus and user interfaces rather than complex control formats (this works better for RPGs than it does for FPS titles)
- Allow customization of control schemes
- Keep in mind custom-peripheral accessibility when creating new consoles
- Allow the use of normal controllers in games requiring unique peripherals, such as with DDR
Cognitive Accessibility Features
- Include multiple difficulty modes
- Allow players to use cheats or codes if they choose
- Include sandbox areas for players to hone and test skills
- Allow the adjustment of text size and scrolling speed
As you can see, there is a vast array of accessibility options out there for game developers to consider when creating new titles. Not only are the options out there - they are worth exploring. Creating more accessible games means grabbing hold of a wider audience and giving individuals a chance to play games that may have not been able to play previously. Implementing accessibility features in video games also results in more usability for all gamers across the board. We are dynamic beings; as we age our bodies change with us. The gamer demographic will need accessibility features in our older years in order to keep doing what we do best. Adding these elements to video games now will ensure the ability for us to keep playing despite any changes in our lives, environment or physical shells.
It's nearly impossible to design a game accessible to every member of society. However, taking little steps towards making the gaming experience more enjoyable for everyone is something all developers should strive to achieve.