Informed Gamers: The First Step Towards Game Accessibility

by Josh Straub on Aug 02, 2013 at 09:42 AM

Most video games are built on straight lines. Even in an open-world game like Far Cry 3 where there are lots of choices, there is always a definite beginning point, a definite ending point, and steps the player has to take to reach the end of the game. And no matter how much time you spend hunting tigers or raiding pirate bases, if you never rescue any of Jason's friends, you'll never beat Far Cry 3. Game accessibility is the same. There are many perspectives to consider, but without taking definite steps games will never become more accessible. Whether it's Jason rescuing his friends from Vaas or gamers pushing for better game accessibly, we all have to start somewhere. The question is: where?

As callous as it sounds, it is a mistake to try and address game accessibility for every disabled person from the beginning. If the industry doesn't yet see the need to make games accessible for players who have limited use of their hands, how can we expect it to make games accessible for people who can't use their hands at all? The push towards game accessibility has to be gradual. Eventually it will mean that everybody, no matter their ability, should have access to some form of gaming.

Where game accessibility needs to start is not with a contrived checklist making sure that absolutely everybody can play every game, but with a set of reasonable expectations that will allow most disabled people to enjoy gaming. For example, lots of colorblind people may struggle with the color-coding systems in Guitar Hero, but this barrier could be dealt with by using symbols in addition to colors to differentiate between the notes in each song. This would greatly increase the accessibility of Guitar Hero for people who are colorblind. But no matter what developers did, they would never be able to make a Guitar Hero game that was accessible for the hearing impaired, because music is integral to the experience.

The first principle that gamers need to embrace when pushing for game accessibility is that a game should never be labeled inaccessible based solely on the defining characteristics of its genre. These overt barriers are the types of things that gamers should already know about before they purchase the title. It would be ridiculous to call Need for Speed: Rivals inaccessible because it requires fast reflexes. Need for Speed is a racing franchise and by definition requires fast and precise reflexes; anyone purchasing this game should expect this barrier. While overt barriers may hurt the overall accessibility of a game, the types of barriers that make games truly inaccessible are hidden, often needless, impediments.

For example, Tomb Raider has many of the barriers that are common to the third-person shooter genre, such as the need to line up shots precisely or the need to respond quickly to threats in the environment. These are major barriers in the game, but they are not why the game is inaccessible. The game is inaccessible because of the many frenetic quick-time events and a shooting mechanic that requires the use of multiple fingers on both hands in order to execute properly. These two characteristics are not necessary to make a Tomb Raider game, even though they have characterized the franchise throughout its history.

There is nothing wrong with a game developer using these types of elements in a game. The problem arises when a disabled gamer is forced to pay in order to find out whether a game is accessible. In many cases they can't return these titles for a refund if they can't play them. To avoid this, there must be a set of tools that rates individual games for accessibility.

Unfortunately, games are already judged based on their "accessibility"-but not in way helpful to disabled gamers. When Microsoft proposed limiting the ability to buy used Xbox One games and requiring users to authenticate their system every 24 hours, the gaming community exploded. People were furious because this restriction made the system less "accessible." By contrast, what if Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag released with no subtitles, no controller customization, and required the ability to see color to progress through the game? Most gamers probably wouldn't hear about it. And yet if this happened, most disabled gamers would be unable to enjoy Assassin's Creed IV. The difference is that people knew about the Xbox One's issues before purchasing the system and therefore could voice their displeasure directly to Microsoft. As it turns out, this helped Microsoft realize its need to reverse its approach to the next-gen console. Disabled gamers don't have the option to evaluate a game prior to purchase, since in most instances they have to buy a copy and play it in order to know whether it is accessible or not.

The solution is simple. Look at the back of any game box or the details of any download, and you will see a rundown of the game's requirements such as Players: 1-4, Required Hard Drive Space 300 Mb, and so on. How difficult would it be to come up with a series of icons to add to this information that include things like "Must Be Able to See Color" or "Must Be Able to Hear"? Notifications like these are all that is needed to give disabled gamers the information they need, so that it is less of a gamble when buying games.

If the industry takes the initiative to create tools like these, they would provide an additional benefit. There are large portions of the broader world that don't play games because they think they can't. These could be disabled people who think they don't have the physical ability, or even older people who find games intimidating. But if there were less risk of wasting their money, more people might get into gaming and the industry itself would grow. But first we need consistent tools to inform consumers about video game accessibility.

I started my website DAGERS so that disabled gamers would have a source for information about the accessibility of games. Nevertheless, I am happily advocating a system that would make my website useless. Why? Because the day accessibility information is readily available on every game is the day that the entire video game medium will be more accessible.

Josh Straub is the Editor in Chief of D.A.G.E.R.S., a website which provides information on the accessibility for video games