What’s the State of Accessibility in Gaming?

It wasn’t long ago that most developers knew nothing about accessibility. Ian Hamilton talks about the accessibility of gaming and whether the industry is making progress. He also delves into the relationship between difficulty and inaccessibility.

How did you get your start in accessibility?

It was a three-step process.

I started at the BBC in 2006 working as a designer on their kids’ games and websites. And as with everyone there, I had accessibility as a mandatory part of my responsibilities. But to me then it was just some policy checklist thing, I just did what the guidelines told me without thinking about it too much.

What I’d class as the first proper step came not long after joining, seeing playtesting footage of preschool games that had been adapted to work with accessibility switches; simple on/off hardware for people who can’t use traditional input devices, in this case usually a single button mounted on a wheelchair headrest.

When at school myself we had an exchange program with a local school for disabled children, so I’d already seen kids with this level of motor disabilities who were pretty much just lying there being cared for, passive participants in the classroom. So, to see the impact that design can have, a relatively small tweak and I was watching these kids playing happily, doing the same things as all their classmates, equal participants in their small culture and society … it was pretty mind-blowing.

Up to that point, the pinnacle of what I thought my job was about was if I could entertain people or affect their feelings. So, this really opened my eyes to just how much bigger games can be than that, how much more important our day-to-day design choices can be to the world. So that’s the point at which I started carving out bits of my time to work on my own side projects for that specific audience.

Then once my career had advanced a bit more, I was acting as design sign-off for all the various games that other companies published through us. Time and time again, I kept seeing developers who put tons of polish into some small area of gameplay only to accidentally make it a miserable experience for big swathes of their players by messing up things like contrast and color use. Not for any good reason at all, just through lack of awareness.

There’s a misconception that designers are motivated through creativity. Designers are more often motivated through frustration, having seen something that’s clearly broken or could be done better and feeling compelled to fix it. So that’s what happened here, it pushed me into working on internal guidelines and internal consulting, to try and fix some of this brokenness. That was the point at which I had accessibility formally assigned as an additional part of my responsibilities, with part of my working hours set aside for it.

The third step was when the BBC relocated to the other side of the country, and I couldn’t move with them.

By this stage, accessibility was the aspect of my work that I was most passionate about, so I looked around for which other companies I could carry on in the same role, naively assuming that like other industries such as construction or web, game accessibility was a standard role. I was wrong, the number of other companies that had roles like that was zero. (This was in 2011, there are now in the region of 50 worldwide.)

So that was like being hit by a lightning bolt really, I had no idea that the entire industry was in such dire need of fixing. So that’s the point at which I went independent and started working in advocacy. Accessibility became a calling rather than an aspect of my job I was passionate about. So I took up speaking and writing and event organizing and all the rest, joining the other advocates already fighting to change the industry for the better.

Thanks you for creating gameaccessibilityguidelines.com. What is the state of accessibility in gaming today?

It wasn’t too long ago that most developers didn’t even know that accessibility was a thing, but the battle for awareness has largely now been won.

For a long time, the field was led by solo independent developers, but in the past few years, we’ve seen a real explosion in accessibility in the AAA space — the really big name blockbuster games made by hundreds of people (sometimes even over 1000) with huge production and marketing budgets, comparable to making Hollywood movies.

Companies are creating dedicated accessibility roles and teams. There are some specific considerations that are becoming standard and expected. We’re seeing frequent advances in hardware, operating systems, and games. Companies are directly engaging more and more with disabled players, thinking about accessibility earlier in development, and getting into the details of process and workflow.

Despite progress now being on an exponential curve, we’re still towards the bottom of it. We’re still yet to see any AAA game that manages to even nail all of the real basics (the most common accessibility complaints, e.g. text size, remapping, well-presented captioning, effect and camera intensity, colorblindness), let alone nailing those basics being standard expectations across games.

And we’re still a very long way from the ultimate goal of any gamer being able to pick up any game and being able to have at least a reasonable expectation that they are not going to be unnecessarily excluded. We, for example, only have one single AAA game so far (The Last Of Us 2) that has been designed to be fully accessible to blind gamers.

The momentum is set though, the ball is rolling downhill at an ever-accelerating pace. Which makes it an exciting moment to be involved. The years and years of the endless grueling thankless advocacy to try to get people to start to care are largely behind us, but we’re still at an early enough stage where the impact of each individual bit of progress can be very keenly felt.

There’s now buy-in and motivation, yet still huge untapped potential and room for creating innovative solutions. Solutions I hope will be of use to other industries too. The games industry can be a great asset to the world, there aren’t many industries where there is such a great concentration of creative technical problem solvers working on a single product.

But there’s now a people problem. As the industry has started creating dedicated accessibility roles the good people are being snapped up very quickly, demand is outstripping supply. And as accessibility teams grow the need for in-depth game accessibility knowledge reduces with each hire, there are currently roles being advertised for accessibility PM, accessibility QA, accessibility software engineer, and so on — roles that are ideally suited to people coming over from other industries.

And the experience and lessons learned from people working in other industries that are further along in their accessibility journeys is something that the games industry would benefit immensely from.

Ian Hamilton stands in front of a podium and a microphone and laptop

How can people find accessible games?

This has been a really big problem historically and still into the present day. Games can be very expensive, $70+, and too often the only way to find out if a game is going to be accessible to you is to buy it and play it. There has recently been some progress though. Developers putting accessibility information up on their websites, or in trailers, press releases, and so on. Storefronts, like itch.io, to a small extent Steam, and later Stadia and more recently Xbox, adding tags for accessibility features directly into the point of purchase.

Demos used to be a great benefit, they aren’t much of a thing these days but something filling a similar role is Xbox Gamepass — this is essentially Netflix for games, a rotating selection of 100 or so titles all made available through a cheap monthly subscription. This has been a huge boon for many disabled players, granting them the ability to try games out in their entirety without any financial consequences from the game turning out to be inaccessible.

And there are sites offering accessibility reviews of games too, most notably Can I Play That, but also others like DAGERS, Game Accessibility Nexus, and Game Critics.

But while progress is being made on all of these fronts there is still a long way to go, and something that I hope there will be more progress on in future

You’ve given a presentation on Accessibility Vs. Difficulty. What are the key takeaways for someone who hasn’t viewed the video?

The relationship (or whether there even is a relationship) between difficulty and accessibility is a frequent topic of social media discourse, and often in a not very pleasant way. So that talk was aimed at getting to the root of what they actually mean.

When looking through the lens of the social model of disability …

  • Disability is a mismatch between capability and barrier, resulting in difficulty performing a task …
  • Accessibility means avoiding unnecessary mismatch between capability and barrier …

And how difficult someone’s experience is relative, it is the product of the relationship between their capability and the barriers a game presents.

So while the words difficulty and inaccessibility do not mean the same thing, they are intimately linked. All accessibility considerations affect difficulty, that’s the whole reason for their existence — to avoid that excess difficulty arising from that capability/barrier mismatch.

This impacts design. That relativity means that if you have a particular level of difficulty in mind for your players, a fixed set of barriers cannot provide that. The existence of human variance means that a single fixed set of barriers results in a huge divergence in experiences between players, what’s easy for one person is hard for another and impossible for another.

So offering some way of those barriers flexing in line with human variance lets more players have an experience that is closer to what the designers have in mind.

What is an accessibility barrier you would like to see solved?

The big one for me is not a specific accessibility barrier, it’s something slightly different: a barrier to developers implementing accessibility. And that’s engines, the frameworks that developers use to make games. It’s not too far removed a concept from the frameworks used to make websites — though, unlike HTML, there is no common underlying codebase beneath them.

And in common with those web frameworks, they could be a powerful tool for inclusion but are too often the opposite. Things that are really taken for granted if you’re developing a website or app are just not possible in engines without developing the functionality for them entirely from scratch. Like text or metadata being exposed to operating system accessibility layers — as far as a screenreader is concerned, a game is just a single unlabelled element, just a lump of pixels. Or the ability to scale text.

Engines could do so much to enable accessibility and take care of heavy lifting, and there are a few bespoke engines used internally by some companies where that is now becoming the case, and the impact of that is really staggering to see. But outside of those in the wider game development community, it’s pretty much a desert of wasted opportunity.

The most commonly used engine is Unity, which covers about two-thirds of games made, followed by Unreal. So if even just those two engines could make some real progress it would have a tremendous impact across the whole industry, more than I think anything else could. And there are moves being made, like Unreal developing an early experimental version of cross-platform screenreader support, and Unity being in the process of hiring a dedicated accessibility team.

So I can only hope that the years to come will see engines move from being one of the biggest barriers to accessibility to being its greatest enabler, and in turn, push the industry ever closer to reaching its potential.

About Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton is a game accessibility specialist with a 16-year background in raising the bar for gamers with disabilities, through advocacy and awareness-raising, writing, speaking, organizing events, community building, and consulting, working with studios from the smallest indies to the largest AAAs, with publishers, platforms, industry, and government bodies. He’s the co-director of GAconf and coordinator of gameaccessibilityguidelines.com.

The games industry can be a great asset to the world, there aren't many industries where there is such a great concentration of creative technical problem solvers working on a single product.

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