Accessibility & design

Accessibility in games has always existed. Whether it started as small offbeat games, to becoming literal archives of audio games, to subtitle mods and so much more. Today, games have made massive advances, from games like The Vale, to AAA titles like The Last of Us Part 2, Forza Motorsport, where we see accessibility transcend typical genres, to allow for people across varying abilities to play!

You might ask then, how does one design with accessibility in mind? 
Well, as with any product design, the simplest answer is to talk to those who would be using the product. There’s nothing quite like talking to a community or consultants who can talk to their lived experience, to explain why certain areas of design don’t become a choice anymore, but simply a barrier for them. These are the kinds of people who will be able to tell you what they wished a game would do instead, or ask for things that might have been missed. 
A very straightforward reason as to why representation matters!

Now lets say you don’t have ready access or resources to the same.
The internet is a vast place, and with more and more people sharing their experiences, you’re certain to find something that helps you better design a feature, but it will require some filtering of the chaff from the grain. Not foolproof, but a great starting point.

Here are some resources I compiled and put together that I often looked back to whenever I needed a little more information –

  • Can I Play That
    A review site that looks at various games, made for disabled players by disabled players. Extremely eye-opening!

  • Game Accessibility Guidelines
    An excellent living resource that talks to the considerations design needs to have towards various elements that can make features more accessible. One of the few areas that talks about ‘why’ this change matters or what it is that is the barrier for accessibility. I’d highly advise giving this a read!

  • GAConf
    The GA Conferences are great places to learn more, a fantastic online resource across various gamers abilities – and I would suggest keeping up with their YouTube channel.
  • GAConfAwards
    The GAConf Awards are a curated resource that speaks to excellence in various categories across the games industry. It’s a great place to see what everyone’s been upto and what they’ve done!
  • SpecialEffect
    They have a wonderful resource that stays up to date on accessible games, their features as well as different or new controllers that allow for more or varied accessibility needs.
  • SpecialEffect DevKit for Motor Accessibility
    The ‘SpecialEffect DevKit’ is a new resource, looking to improve motor accessibility. The resource provides great insight and examples!
  • Xbox Accessibility Guideline
    Microsoft Xbox has an extremely well curated accessibility guideline that is well worth referring to, or reading up to be up-to-date on issues and where to put on your problem solving design lense.

The more I looked, the more communities I found that discussed what designs were interesting, as well as why and how they were accessible. Looking at these communities made me shift my thinking in how I approached my own designs. Well, how I reviewed them.

I started to ask myself questions as I reviewed them, such as, who this feature or change would affect, like –

Colourblind folks

  • Are there any parts of the game or feature that requires players to know or look for a colour?
    If there is, can a texture be added to help differentiate it? Can the element be changed at the player’s discretion keeping in mind coloublind palettes (refer to IBM Design Library, and Paul Tol )?
  • Can UI be darkened or can players choose to have a dark background?

Visually impaired folks

  • Are all the elements players require for a seamless experience in one place / within the central area of the game so they don’t have to look up and down constantly?
  • Can elements of the HUD be rearranged / can elements of the HUD be brought closer to the centre of the screen within set range?
  • Can some of these elements have SFX or audio cues?
  • Is there a screen reader or text to speech option available?

Dyslexic folks

  • Is the font dyslexic friendly? 
  • Is there minimal text, or can there be minimal text? (which also makes for better overall game/narrative play!)
  • Is there a text to speech option available?

Deaf communities

  • Instead of words, is it possible to provide players with icons or some visual indication for SFX? Fortnite is a great example of this!
  • Speech to text is a great way to make a chat space feel inclusive – another example is Forza Horizon 5’s Link feature.
  • Subtitles (not the best option) or Sign Language Videos are another great option
  • Is there a lot of visual clutter? Can it be reduced (by player or dev)?

Motor Impaired folks

  • Are there any QTE events? Can players be given ‘extra’ time via options?
  • Can tapping of buttons or long press hold be reduced to a single button press and a toggle hold?

You might then rightly ask, well, how do we test for these cases?
I’d suggest going down the animator’s path for a bit and quite literally attempt to walk a mile for who you’re testing for.
Try to play a game with no audio, and see where you struggle, and if you missed cues you might have otherwise gotten thanks to cues or SFX. You could even try to play a game blindfolded, or if you have glasses, cover part of your lenses and attempt to play a game. I take off my glasses to see how far I can get sometimes.

If you have built in filters that can saturate colours (similar to what colourblind folks might experience), play the game as it was intended and see if you find any areas that only rely on colours or if there’s something that just doesn’t pop out to you.

I’d like to make a note here and this isn’t a foolproof method of testing. It will give you a good idea of what needs to be tweaked and if any information is missing. Though you could STILL miss something as you may not have the same lived experience.

TLDR: Talk to people. I’ve learned so much from being able to listen and talk with people, to understand the barriers they face that we need to challenge in our gameplay designs!