Game Accessibility and Impacting Game Design

Today's post touches on the concept of game accessibility, and some of the factors you need to think about in terms of consumers with impairments playing your game.

Video games have always been popular thanks to their accessible nature and being able to let someone enjoy something they wouldn't otherwise be able to. Genres like the airplane simulator, grognard-level strategy games and racing Sims let people enjoy the closest abstracted play can get to reality.

On the flip side, many games deal with fantastic situations that we would never see in our lifetimes...unless an alien invasion is coming soon. With that said however, real life can intervene with playing video games and it's important to understand how disabilities can have an impact on your game design and on game accessibility

game accessibility

Accessibility Options:

It's important to note that this post is not going to be the be all/end all of discussing what disabilities impact playing video games. I can only go over the ones that have personally affected me and the ones I've heard from secondhand sources like friends. Also, I need to point out that I do not have a medical background, and I can't and won't talk about these at that level of detail. For more information on the points we're going to discuss today, here is a very useful guideline page from the IGDA.

game accessibility
Game accessibility refers to how accessible a game is in terms of allowing people with impairments to enjoy a game

Game Accessibility refers to if a video game has any accommodations for someone who is suffering from a handicap that would prevent them from fully enjoying a game.

We're going to start with vision and hearing first, because these affect how someone experiences a game. For visual, one of the major ones is color blindness and how it can impact someone being able to see certain elements of your game.

Many games use color as a shortcut for UI or situational awareness: Such as the screen flashing red when you're in trouble, mana being a blue color, poison being green and so on.

Color blindness affects how someone can perceive either one or all colors. Some solutions have been to apply filters to the color of a game to make it easier to be seen.

Another big one that has gained notoriety is seizure inducing graphics. Games or TV shows that feature rapid blinking colors and effects can induce seizures.  Earlier in the Game Industry's lifespan, many games featured these effects due to the arcade background and trying to build excitement. Thankfully, the industry as a whole has toned down these effects, but it's still important to give warnings if your game could cause seizures for people who are photosensitive.

For our final experience, we can talk about people with hearing issues. Many video games rely on music and sound effects to enhance a title and provide additional information to the player. Some basic options to help people who are hard of hearing to enjoy game would be the use of a close caption system. Issues relating to vision and hearing can impact how someone experiences your title, but our next category can completely stop them from playing.

Preventative Play:

Disabilities can also impact someone playing a video game and can be game enders in some cases. There are examples out there of certain mechanics or designs that are not game accessible and can prevent someone from being able to play your game at all.

Despite how severe they are, these kinds of issues aren't examined or given consideration most of the time, because they are usually integrated in some capacity to the gameplay itself. Let's start with one that our parents have always warned us about, arthritis or repetitive stress injuries. Many action-based titles are about forcing the player to think fast and respond quickly to actions on screen. For people suffering from these kinds of issues, it can either be from having to perform a certain range of action or using a regular controller.

game accessibility
QTEs are an example of a mechanic that makes a game less accessible, by being punishing for people with repetitive stress injuries

This is one reason why control mapping is such a useful feature, as it allows someone to alter the control scheme to something they find more comfortable.

Besides that, one actual game mechanic that has caused problems is QTE rapid pressing sections: Where the player must rapidly push a button in order to do something demanding on screen.

We see this a lot with action titles, especially following the rise of QTE design over the last decade. Recently, I tried playing Helldivers and it features repeated use of these kinds of QTEs.

For someone suffering from arthritis or even through aging, this mechanic can cause a lot of pain and discomfort for people; sometimes to the point of stopping them from playing. Out all the points we're going to talk about today, this is one that a lot of people agree with getting rid of, as the popularity of QTE-based sections has declined in recent years.

Our next two examples are ones that have affected me personally, starting with the rise of microphone or breathing mechanics. Nintendo has been creating mechanics and games with microphone-based design in recent years. Some examples would be making a noise to cause something to happen on screen or blowing into the microphone to simulate playing an instrument.

Unfortunately, for people with breathing issues such as allergies and asthma, this can become a form of torture for them. I remember not being able to play the Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks, because every time I tried playing a note, I started choking due to my allergies bothering me and having to play an extended note. This also renders me pretty much incapable of doing any kind of singing in any of the Rockband games.

Speaking of Rockband, it takes me to my next point: Games that inhabit a physical space. What was once only possible in arcades, games these days can make use of special peripherals to enhance playing them. From the instruments in Rockband, to simulators that allow you to use USB pedals and steering wheels. Unfortunately, games that make use of your legs don't work that well for people who are handicapped in this regard. My right leg and foot are permanently damaged due to issues from birth, and I can't use it to control pedals or do demanding physical activity.

This is where offering different forms of controlling a game can be useful; such as letting someone play a racing game with a gamepad. What's important to remember about building concessions like these into your games is that it's not about making something to give someone an advantage or be 1 to 1 equal with your regular gameplay, it's about providing someone with an alternative that will allow them to enjoy your game.

With everything we've talked about, I'm sure there is one question on your mind: "Why don't more games have accessibility options?" The answer is unfortunately not a good one.

The General Audience:

When it comes to making a popular video game on the AAA market, it's always about appealing to the most people as possible. We've talked about this several times in the past when it comes to the straight while male protagonist, but it also applies here. People who suffer from auditory, vision or motor-based disabilities are the minority when it comes to who titles are designed around.

game accessibility
AAA game experiences are typically designed to appeal to the biggest demographic possible

Every part of a video game costs time and money, and many developers and publishers try to keep costs as low as possible; this means not working on anything that would only benefit a minority of players.

We do see exceptions to this, with a lot of them coming from the Indie market and sometimes having close captioning in AAA titles.

The big problem though is that every game is different, from how it's designed to how it was coded and of course the game engine used. Being able to provide color blind accessibility in one game, doesn't mean that every game will work the same way. Because of this, a lot of games have their accessibility options designed from scratch, which again means time and money spent.

For smaller studios, they may literally not have it in the budget to do anything else than working on the main gameplay and design of a title. Issues of players with disabilities are not high enough on the priority list compared to actually getting the game finished; again, we are talking about a minority of the overall consumer base. As already mentioned, there are currently no standard implementation practices for covering people with disabilities in a video game; everything is on a game by game basis.

For game designers, it's important to think about how accessible your game will be and to try to downplay decisions that would directly prevent people from playing. Finally, sometimes a game will simply not be accessible to people by its design and there is nothing the designer can do to change that. Not every game has to/can be 100% accessible to everyone, but a good first step is to pay attention to your design and try to avoid elements that explicitly impact people with disabilities.

(For posts and podcasts on game design and the industry, check out Game-Wisdom, along with the new Youtube channel for daily videos. And my Patreon campaign to secure some much needed monthly funding.)

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