One of the most prolific and extensive efforts towards accessibility in games has for many years been made by Microsoft, the company that not only released one of the first mainstream pieces of assistive video game tech in recent history, but has also made great internal strides through the Xbox Game Studios accessibility program.
That internal network of support services, as recently outlined in a GDC 2023 talk by key development leads on Microsoft's accessibility team, aims to help incorporate design accommodations throughout every stage of the process, be it through creating and implementing best practice guides, providing design consults and training guides, tracking legal requirements and many of the other intricacies of ensuring equal access to Microsoft games.
The talk, which was given in part by Xbox Game Studios senior accessibility lead Tara Voelker, was divided into three sections, the first breaking down what XGS accessibility program services provide for Microsoft developers and wrapping up with a list of resources for those who want to make accessibility a priority in their design. While much of the advice was perhaps less usual for smaller studios and solo devs, the second bullet point delivered one major tip that can be used by anyone for a project of any size, which is to incorporate feedback from the disabled community at every level of the design process.
"Nothing about us without us."
Covering this portion of the talk was Brannon Zahand, senior Gaming Accessibility Program manager at Microsoft and a member of the disabled community. The community, he says, is your best resource as a game developer, because they genuinely want to work with you to make things better. As accessibility in game design becomes more of a priority, more disabled players are becoming developers themselves, and they are enthusiastic in their feedback. For that reason, Zahand says, it won’t be hard to find people who want to work with you on accessibility features in your game.
As to why it’s so important that they are included in the process, Zahand says that lived perspectives can't be covered in test cases. Accessibility focus groups have sprung up specifically in response to the number of products that have been made “for” disabled people but not actually with their real needs in mind. “And so that led to a lot of really well-intentioned but poorly accessible products over the years because they never checked to see if these features were going to be useful for the community or whether the community even wanted them.” Bringing in people with disabilities as early in the design process is vital to ensure quality. If you can, Zahand says, do so during the concept phase; production and anything past that stage is far too late.
A few etiquette tips for working with the disabled community
It’s important to remember to not let the fear of making social mistakes stand in the way of progress, and to maintain a few rules of etiquette when recruiting from the disabled community.
Pay your disability consultants
First and foremost, compensate them. Giving feedback requires time and effort, and the information they provide is valuable, so they deserve to be paid. “We want to help but some of us have to live too, right? So please make sure you're supporting your gamers with disabilities who are coming in and providing that amazing feedback.”
Proactively create accessibile workspaces
Second, ensure both your physical and online spaces are accessible. “You want to make sure that those spaces meet and ideally exceed governmental requirements and regulations around accessibility… If they can't get in the door they're not going to be able to give you that information, right?” Make sure that you're asking for accommodation information upfront and that your physical or virtual space is going to be able to accommodate those individuals. This includes websites and email; not having those readily available and presentable cuts out a large portion of your audience. And third, ensure your content is accessible by providing things like closed captions for audio-focused platforms.
Also, a few other things to remember in terms of etiquette: one voice does not represent all voices. Remember that the disabled community encompasses many different experiences and a variety of feedback sources is necessary, not just in terms of different kinds of disabilities but within those identities as well (for example, some may have less experience as a gamer or with assistive tech and peripherals than others).
Collaboration is an ongoing process
And, as covered earlier, bring the disabled community in at the concept and pre-production stage. “Make sure you're engaging early, and then, don't just bring them in once, chat with them, get some feedback and bail. You want to keep engaging them, bring them back, iterate, iterate, iterate."
"If you look at the Xbox Adaptive Controller, it took us over three years to make that device. I can't tell you how many iterations of that thing we made, and that was because we were constantly bringing the community in to look at every prototype, every iteration. We would find a new problem, we would find a new challenge, then we would update and update and update.”
That’s the sort of relationship you want to have with your community, Zahand says. And finally, you must be willing to acknowledge and own your mistakes. No matter how well-versed you are in issues of accessibility or even if you belong to the community yourself, mistakes are inevitable. “So whether it's ‘Oh, we forgot to make our space accessible and this person couldn't get in’ or ‘the email we sent had pictures and they didn't have alt text’ and whatever it is, own the mistake, apologize, and make sure it doesn't happen again.”