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Tips for building your own accessibility program

How do you design for accessibility from the ground up? Whitethorn Games' Britt Dye has some answers.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

November 14, 2023

9 Min Read
A hand writes the words "accessibility" in whiteboard marker.
Image via Adobe Stock

A common refrain from accessibility advocates in game development is that the best way to support players with disabilities is to start designing features around their needs from day one. Settings for color-blind players, text-to-audio descriptions, and other tools are easier to implement if they're accounted for early rather than shoved in at the end of production.

But every developer knows every game comes with its own unique accessibility quirks. For instance, first-person shooters may need to account for PTSD triggers for those who've been around gun violence, whereas cozy farming simulators don't. Cozy farming simulators may benefit from features that reduce cognitive load for neurodivergent players, but those same cognitive load reductions may not work for a 3D platformer, and so on and so forth.

However, developers and publishers have options. Many high-profile studios are already rolling out extensive accessibility features, and publishers like Whitethorn Games are establishing accessibility pipelines to support the smaller teams working across many genres. For insight on how those pipelines are structured, we checked in with chief accessibility officer Britt Dye for a look at her day-to-day workflow and a discussion about how accessibility can be approached at studios of all shapes and sizes.

Implementing accessibility features on day one

Dye has a rather fun background as a chief accessibility officer. She began her professional career in the world of library science and eventually transitioned into the world of user research. She began to think about how product usability and accessibility go hand-in-hand, finding frequent intersectionality between the two worlds.

"The skill set is pretty well aligned," she said when pressed about how library science can lead to a career in accessibility. "A lot of [library science] is about "findability of information," and in video games, usability is kind of similar, but you're leading players to information in a game." She recalled doing projects on the information-seeking habits of players while studying the more book-bound field.

At Whitethorn Games, Dye has regular meetings with developers signed to the label on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, depending on where the team is in production. In these meetings, she presents her findings on any barriers to accessibility that appear in their games. But she's not just there to lecture them about what they've missed. "I want to be a resource for them," she explained. "If there's something that they want to know about or learn about, I can help them by either giving them the information or finding out about it myself."

A screenshot from Calico. A woman in a pink dress riding a cat talks to a dog-man wearing suspenders in front of a pink forest. Both the woman and the cat have other cats on their head.

Her department, she explained, is structured as a resource for developers, not about dictating what's needed in games. Dye adjusts her feedback based on the design intent of each game so she and her colleagues can support developers' overall goals.

She gave a basic rundown of what her early work on a game will look like. "I look at design documents and let them know what some potential issues are. I'll give them resources about what other games may have done in similar genres, and then we start getting builds; I have a set list of tests and review documents to look at all the different ways a game might have unintentional barriers for players."

"Then I present them with reports or spreadsheets, whichever way they prefer, because I like to work with developers on what's easy for them. It's already kind of a lot to be getting this feedback all at once, so I want to make things as easy as possible for them."

Usability tests help flag inaccessible elements in production

After what Dye refers to as the "low-hanging fruit" is addressed, she requests regular builds of games in development to run through usability tests with players invited to come in and test games. She writes reports based on those playtests and passes them back to developers. Developers often ask about specific accessibility hurdles they're worried about, and she'll run tests based on those requests.

"I'll usually get questions [from developers] like 'What do you think about this feature or that feature?' 'Which of these fonts do you think is the best font?' or 'Could you help write descriptions for visuals?'" she said. Her involvement with developers goes through to the end of production when they port games to different platforms. At that stage, they're often looking for input on how games designed for one platform might need extra consideration on a different platform.

A screenshot from Lake. A woman carries a cat carrier away from a house on a dock. A snowy mountain looms in the background.

Dye's description of trying to meet the developer's vision for what their game will look like also extends to how she integrates into their production practices. You might have spotted that she discussed sharing accessibility information either in written reports or in spreadsheet form. She noted that the distinction is really about "whatever they prefer," but sometimes developers invite her into their project management software to drop her gathered information into a centralized spot.

"They all follow the same formula," she noted. "They all describe issues, how they impact players, and potential fixes...examples of what other games have done." Said reports will also include video or images in the game of where the issue is.

Playtesters need clear insight into what they're testing

Accessibility playtests are important, but Dye called out an important element of conducting such tests that developers should be mindful of: playtesters should be getting as much transparency of what they'll be playtesting and what accessibility hurdles are being addressed. "When I do playtesting invites, I'll send a PDF of accessibility information for the players so they can decide whether or not they want to playtest before they commit to it," she explained. "I don't want them to feel bad for saying that they'll playtest, finding out what it is, and then have to say, 'Oh actually I can't.'"

Those bad feelings could become a bit more extreme under some conditions. The worst thing a player without disabilities might encounter in a general playtest is a bad bug that stops gameplay or makes it less fun. A playtester with epilepsy might have a seizure if they run into a bug that triggers flashing lights on the screen.

Dye said her playtesting packet includes accessibility information about the tests, the possible risks involved, the motor requirements for gameplay, social interaction possibilities at the office, images of the lab, its lighting quality, and more. That goes out with an informed consent form (commonly seen in traditional research disciplines) with everything listed out and an invitation for testers to request accommodations if needed.

So far, none of Dye's testers have experienced any high-profile health issues, but she's cognizant that it could be an issue in the future. Her goal, however, is to keep honing her informational packets to ensure no player ever experiences a risk to their mental or physical health while playtesting a title published by Whitethorn Games.

Dye's use of informed consent forms was notable because in some discussions we've had with developers about researching player behavior, they've sometimes discussed making invisible tweaks in live games to gather data on how players respond to imperceivable changes. In Dye's academic background, that kind of conduct wouldn't fly, but the game industry has no oversight over such practices.

"Lots of corporate industries that aren't in public research or are universities don't have such requirements," she observed. "But I've always personally felt better if things are done ethically and transparently because I don't want to harm anyone, and I don't want anything [bad] to happen."

She noted that she likes being told what is going on in life, work, and in games, and she wants players to have the same courtesy.

What are the biggest accessibility issues the game industry needs to tackle?

In Dye's tenure at Whitethorn Games, she's observed two major accessibility challenges that are the hardest to design for: solutions for players who are blind, or may have limited or low vision, and players with cognitive disabilities. "Those can be difficult because the solutions aren't quite as clear as adding highlights or changing colors or typefaces," she said. "Those are some of the most interesting problems to work on because they require more creative solutions."

That one's a particularly complex challenge because plenty of video games are designed around the idea of challenging players' cognitive abilities. Players without such disabilities may feel weighed down by the same factors that are barriers to players with said disabilities—but for one group, that discomfort is a challenge; for the other, it can be a cause of distress.

An example of such a hurdle appeared while testing The Forest Cathedral. During accessibility testing, some players struggled with wall jumping (the act of leaping off a wall after jumping toward it). "The timing can be both a motor and cognitive accessibility issue," she noted. The solution was to create a "float mode" that slows how fast the player character descends while airborne. It offers more time for players to execute the wall jump or solve other traversal puzzles.

As with many accessibility features, it's the kind of solution that also benefits players without disabilities who might be frustrated by such mechanics.

Studios do better when they're all-in on accessibility

Dye said that the most important thing any accessibility advocate at a company needs from their employer and colleagues is support. A lack of support can manifest when team leaders are "intimidated" by the process of designing accessible gameplay because "it's a difficult thing to start."

Many developers might be worried about being called out on social media for excluding certain groups from their accessibility features or designing such a feature and getting it wrong. (Such abuse can be worse for accessibility advocates at studios, who might be the target of such ire).

"It's important to have that support starting out, to have relationships with the people who are creating the game and the people in the studio," she said. Two-way conversations between the two groups can create trust and allow the spread of education and information that create successful accessibility initiatives.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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