Video Game Accessibility…Or Lack Thereof

February 19, 2010

For this post, I did a little research about accessibility in design.  It is surprising how very little attention is payed to disabled people, despite the fact that there are millions of disabled people out there who would like to enjoy the same technology the rest of us do.  The first thing I did was listen to a KUOW podcast from a local Seattle radio station, in which a lady named Wendy Chrisholm gives an interview about Web accessibility.

In the interview, Wendy talks about how she got started in web accessibility, and how passionate she is about it.  She began by tutoring a blind student in college, and this got her to thinking about helping disabled people.  She went on to get into web development, but she never forgot her ideas for accessibility, so she wrote some guidelines for making websites accessible.  These actually ended up getting published as the standards for international web site development.  However, with the exponential rise in website complexity, these guidelines have sadly not been fully utilized by the decentralized internet community.  Wendy demonstrated on the local Seattle Metro website how even basic screen reading tools could not succeed in aiding a disabled person because the website itself was so convoluted in its design that the reader would only read back unintelligible garble.  She concluded her interview with words of advice to include accessibility in the entire web development cycle, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought.

While Wendy’s story with the world of web design accessibility was rather optimistic, it still showcases the fact that disabled people are regretfully neglected most of the time when it comes to design.  In my field of video game design, accessibility is not a term one hears often.  Fortunately, this is not for lack of caring, but rather for lack of knowledge, since disabled gamers make up a relatively small proportion of the gaming population.  However, this percentage is growing by the day, and demands for accessibility in video games continues to grow along with it.  In fact, according to an article on Gamasutra, a full 57% of computer users were likely or very likely to benefit from the use of accessible technology in 2003, and this number is projected to increase every year.  That was in 2003!  So what are game developers going to do about it?

When one looks at the medium of video games, accessibility is not high on anyone’s priority list.  Highly polished graphics and play mechanics are always the most important things for a new game, since they make a game sell, but these are not conducive to anyone with a visual or even auditory impairment.  Accessibility just isn’t that sexy to develop for.  Also, many companies don’t view accessibility as cost-effective, since they have a limited time frame and budget in which to work.  It wouldn’t be worth their while to put in extra development effort for a tiny percentage, right?  Unfortunately, these fears of a company are really unfounded.  As I said earlier, there are literally millions of disabled gamers out there who want to play.  That’s a big enough market, I’d say.  As one example, a developer for disabled gamers, Reid Kimball, created a version of Doom III that had closed captioning, and it has been downloaded over 19,000 times.  There are people out there who would enjoy an accessible game, but they haven’t been tapped yet.

There are some things that can be done for impaired gamers, and many of the solutions are not too difficult.  One of the most obvious ways of helping is with text in a game.  Give the option for closed captioning for hearing impaired people, and for visually impaired people give them the option to increase the size of the text.  Simple, yet elegant.  There might also be color-blind gamers out there, so a quick fix for that would be to use a color palette that is color-blind friendly, or to use shapes or other elements such that the player does not have to depend on color to proceed with the game.  For the rare mobility-disabled gamer, special controllers may be developed to enable them to have non-standard controls for a game, such as a controller that utilizes chin movements or breath instead of complex button combinations.

Though these solutions might seem like they could be incorporated easily into game development, the fact of the matter is that accessibility remains a largely ignored element in the game design process.  Most developers simply don’t know enough to improve their games’ accessibility, or those who know may just not be motivated enough to change anything.  This, to me, seems like a sad thing for everyone involved.  If the developers just realized how many potential disabled gamers there are out there, they might pull in a lot more money than they realize.  Of course, if they did this, then players formerly barred from playing games due to an impairment would be able to enjoy a game like everyone else, which also might alleviate feelings of being an outsider.  It’s a win-win situation, but right now no action is being taken.  Come on, it’s a no-brainer!  Developers and gamers alike have much to gain, and I feel that the developers should put much more effort than they are into accessibility.  I am optimistic, but it’ll take time.  As they say, though, good things come to those who wait.  Guess we’ll just have to wait a little longer until developers like Reid Kimball get the ball rolling.  Roll on, Reid.

Sources:
http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20060920/zahand_03.shtml
http://www.game-accessibility.com/index.php?pagefile=motoric
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_accessibility

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