Inclusive video games are in! Accessibility in video games is attracting attention from developers ranging from tiny indie companies to behemoths like Microsoft’s Xbox.

This cheery takeaway was just one message of #GAConf, the first-ever IGDA Game Accessibility SIG (special interest group) conference, on February 27 in San Francisco. If they’d tried to have a conference on creating inclusive, accessible games two years ago, “It would probably have been just the two of us,” conference organizer Tara Voelker told the diverse crowd of about 80, mostly game developers with a sprinkling of gamers and accessibility advocates.

Her co-organizer, Ian Hamilton, opened the day with a strong statement about why inclusiveness—and a focus on accessibility—matters. “A medical condition is not a disability,” Hamilton said. “A wheelchair is assistive technology,” not a marker of disability. The disability is created by a barrier. Commenting on a photo of a wheelchair user next to a flight of stairs, Hamilton emphasized his point: The person is “disabled” by the steps, which are a manufactured barrier. Hamilton then pointed out that gaming is similar, in that many of the barriers that prevent some would-be players from participating are created—and can be removed or avoided—by game designers and developers.

Why should people care about avoiding those barriers? Several speakers mentioned the size of the potential market—about 22 percent of the adult population has at least one disability, according to some measures; the number is larger if barriers like color blindness, low literacy, and temporary or situational barriers are considered. But nearly all the presenters focused more on a philosophical approach: Creating inclusive games is the right thing to do.

Conceding that the idealistic argument doesn’t win over many potential funders, some speakers described the feedback and media attention their inclusive games have garnered. For example, when “Hue”—a game that is entirely about color—released a version in August 2016 that color-blind players could access, Hamilton said, nearly every review highlighted that fact—even though the feature was mentioned only in a single bullet point in the press release.

Bryce Johnson, an Xbox designer, took pains to emphasize that removing barriers does not mean simplifying a game or making it less challenging. “Friction can be a barrier,” he acknowledged, but “challenge is why we play games.”

Johnson said that “great games don’t remove friction; they have the best friction in the best possible places.” He explained that looking at potential barriers as “variables” that can be adjusted to increase or decrease “friction” can also increase or decrease the difficulty level for all players.

For example, a key area where players encounter access issues is brightness and contrast. “Contrast and brightness are peanut butter and jelly,” he said, explaining that these aspects “go together” and are something that players often request control over. Allowing all players to adjust brightness can factor into the difficulty level of gameplay.

Common themes

Conference sessions addressed various aspects of inclusiveness in creating games: appealing to older gamers; performing quality control on games for children; best practices for subtitling games; including low-vision or blind players by improving game audio. In all of these talks, five common themes emerged:

  • “Adjust the interface, not the challenge.” This mantra, from Bob De Schutter’s talk about encouraging older players’ interest in gaming, applies across the board. Gamers, even those who have disabilities, don’t want the games to be easier or to reduce other gamers’ experience. Instead, they want to be able to participate in that experience. If developers make games usable to a broader range of gamers, the players will persist until they master the challenge.
  • If you do it right, no one notices, according to Brian Van Buren, whose talk about accessibility and virtual reality underscored the value of universal design. Features that might be added as a way to reduce barriers to play might not be regarded as “accessibility” features; they are just cool features of the game. Van Buren also emphasized that the possibilities of VR games let designers create an environment that is better than reality, where players have “superpowers” that they can use to avoid or mitigate barriers.
  • Plan ahead. Several speakers shared experiences of trying to retrofit games or “fix” barriers; anticipating and designing for inclusiveness is more efficient and more likely to succeed than trying to tweak a completed or nearly completed game. “Almost any game can be made accessible to the blind,” said accessibility advocate and blind gamer Brandon Cole. “It has to be done early, but it can be done.”
  • Bring in gamers frequently—and early—to test. In a similar vein to planning inclusiveness from the design phase, user testing is not something to leave until late in development. Bring in users to test early, and include gamers with a large variety of disabilities. While it might be possible to “fake” some barriers to access, a sighted or hearing developer can never mimic the experience of a blind or deaf player. Watching people interact with the games provides invaluable insight, according to speakers Siobhán Thomas and Nathan Fouts.
  • Toot your own horn. Once you’ve demolished barriers to access and created an inclusive game that is accessible, tell people. Announcing accessible features to players of Evolve generated a lot of positive feedback, according to Voelker, and led to a half-hour livestreamed conversation on accessibility. Which—you guessed it—led to more feedback, more positive attention, and additional improvements.

No longer “preaching to the choir”

Voelker was pleased with the attendance at the conference. She said the number of participants shows that accessibility advocates are “past the point of preaching to the choir” and are now reaching people who are not already committed to and “doing” inclusiveness. “We’re almost at the tipping point” where it’s no longer necessary to tell people why they need to create accessible games, and the Game Accessibility SIG can move on to explaining what it means to be inclusive and how to do it, she said.

The day’s mix of whys, hows, and best practices, as well as the questions and comments from participants, validated that optimistic assessment.