Hey everybody! During my work for the last two weeks I have been getting trained in software accessibility, and this process has got me thinking a lot about accessibility in video games. I believe that everyone should be able to play and enjoy video games, but there are many people who cannot due to physical or mental disability. Today, I want to talk about the many different barriers that can prevent people from being able to play the games that they want, and look at some ways that these problems can be addressed to make games more accessible to everyone.
Barriers to Accessibility
There are many reasons why different people may be unable to play certain video games, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving these problems. These barriers come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, and each different issue needs to be addressed on its own terms. That being said, the barriers to game accessibility can generally be broken down into a few major categories:
- Blindness and Extremely Low Vision
- Low Vision and Color-blindness
- Low or no Hearing
- Impaired Motor Functions
- Cognitive Disabilities
Each of these categories has unique challenges that must be addressed in order to bridge the gap of accessibility, and it is important to start planning how these issues will be addressed in your game as early in the process as possible. Thinking about these different categories while developing your game will help to make your game accessible to as many people as possible.
- Blindness and Extremely Low Vision
At first, blindness may seem like an insurmountable challenge for video games. After all, games tend to be a primarily visual medium, with players moving their characters around the screen, or interacting with visual puzzles. However, with some careful planning and forethought it is entirely possible to make almost any sort of game accessible to those with extremely impaired vision.
The main technique used for making games accessible to the totally or nearly blind is to use audio cues for in-game actions. This technique is commonly used in some fighting
games, sometimes unintentionally – if every different move has a different audio cue, then visually impaired players will be able to react to these cues. Another example of this is Madden NFL, which has a commentary track which can allow sightless players to keep track of the action on the field.
Another option is the use of audio descriptions. Audio descriptions are extremely common in the world of film, but have yet to really become popular in the world of video games. This technique is pretty self explanatory – players should have an option to turn on audio descriptions in the settings, and once activated the descriptions will describe what is happening on the screen.
While this technique would be very effective for describing cut-scenes, I believe it would also be very useful for slower-paced or turn-based games. One game that I think would benefit greatly from this feature is the Pokemon series. Because Pokemon is turn-based and relies upon a pretty simple user interface for most of the gameplay, it should not be very difficult to implement a system of audio descriptions that give unsighted players the same information as their sighted counterparts. For example, when an oppponent’s Pokemon attacks the audio description could say “Enemy Squirtle used bubble. It’s super effective! Charmander took 10 damage, and has 20hp remaining.”
Unfortunately, I am not sure that every game can be made accessible to the blind. While many types of games will benefit from these techniques, there are certain genres, such as the First-person-shooter, that rely so heavily on precise and rapidly changing visual information that I do not believe the previous techniques will be applicable. However, it is entirely possible that I am wrong, and if you have a possible solution please let me know! However, even if these techniques cannot apply to all games, I believe that with a little forethought most games can become blind accessible.
- Low Vision and Color-blindness
While the above techniques may work well for users who are nearly or completely blind, they may be a little cumbersome for users who have less severe visual impairments. Luckily, there are a number of relatively simple techniques that can be used to make games accessible to those with impaired vision and color-blindness.
The first technique is to allow players to adjust the size of the on-screen text. For many users with vision issues, trying to read small on-screen text can be extremely difficult,
and giving them the option to increase the font-size can make a huge difference. Heck, sometimes I have trouble reading on-screen text even with my glasses on, and I believe many users with perfect vision would still appreciate the ability to adjust the size of the on-screen text.
Another thing to keep in mind for both low-vision and color-blind users is color contrast. Having high enough contrast between text and the background is very important for readability, but this principle can also apply in many other ways. Suppose you have a red enemy against a green background. To you, this enemy may seem extremely visible and obvious, but to a player with red-green colorblindness that enemy may be much harder to see, and this can severely impact their experience.
One way to combat this problem is to have multiple different color-options for those with visual disabilities. A high-contrast option can increase the contrast between foreground elements such as enemies, players, and HUD elements, and the background, and make the game easier to play with low vision. Different color settings can also make the game more accessible to those with various forms of color-blindness by adjusting the palette to a more visible range.
Finally, the last thing to keep track of is how the game uses color to convey visual information. Many games use color as a shorthand for different kinds of information –
for example, if a character’s name shows up in red they are an enemy, whereas green is an ally. However, if a player is color-blind this can lead them to accidentally shooting their teammates!
The solution is not to stop using color to convey information, but instead to not make it the ONLY way that the information gets conveyed. Perhaps instead of only indicating teammates through color, they could also have some sort of icon next to their name to indicate that they are on your team. The goal is not to eliminate the use of color, but to supplement it so that the same information is conveyed to those who cannot see the color in the first place.
- Low or no Hearing
While games are primarily a visual medium, sound can also be used to convey a lot of information in games. The most obvious example is in-game dialogue, and most dialogue heavy games already have the option to turn on subtitles to help with this issue. However, dialogue is not the only information that gets conveyed through sound, and games should provide alternative ways to supply this information to those who cannot hear (or just want to play with the sound down to not bother their roommates).
Similarly to the solutions discussed in the previous section with color, the goal is not to eliminate sound as a means to deliver information, but to have the option of augmenting it. While subtitles are good at conveying speech in cut-scenes, they are not always used widely enough. Subtitles can be used to convey information about other sounds as well – if a player would normally be able to hear an enemy behind them, for example, the game should provide that same information in a non-sound form. Perhaps a small on-screen indicator could appear to notify the player about the approaching enemy, with an arrow to help them locate it.
- Impaired Motor Function
The key thing that separates games from other types of media is interactivity. You are not just watching or hearing something happen, but you are actually making it happen. You have control over the game itself, and get to make the decisions. However, this only works if you are physically able to manipulate the controls. Some players, for a wide variety of reasons, are unable to use traditional video game controllers, and require alternative means of control.
In many cases, the alternative comes in the form of new hardware. One example is the LP Pad controller, for the Xbox. This controller is designed to be placed on the lap, and is
meant to help players with reduced fine-motor control. The larger buttons reduce the need for precise finger movements, and allow this console to be played by a much larger audience.
While there are many other examples of game hardware that is designed to improve accessibility, this does not mean that designers do not have to take motor disabilities into account when designing their games. The easiest way to help with this issue is to have adjustable or alternative control schemes. Suppose, for example, that a player only has one hand, and this makes the traditional two-handed control scheme unusable for them. If the game has re-mappable buttons, this user may be able to adjust the control scheme so that it is usable with only one hand, allowing them to play an otherwise unplayable game.
- Cognitive Disabilities
While all of the previous types of accessibility issues have been due to physical disabilities, cognitive issues can also affect a game’s playability. While there are many different types of cognitive disabilities, I want to look at two of the most common categories – memory impairment and reading disabilities.
The key to making games more accessible to those with memory impairment is to provide accessible ways of storing and accessing vital in-game information. I don’t personally have memory issues, and yet I don’t know how many times I have accidentally clicked through important dialogue, and had no method of recovering the information that I missed. It can be extremely frustrating, and severely slows down my ability to progress in the game. For people with memory impairment, this situation happens all too often – they forget an objective or a piece of crucial information, and the game provides no means of recovering it.
Fortunately, there are many simple ways of circumventing this issue. The most common one is through the use of an in-game journal or quest-log, which automatically records your current objectives. This technique is extremely useful because it allows players at any time to remind themselves about their current goals and objectives.
Another common way of tracking information is through an in-game map. I am a huge fan of Zelda’s maps in particular, because of the vast amount of easily available information provided. These maps show you all the rooms in the dungeon, as well as highlighting which rooms you have already visited. If you have the compass as well, then you can also see information about which rooms have objectives or hidden treasure. There is even a mark on the map showing which door you came in, so that you don’t
accidentally backtrack! This map is an invaluable tool in helping players track their progress through the dungeon.
The second type of cognitive disability that I want to highlight is disabilities that impair a player’s ability to read, such as dyslexia. Fortunately, many of the same techniques used to help those with poor vision can also be used to help those who have a cognitive reading impairment. These techniques include the ability to increase the font size and the contrast, as well as the option for audio descriptions instead of written text.
Until Next Time!
That is all I have for this week! I hope you enjoyed this article about solo game design! If you did, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week, where I will be writing about how board games can be made accessible as well!