Bill Berkowitz and Gale Bataille
Our granddaughter spends a lot of time on the Internet though she is legally blind and colorblind. She is an artist who has learned how to use technology for drawing, animation and even color selection. She enjoys playing video games with her friends. However, most games offer limited accessibility for people with significant vision loss. Technologies exist to make these games more accessible to people with a range of physical, vision and hearing challenges. So why haven’t these accommodations been a priority for online gaming companies?
Online games both reflect and increasingly shape culture and the political views of people worldwide. Over 3 billion people are estimated to play video games across the globe. Video game makers, though claiming a neutral stance, often promote a culture of accumulation and capitalism. Less frequently games promote more progressive worldviews. The accommodations – or lack of accommodations – that video games build in for people who have physical, visual, auditory and other challenges are also political, reflecting the priorities of a culture of inclusion or exclusion.
Online gaming companies have historically, though incorrectly, assumed that people who need accommodations aren’t a significant target audience. A November 2021 survey sponsored by SCOPE, a UK disability advocacy organization, found that the disability community saw gaming as a primary hobby, spending more time gaming per session than their nondisabled peers. “This makes disabled gamers a key consumer group, furthering the case for greater focus on specific needs and considerations regarding accessibility and inclusion” (https://www.scope.org.uk/campaigns/research-policy/accessibility-in-gaming/#Interests-and-behaviours-among-disabled-gamers).
There has been progress: According to DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology), “Accessibility in gaming has seen great strides in recent years. Accessibility features in software have become more frequent and adaptive hardware is being developed by mainstream game companies. However, there is still much progress to be made” (https://www.washington.edu/doit/growth-accessibility-video-games). DO-IT also notes that too often making or identifying adaptations to make games more accessible are viewed as the consumer’s responsibility, not the game company. DO-IT concludes that: “While it may not be possible for every game to be accessible to everyone, through inclusive measures by video game developers, we are getting closer than ever before. For now, game companies should be more transparent about the accessibility of their games.”
Can I Play That? (CIPT) (https://caniplaythat.com) provides an “online resource run and written entirely by disabled writers that allows people to know beforehand whether a game will be accessible to them. CIPT also releases annual Accessibility Awards celebrating the incredible progress of inclusive gaming thus far.” In addition to CIPT, other disabled gamer advocacy and review groups include: Special Effect (https://www.specialeffect.org.uk), Game Critics (https://gamecritics.com) and, DAGER System (https://dagersystem.com).
In the US, there is some progress, at least in part due to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) which required that “any video game communication functionality released in 2019 and beyond must be accessible to people with sight, motor, speech, cognitive, and hearing disabilities.” But according to “AbleGamers”, a nonprofit dedicated to improving accessibility in the video games space, the focus of the CVAA is still very narrow and only covers the part of the game where gamers can communicate with other gamers, e.g., via voice chat, text chat, and video chat. The good news is that several of the large gaming companies including Microsoft and Sony are actively working to improve both in game and hardware (game controller) accessibility.
To make video game accessibility more concrete, our granddaughter identified useful features and areas of progress for people with low vision in several popular games. For a more comprehensive list of accessibility features in modern games, refer to GameMaker ToolKit’s year-end list: https://youtu.be/-IhQl1CBj9U.
It Takes Two (2021) by Hazelight Studios includes a screen reader for the menu. This reads text the player has selected, a feature that improves accessibility in any game and has become increasingly common across the industry.
Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart (2021) by Insomniac Games allows players to turn down colors in the background while highlighting characters and items, and a slow-motion option assists with fast action scenes.
Overwatch (2016), Activision-Blizzard’s competitive FPS, is an example of great game design that has also led to increased accessibility. The 30+ playable Heroes each have unique audio- weapon sounds, footsteps, and voice-lines. Voice-lines trigger automatically to indicate statuses and abilities, with different phrasing to distinguish teammates from enemies.
Overwatch was replaced by its sequel in 2022, and with the update came new accessibility features. A text-to-speech option reads the in-game chat, and even more audio queues keep low-vision players informed. Unfortunately, these features are hidden in Overwatch 2’s (in-accessible) menus. Overwatch frequently updates for new content so hopefully one of these updates will include a screen reader for menus. Still, these new features are a great addition to the game’s robust soundscape and, according to our Granddaughter have improved her gameplay considerably!
The on-line gaming industry has also moved in recent years to include people with disabilities in earlier stages of game development. Design for accessibility becomes an expectation rather than an afterthought when the people with disabilities are integrated into the video game design process and the gaming company makes accessibility an explicit commitment. There’s still plenty to improve on, but the future of gaming looks more inclusive.