If It Were Any Other Media, It Would Be Illegal: Founders of Accessibility Jam on Disabilities in Gaming

Accessibility Jam

Get Connected Gamer Profile 2Last week, I told you about Accessibility Jam, a three-week game jam focused on spreading the word about how easy it is to make games playable for gamers with special needs. Simple additions like subtitles or difficulty options  can widen a game’s audience and make a big difference in the lives of gamers everywhere.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview two of the founders of Accessibility Jam, Ian Hamilton and Jonard La Rosa. Ian works as an accessibility specialist and UX designer, and Jonard is an artist and game creator. Read below to learn more about how their careers have progressed, why their work is important, and what advice they have for parents.

Pixelkin: What got you started in accessible gaming?

Ian:    My first introduction to accessibility in gaming was while working as a designer on games for children back in 2006, and seeing some play-testing footage of preschool games that had been adapted to be playable with a single key press. This change made them compatible with all kinds of assistive technology, such as a big button on a wheelchair headrest. As a result, children who only a generation ago would have spent their time just lying there being cared for were now laughing and playing and doing the same things as all of their classmates. It was difficult to avoid being excited and inspired by that. So I started negotiating for time at my job to work on similar projects myself.

Over the following couple of years as my career progressed, I found myself overseeing many games, both internally developed and developed by third-party studios. I kept seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again. These developers were losing out on so many potential players through trivial decisions—things like color usage. So that was really what inspired me to try to do something about it, to work on establishing some best practices and to spread word as much as possible.

Jonard: I got into accessible gaming for pretty much the same reasons I chose to begin making video games. I saw, as an adolescent, that video games were being used to help kids with ADD improve their concentration by using a brain activity-detecting device and a Tony Hawk game. Supposedly, players would gradually lose control of the character if they weren’t paying attention and this would prompt them to focus on the task at hand. I’ve also read about video games being used to help certain autistic children learn how to cross the street safely (as practicing in real life is dangerous). Losing in the game taught the child that there are consequences to crossing the street without looking both directions. And I’ve heard of or seen several other cases of video games as educational tools, as “recreational therapy” for treating phantom limb syndrome, and such!

Tony Hawk

A modified version of a Tony Hawk game helped kids improve their focus. (Source)

I’ve learned the importance of recreation for social welfare. To have mainstream video games largely inaccessible to more than 20% of a population is like having a national park be inaccessible. That’s really a shame. And it turns out that a way to help this is actually quite simple!

Fast forward to today, I decided to make a video game for the blind for my undergrad senior project. A cousin of mine works at the California School for the Blind, and I had heard stories of how the students felt left out in terms of playing mainstream games. I consulted the community and asked what they felt was lacking, etc. I reached out to game developers to see if their games were accessible. I discovered that even prominent figures in the industry had no idea how to make their games more accessible!

This led to my spark of interest in creating an online game jam. Through pure luck and synchronicity I got in contact with David DeCarmine (the founder of gamejolt.com), game developer 0x0961h, and a developer who wishes not to be named, and together we organized #AccessibilityJam to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day! Through the help and support of Ian Hamilton, GAAD, and AbleGamers, the jam was able to become a cohesive and tangible statement in the game industry.

Pixelkin: What are some of the most common misconceptions you see when it comes to disabilities or accessibility?

Ian:     It’s always the same set of misconceptions: that accessibility is complicated and difficult, time consuming and expensive, and only benefits a tiny fraction of a percentage of the population, who don’t even play games anyway. I know, I used to have those same misconceptions myself.

What I soon discovered though was that in fact the opposite is true. Fifteen percent of the population are disabled, and that actually rises to 20% amongst gamers, because people with disabilities have exactly the same reasons to want to play games as anyone else, plus other ones too—escapism, physiotherapy prescribed by doctors, even using the intense concentration as a way to distract from pain, reducing the need to take medication. And those figures don’t even include the really common stuff, like the 8% of males who are red-green colorblind, or the 14% of adults who have difficulty reading. There’s a huge business case involved. The amount of money that Call of Duty must have lost due to using red/green for its team colors (compared to for example Gears of War’s blue-orange) is just mind-boggling.

If you think about accessibility early enough in the development process, the bulk of it can be done pretty simply and cheaply, sometimes with no cost at all—simple design decisions that make the game better for all players. It all comes down to avoiding unnecessary barriers, firstly by communicating information in multiple ways, and secondly by allowing players a bit of flexibility in how they play.

colorblind

On the left, you have the popular game Flow Free. On the right, you have an image of how the game might look to someone who has a red/green visual impairment (deuteranopia).

You can make an absolutely huge difference even just by putting aside an hour at the outset of a project to have a think about how gamers with any degree of impaired ability to see, hear, speak, operate a controller or remember/process information might get on with your proposal, and what you might be able to do to remove unnecessary barriers for them.

Jonard: I’d hate to iterate it but there are still many game developers who believe that taking the time to consider accessibility will add layers of complexity to their design or hours of labor. Even while I was promoting the game jam I faced this presumption among some developers. It was a struggle to have them even LOOK at the resources we were providing. That attitude is just proof that considering accessibility is NOT considered necessary in game design. Rather, it’s considered garnish or superfluous to a game. Honestly, it’s quite a surprise to me because there are laws that require websites to be accessible. I really don’t understand why simple things like colorblind-friendly design or mutual audio/visual cues aren’t in video game standards manuals. I’ve looked through them. There are rules about how many specific curse words are required to change a game’s rating from T to M but they don’t care if a fifth of the gaming population can’t play the game.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Pixelkin: Why do you advocate for accessible games specifically, as opposed to other kinds of media?

Ian:     I do work in other media too, but I’m particularly interested in games for two reasons.

Firstly, because accessibility in the wider world is about taking care of the basics that you need to exist. But games go beyond that. What they actually represent is access to culture, recreation, socialising—these are things are essential to quality of life. If in life you’ve got limited opportunities to access those kind of things, games all of a sudden become really important. They can be the difference between existing and living.

And secondly, because it simply needs to be done. In other industries, accessibility is way beyond tipping point, with accepted best practices. You’ll rarely find anyone working in, say, web or construction who doesn’t know at least something about accessibility, but in games you frequently find people who have no idea that it is even an issue. Accessibility in games has rapidly improved over the past few years but it is still at a really embryonic stage.

In web for example, “accessibility specialist” is a standard career path, and there are literally hundreds of accessibility conferences where accessibility specialists/practitioners/advocates meet to exchange experiences and advance the field, including a huge international one in San Diego called CSUN. In gaming, you can count the number of paid specialists on one hand, and the number of active advocates is probably a low three-digit number.

Jonard: I don’t actually advocate accessible games over other things. It really just comes down to the fact that accessibility MUST be considered (across all mediums). It’s just necessary! It shouldn’t be considered some special or foreign thing and I just can’t comprehend the fact that there’s a lack of it in such a huge industry.

There doesn’t seem to be such a glaring issue in other forms of media. Blind people are still able to enjoy movies and other things. There are audiobooks and braille books. Captions are almost always available. Most other forms of entertainment can be consumed passively (physically) and probably without reading (for cognitive reasons). There are sports leagues for people with physical impairments. Lack of accessibility in other forms of entertainment, like inaccessible recreational facilities or TV shows that can cause seizures without forewarnings, is just plain illegal.

Ian Hamilton

Ian Hamilton speaking at the 2014 Game Developers Conference. (Source)

Pixelkin: What can people who don’t design games do to help promote accessibility?

Ian:     By far the biggest barrier is a simple lack of awareness, so just keep the conversation going. Any time you speak to developers, make sure they’re aware. Spread word about best practice guidelines, such as GameAccessibilityGuidelines.com.

If you experience accessibility issues yourself, make sure you tell the developers—get in touch with the studio directly, don’t go through middlemen like publishers, or the sales people who man the stands at gaming expos.

The best way to speak to the developers is directly on Twitter, on game-specific forums, and also in beta testing programmes, so be sure to sign up for those. If you can suggest easy solutions for the issues that you experience, even better. Bear in mind that later in development, there’s less chance that making changes will be feasible. If they say it can’t be fixed for this game, ask them to bear it in mind from the outset when developing their next game.

If you don’t experience accessibility issues yourself, be supportive of those who do. If you see someone talking on Twitter about colorblind modes, remappable controls, anything at all disability related, lend your voice in support. Let gamers with disabilities know that the community in general wants gaming to be more inclusive, and let developers know that this is indeed something that is worth considering.

Jonard: People who don’t design games can learn and understand the resources to consider accessibility in anything they create, be it websites or print media or signs. If you’re not a creator, you can have a conversation with a creator about what you’ve learned. Spread the word any way you can!

Pixelkin: Are there any great resources out there for families who are impacted by disability?

Ian:     If you’re interested in what design considerations in games can open access to people with disabilities, try GameAccessibilityGuidelines.com—it is aimed at developers, but still might make for an interesting read.

For help with the hardware side of things, there are two great charities to get in touch with. They both provide advice on assistive technology, such as alternative controls, eye-gaze and so on, and have programs to provide assistive technology loans and grants. They are AbleGamers in the U.S., and SpecialEffect in the UK. Their assistive tech programs have a very limited capacity, and demand outstrips supply, so if you like what they do, please donate to them.

 Accessibility Jam ends on June 1st. To learn more about accessible gaming, check out their website by clicking here.

Courtney Holmes

About Courtney Holmes

Courtney is Pixelkin's Associate Managing Editor. While working with the Girl Scouts of Northern California, she mentored young girls in teamwork, leadership, personal responsibility, and safety. Today, she spends her time studying adolescent development and using literary analysis techniques to examine video games.