Accessibility: Designing Games for All

“Do you know why I wanted to interview you?”

I was taken aback. After spending several hours the night before with my head buried in my copy of Gayle McDowell’s “Cracking the Coding Interview”, I was ready to take on any programming problem this guy would throw at me. Typically, with these kinds of interviews, the interviewer would introduce themselves, talk briefly about their role at the company, and give me 45 minutes to complete an arbitrarily difficult programming problem to test my “problem-solving skills”. I’ve gone through this process multiple times… but never had I been asked this sort of question before. Was it a trick? Was the interviewer trying to test my behavioral skills with this question? How was I supposed to know why I was being interviewed?

“Two words,” he said as he pulled out a copy of my résumé. “Bubble. Buddy.”

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In 2016, a group of friends and I signed up for a 2-week long hackathon called “Autism App Jam.” The goal of the hackathon was to come up with an idea and build a software prototype for people with autism. After two weeks of relentless brainstorming, REST calls, and if-else blocks, we created “Bubble Buddy”, a web-based virtual communication companion designed for young children with autism who struggle with communication, identifying emotions, and learning by interacting with them using typical everyday conversation. It was an overall fantastic experience that exposed me to software development from the perspective those with special needs, and two years later it caught the eye of an accessibility program manager at one of the largest digital media brands in the world.

Accessibility in video games is an oft-overlooked topic in the industry. In fact, it was not until the early 2000’s—in the middle of the sixth generation of video games—did it become something that game developers actively began talking about. One of the first organized attempts to raise awareness for accessible gaming was in 2003 when the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) created the Game Accessibility Special Interest Group. Shortly thereafter, in 2004, The AbleGamers Foundation was launched in an effort to provide assistive technologies to gamers with disabilities and communicate their needs to video game developers around the world. SpecialEffect, a more recent charity founded in 2010, was created for much of the same purpose. According to AbleGamers, there are over 33 million gamers in the United States alone with some form of disability and tens of millions more worldwide, a number they say “is well worth the cost for most games” to implement basic accessibility features to heed the needs of disabled gamers.

One of my favorite Twitch streamers is Clint Lexa. On Twitch, he goes by the name “Halfcoordinated” and for reasons you might expect. Lexa suffers from hemiparesis, a disability he’s had since birth that he says, in an excellent interview conducted by Polygon, “lowers the feeling and coordination of [his] entire right side”. As a result, he plays video games primarily using just his left hand, often resting the controller on his lap and spreading all five of his left fingers across its buttons and triggers. It is amazing that he is capable of playing games effectively at all—yet Halfcoordinated not only manages that, but he is also really really good at it. In fact, as of writing, he holds 5 speedrunning world records, all across different games, most of which are action-heavy and input-intensive. I remember watching his SGDQ 2016 run of Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight—which he played on its hardest difficulty—and being in awe at how he was able to so easily evade the many monsters that came his way, all with one hand clutching a plush and another hand clasping an Xbox controller.

When I was little, my family would take biannual trips to Taiwan to visit my relatives. It was usually during the summer and we would stay for several months, but my family is pretty huge so we would spend a lot of time traveling around the island to visit everyone. I recall one instance in which we were traveling to Kaohsiung City to visit some of my extended family, and one of the family members I met was this teenager who was obsessed with his PSP. I didn’t catch which game he was playing, but there were a lot of sirens going on so I assumed it was some sort of racing game. The remarkable thing about this whole thing was that this kid was almost completely blind; he couldn’t see anything unless it was placed directly in front of him, and even then, it was impossible for him to differentiate between ambiguous objects. Instead, he was playing purely from the sounds of the game and the occasional flashes of red and blue that would enter his limited vision. I don’t remember conversing with him in any meaningful way, but that moment stuck out as particularly memorable since I’d never seen a blind person play video games before.

In 2012, the folks at The AbleGamers Foundation released a 48-page guide for game designers who want to keep disabled gamers in mind. Titled “Includification”, the guide categorizes various accessibility options and features into 3 levels based on ease of implementation. The first level describes accessibility features that should be in every game, many of which are already standard practice, such as remappable key binding, closed captioning, and difficulty options. Level 2 features require considerably more work, but are still largely doable, and include sensitivity sliders, customized HUD options, and intuitive menus. Features categorized in level 3 are described as ideal but may be difficult to implement, and they call for such options as the ability to play using any input device, text-to-speech input, and more. The guide is available to download and print for free, and it’s a must-read for anyone who is interested in game design.

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If you’re like me, you can probably list a handful of games that tackle several of these accessibility features reasonably well. Indeed, many developers have begun to pay more attention to accessibility options in their games, some to the point of updating their games post-release in order to make them more accessible. One of my favorite examples of this is Undertale’s piano puzzle. Originally, the puzzle required players to listen to a particular tune in one room and recreate it in another room. At first glance, this puzzle may seem pretty straightforward; simply memorize the tune and you’re practically done! There is, however, one problem—this puzzle is only solvable if you’re able to hear the tune in the first place, which means players with hearing impairments are unfortunately unable to complete this part of the game. A later version of Undertale provided a visual solution to the puzzle—purportedly added for players who are deaf—thereby making it possible to complete the puzzle without listening to the tune.

The Undertale example is a good one in that it demonstrates the principle that designing for accessibility equates to designing for all. I study Human-Computer Interaction at Stanford, and one of the things we often discuss is how implementing an interface designed for people with disabilities oftentimes results in an interface that is better for everyone. Certainly, you can imagine the piano puzzle being difficult for not just individuals with hearing impairments, but also for those who just aren’t that good at discerning different tones (and, judging by the many people who seem to have trouble with this puzzle on various internet message boards, there are many). Other accessibility options can simply be seen as useful for the able, like subtitles for when you’re in public and forgot your earphones at home, or customizable camera controls for when you’re feeling particularly nauseous. Even small things like increasing the contrast between colors on the screen can make for an objectively better gaming experience for everyone regardless of ability. Better games for individuals with disabilities mean better games for everyone.

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Now, to talk about the game that made me want to write about this topic in the first place. I’ll admit, I went down this rabbit hole a lot further than I had initially planned, but I would love to take the time now to discuss how Celeste handles accessibility. Among other things, Celeste gives players the ability to turn off rumble and the option to disable screen flashes and visual effects for those sensitive to light—relatively standard options that give people like me a way to enjoy the game without a full-on assault on my senses. But it was the game’s “Assist Mode” that made headlines across multiple media outlets upon Celeste’s release. Specifically, not only does the game allow players to enable infinite stamina and invincibility (typical of other similar modes in other games), but it also features a slider that slows the game down entirely.

Interestingly, “Includification” includes “speed settings” as a level 3 feature for mobility and describes it as follows:

As a top tier option for those with mobility issues, consider having the ability to slow down the game clock entirely. This allows those with dexterity, precision and strength issues to interface with the game at an easier rate of speed. It also enables those with cognitive disabilities like processing and comprehension disorders to slow the game down so they can understand the game and what is happening on screen at a pace that meets their needs.

And Celeste does exactly that. Although normally a fast-paced and brutally difficult platformer, players can reduce the game speed by 10% increments, effectively giving them a means of setting their own difficulty level for their playthrough. In fact, all of Celeste’s accessibility options feel modular in the sense that players can choose to turn on some or all of these features if they so wish, or they can ignore these accessibility features entirely and the game doesn’t shove them in your face if you die a million times (I’m looking at you, Nintendo). Celeste understands that not every gamer is the same, and regardless of whether you have a disability or not, I think we can all appreciate what the developers did to make this game more accessible to everyone.

So, there you have it—my spiel on accessibility in gaming. If you wish to contribute to the cause, please check out either The AbleGamers Foundation or SpecialEffect, or if you’re a game developer yourself, I hope you seriously consider adding some of these accessibility features to your games. For a game designed for those with disabilities is a game designed for all, and isn’t that the direction we want our industry heading in?

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