For Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020, Ubisoft Accessibility Manager and Accessibility Consultant Cherry Rae Thompson presents their talk, “You Got This, Happy Accidents Count, and Other Accessibility Pep Talks.”
Thompson utilizes their platform to discuss the inclusion, or lack thereof, of crucial accessibility features, as well as the importance of listening to disabled voices and including them in the development of various titles.
You can watch the video embedded below, and the full transcript is also available.
This talk is adapted from an hour long one I’ve given regularly to studios and at conferences. It was edited down down to 20 minutes for Full Indie and then back up to 35 minutes-ish. It’s been edited and updated about as many times as its been given. It’s really been through some things over the years! Since I recently went full time with Ubisoft this talk is probably getting largely retired. I thought this year I’d record it and set it free into the world via Can I Play That. I’ve grown fond of this talk. It’s my baby. So, this will be a little bit story time, games accessibility overview, aaaand pep talk. I might cover some of what you already know, but it should be useful to everyone no matter your discipline or experience.
I’m an Accessibility Manager at Ubisoft. Before that I was a freelance specialist and designer. I specialize in UX and Systems design. In theory, UX is anything the user touches. In practice it’s often used as shorthand for UI designer! But I do mean the former.
Systems and gameplay design is particularly interesting because it impacts the entire spectrum of accessibility. It requires a really creative and inclusive approach that can just make our games even better experiences.
Before Ubisoft I’ve worked with both Indies and AAA including Bungie on Destiny 2, Media Molecule on Dreams, Crystal Dynamics on Marvel’s Avengers, Guerrilla Games on Sekrits and more!
I’m also a board member for GaymerX, a non-profit supporting LGBTQ2IA+ games workers and fans, and an ambassador for Take This, a non-profit actively supporting mental health for workers and fans across geekdom. I recently ran a crisis webinar session for them in conjunction with the IGDA.
My disabilities are a lovely excuse to break all the rules and I script my talks as I’m autistic and a brain injury survivor! Besides, if it’s good enough for politicians???
It’s my job to be well connected to the disability community, but we’re not a monolith. I use language that my peers and I prefer and things I have to say may not apply to everyone. From a design perspective it’s vital to understand that disability is a broad spectrum, not binary.
Where I mention bias, it’s not a personal failing, it’s a comment on society and the things we work against, together.
Surprise! Like pretty much every person in the industry, I love games.
Slides 3 – 5 – Image Montage
They got me through Big Scary things. Rainbow Islands, Captain Planet and CarVup were the first time I experienced escape from an abusive childhood. Pokémon Red got me through high-school while being homeless.
Gaming was always there for me, even during my hectic 12 year career in art and film.
At 31 I had a sudden stroke.
Unexpectedly, overnight, games were impossible: the room violently spun, I couldn’t process tutorials, had memory gaps, excruciating pain, muscle spasms. It was crushing.
I’ve lived with disabilities my whole life. They were largely undiagnosed, slowly progressive, and I was very good at hiding them. Until I wasn’t.
It’s a long story on how I got from there to here. I blamed myself a lot. I lost so much, including my career.
I’ve been doing this work for just over four years, but origin stories always go way back and my path into Game Accessibility is has actually been 10 years in the making. There’s a thread on Twitter with details somewhere I should probably dig out!
The disability community taught me an incredible wealth about our culture and myself. I could finally make sense of my experiences and the world. I was given the gift of strength to be proud of who I am.
I worked hard to claw back some of what I lost and discovered my skills were transferable to game design and production. I started out as a Subject Matter Expert, and through that, saw a niche for tackling accessibility as a designer with first-hand experience. I threw myself in. I learned as much as I could about game design, accessibility, and the community. I still have so much to learn because we never stop.
I watched all the archived talks about games accessibility I could find, some several times. I deeply studied the Games Accessibility Guidelines, reviews, and learned from friends, peers and strangers about their experiences and needs. Once I felt I had a grasp on accessibility, I naturally branched out to Game Design. I started with talks, following designers I look up to on Twitter. They’re all so willing to share their experience and expertise. Eventually moving into books and articles. All of it has been grounded in my knowledge and understanding of design from my previous career and the wider practice of universal design in other fields.
I also want to recognize the foundations of those that came before people like me too. I wouldn’t be here without them.
There’s been an incredible movement for accessibility as old as games themselves. People who were labelled troublemakers, aggressors, and more. They carved the way in, so people like me could have a place. I’ve learned so much from everyone and several directly lifted me up, gave me a voice, encouraged me, worked to get me here and continue to mentor me. I’m eternally grateful.
I can’t underestimate how much learning I’ve done on the job. Progressing from Subject Matter Expert to specialist came at me fast. A lot of my technical game design knowledge came from those I’ve worked with. I’ve been encouraged heavily and made to feel I can do this everywhere I work.
In the end, Video Games Saved my Life.
This re-emergence showed me we have the tools to grant the incredible gift of gaming to more people.
I attribute my strength as a disabled person to understanding, finally, that the act of inclusion isn’t on the individual to overcome as society tells us.
It’s not us that’s the problem, it’s the games.
Accessibility is often framed as a fundamental need to avoid exclusion from basic necessities of life. But, culturally, we need a dramatic reassessment of what the heck a basic necessity is.
Disabled people are stigmatized, excluded, segregated and made to feel different at every turn of life. I hear daily from disabled players and advocates. They give so freely of their time, experience, and yes, frustration and pain.
There’s no words to describe what exclusion from massive cultural phenomenon like games does to already vulnerable and isolated people.
Games move people in phenomenal ways, give us experiences we’d never have. They’re more than entertainment, they empower us to build community, and grasp the quality of life we deserve. For many, gaming is even pain management and therapy. I defy anyone to tell me culture, pain management, play, and human connection aren’t basic necessities.
When we can all play the same games, they unite us despite how different we are.
We could talk stats, such as 25% of the world identifying as disabled but that overlooks complexities of social stigma, intersectionality and identity.
Most disability is somewhat invisible whether mobility, visual, hearing, fatigue or even cognitive as with adhd.
When we look at access barriers rather than identity we find much higher numbers of our audience impacted.
Most importantly when it comes to design, disability is a mismatch between us and the environment.
Having wheels isn’t disabling (they’re actually freeing and fun; for me!). Steps and broken streets just aren’t made for cyborgs!
It feels overwhelming but it isn’t about accounting for every disability or fixing people. Inclusive design is about designing for ‘normal’ human variation because disability is normal human variation.
Having empathy for our players informs good design, but it’s more than that. I also get stories from fellow developers, many with their own disabilities and all working hard to be inclusive.
It’s OKAY to be overwhelmed. GameDev is overwhelming. I see how hard you’re working, how much you care. Nothing is easy. You are seen and appreciated.
Accessibility seems monumental, but it doesn’t have to be.
There’s considerations in every stage of design– and we really can’t ignore that. But, first, in-game settings dramatically empower players and are an important early step.
It’s not about changing the core experience. It’s about aligning the experiences of vastly different players so they can enjoy similar challenge and adventure regardless of hard limits.
Designing games is about creating barriers so accessibility is simply widening our ideas of who our players are, what challenge even is and examining which barriers are unnecessary.
Prescribing solutions isn’t how we innovate but examples give us a place to start.
I loved the N64 controller.
Lots of people passionately disagree with me, but that’s OK! This is an accessibility principle – on the surface it seems like preference but digging deeper we discover access barriers like muscle memory or injuries.
This stick thing was new and not only did players need to be taught how to use it, it was a mystery to the developers how any player would even be able to use it. So, in goldeneye we had 8 controller pre-sets.
Button remaps are a pressing issue that remains elusive. It’s important for using assistive tech or less common controllers, but a simple example is needing to swap the triggers and shoulders due to muscle weakness or pain.
Many PC Games have keyboard and mouse remapping, but it’s often left out of controller support despite player needs being no different.
System level remaps on console or in Steam are not really solutions. They’re intended as a band aid and a lot of players get so frustrated they don’t use them. It breaks UI navigation, different modes and in-game prompts. Additionally Steam’s remapping has a truly dense cognitive load that’s overkill for most games.
Taking it further – offering simplified controls enables players with more profound disabilities. Some approaches include automated actions like sprinting, making actions contextual or offering multiple action-types per button. Falcon Age did amazing work here, as did Ghost Recon Breakpoint.
Other barriers in controls are unnecessary or long holds and mashing, mitigated by toggles and alternatives.
As with Goldeneye a variety of pre-sets avoids cognitive barriers.
One of my favourite things to hack away at is redesigning control and combat systems so I could get stuck on this topic for hours. (This is why I’m scripted).
Ok, you know what, giving talks remotely is really weird, I’m just saying (laughter)… OK now I’ve got that out of my system.
Inclusive design requires a shift in how we see everything. Like so much design work, it comes with experience and knowledge. This is why I advise working with specialists in addition to disabled players in testing. I’ll get to how we can achieve that in all spaces regardless of budget.
Way of the Passive Fist had an accessibility consultant as a key part of their team from the beginning. He’s a fantastic one-handed speed-runner under the handle Half-Coordinated. The game was really something! They also continued to patch after release.
Their approach to difficulty was great. I have very strong opinions on this subject (surprise): difficulty is relative and ‘git gud’ is toxic.
I wrote a much less spicy IGN article on this and every single option in a game affects our perception of difficulty.
As you know, ‘difficulty modes’ are just containers we stick a bunch of hidden parameters in. Passive Fist opened these up, empowering players to keep the game challenging. They also did some lovely creative naming systems beyond ‘easy’ or ‘normal’. What even is ‘normal’ anyway?
In the end ‘difficulty modes’ are a starting point or catch all, but there’s so many other ways to innovate we shouldn’t fall back on them. A danger is leaving players feeling infantilized and bored.
Of course I have to give a shout-out to Celeste and their Assist Mode as another example of flexible design principles. Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a leader too.
In passive fist, options for background contrast and HUD enlargement were implemented for low-vision, but were fantastic touches for cognitive accessibility and in the end and everything impacts the perception of difficulty.
Accessibility intended for one group of players actually hits the needs of others too. Cognitive accessibility overlaps with all other needs, but especially hearing and vision.
Subtitles are a well-known necessity for Deaf players but they’re also crucial for autistic players with sensory or language processing disorders and other cognitive disabilities like adhd. There can be a disconnect from senses and cognitive processing that essentially creates cognitive deafness, blindness, and co-ordination difficulties.
Ubisoft has great telemetry which shows over 60% of players turn subtitles and subtitle backgrounds on. Even more impressive, when they’re on by default, less than 3-5% turn them off.
Subtitles need to be designed well. For some Deaf people sign language is actually their first language and very different to spoken language. Of course, they can also have cognitive and learning disabilities.
It isn’t easy because you often have to re-invent the wheel as there’s little provided on the engine front. There’s a couple of good plugins for Unity and Unreal like Yellow Subs Machine, and studios often have their own tools but we have to be careful of mistakes.
Karen Stevens, DeafGamersTV, and Ian Hamilton all have talks online. A summary: large, sans-serif fonts with consistent kerning, good contrast, no animation and speaker names.
The extra mile is closed captions for VO inflection and environmental audio cues. This can be the difference between someone getting frustrated and disliking your game to actually having a similar experience as hearing and neurotypical players.
Think of all the beauty we put into environmental storytelling with audio-design, the emotion and impact of voice acting, the jump scares of stingers or the tension building of music. Why would we leave that out for some players?
Sound is incredibly important for blind players. Several great advocates on this front are listed on this slide: SightlessKombat, Steve Saylor, SuperBlindMan, BGFH 79, and Meglish.
The other side to sensory processing disorder is it overwhelms and causes pain and impacts cognition further. It’s a vicious cycle that if we stress it leads to emotional and physical meltdowns.
Options to finely control audio channels helps avoid sensory overload and improves access for blind players. It’s important to remain balanced without too many spikes in range. No in-game options regardless of hardware are a hard barrier.
Audio is a great example of affecting the perception of difficulty beyond expected systems. Turning down intense music or sound effects enables me to play seriously challenging games for longer and beat ultra-hard bosses impressively quickly.
(laughing) I just realised after years of doing this talk I use the word impressive about myself… Oh dear.
Next up, motion sickness is a surprisingly common one. Kona was an eerie game set in remote Canada that has a head bob toggle and camera sensitivity.
Head bob creates immersion for some, but for others it’s a very unnatural movement and causes immense sickness.
Many wouldn’t think a console version of what is, basically, a walking sim would need sensitivity but it can be crucial for motor disabilities and motion sickness.
Additional settings that help with motion sickness are weapon bob, field of view, camera speed, motion blur, chromatic aberration, lighting bloom – yes, even on console. Aaaand camera movements.
Oh, screenshake, my personal nemesis.
It’s increasingly popular in all genres, but causes illness and migraines as well as visual disturbances with low-vision. It’s an effect I think should be akin to a seasoning rather than a sauce a game is drowned in.
That’s obviously subjective, but what if it causes your audience physical pain that lasts beyond the time they spend playing?
Swords of Ditto was fine at first and I had a jolly old time with this lovely mashup of roguelike and top down! Then came Big Stompy Bois (the technical term) and with every footstep it felt like my brain would explode right out of my eyes. Then there were two, four, six on the screen at once!
I was super sick for days with a migraine. Hearing my ordeal Bidds updated to include a 0-10 screenshake slider. Finally! I could exact my revenge on those stompy bois!
We’re just starting to see screenshake options pop up. Even for people who don’t have migraines or motion sickness, camera issues lead to fatigue and impaired cognitive function at a level where the player might not even know. A slider is always preferential to on/off because it can be degrees of effect.
Oop, (laughter), technical difficulties… uh, at home are just as awkward as in person.
Edging closer to my holy grail, reading comprehension impacts every disabled, and non-disabled player. Lean in, I have something hard to hear: In both Indie and AAA we are not good at text based design, even though we rely on it.
Games are physically and mentally taxing. We ask a lot of players and the more we ask the less bandwidth they have. Even fatiguing players physically affects their cognition. Disabled players have less tolerance for physical and cognitive load due to fatigue and steeper entry points.
Dyslexia alone affects 14% of people. If you add low vision, adhd, brain injury, chronic fatigue and pain, autistic or Deaf players, ESL, or even just people who are… tired, like all of us… it’s a lot.
Hot tips for text accessibility:
- BIG. Bigger than you think!! Don’t leave too much wasted space.
- Sans-Serif Font
- Good weight and contrast
- Minimal use of italics
- Regular, well-spaced kerning
- NO MOVEMENT – especially typewriter style or bouncing letters
- As few animated distractions on screen as possible when reading is required
- Pausing action
- User dismissed pop-ups (text should never disappear on its own)
If typewriter style, bouncing, serif, cursive or italic fonts are important for your aesthetic, allow users to change them. Or get creative, for example, Nintendo style, where pressing the action button skips text animation. It’s important to note my advice is aimed at the fact text is often pretty small, the bigger and less dense you make your text the more stylization you can get away with.
Gone Home and Tacoma did well, although it was a tad small. More recently, Untitled Goose Game did great.
Getting press again are so-called ‘dyslexia friendly’ fonts. They’re a band-aid much like OS level remapping; not a solution. They only work for a very small number of people, for others they exacerbate the issue. It’s lovely to think there’s a quick fix, but the science is misreported and they’re rooted in trying to fix the user rather than evaluate design mistakes.
We get frustrated when players skip our words, or don’t read ‘properly’ but instead of assuming people are lazy, we should be asking why more often. Destroy the social construct of laziness.
That’s accessibility in a nutshell – ask why and if you need to break guidelines go for it and allow users more control.
Grails. I think everyone in accessibility has one? For me, it’s cognitive accessibility and the intersections with all other disabilities, fatigue and chronic pain.
It’s is often overlooked, misunderstood, and heavily stigmatized.
Lately I’ve had the privilege to relay player stories through research and interviews. Right now, I’m digging back into my roots and getting uncomfortably personal. Sharing my personal story sometimes clouds people’s ability to grasp my technical skills. But, stories are power, and… it’s how I got here.
In my late 20’s I was diagnosed with ADHD and learning disabilities. 6 years later, I discovered I was autistic. I was ashamed and afraid. I masked heavily my entire life. I was directly discriminated against the one time I tried to discuss ADHD with an employer.
I ‘came out’ about my cognitive disabilities shortly after my first stroke. It wasn’t grand, I just started talking about it. The strokes I’ve had mostly impact my cognitive and vestibular function. People assume that’s why I have motor disabilities, but it’s not.
I use the phrase coming out very deliberately. I’m also queer and being open about my cognitive disabilities is much harder.
We talk about the impact of cognitive barriers in a very abstract way. Using words like ‘meltdown’ without talking about what that actually is.
Games give me meltdowns. That’s a weird thing to say. I adore games. I live, breathe and work them. They still cause meltdowns.
A meltdown happens to me in several ways: autistic burnout, sensory, information, or emotional overload. Processing everything is a challenge. It’s a wonder I love games as much as I do really.
Games demand so much and when you have limited capacity it fast becomes overwhelming. My executive function misfires: I can’t make decisions, prioritize tasks. I can’t think. I’m suddenly exhausted, yawning. I struggle to read or see visual cues. All sound blends together; just painful noise. I can’t process language. Controlling my hands gets harder. Remembering buttons or anything is impossible.
Suddenly everything explodes and I’m crying. My skin is on fire, crawling with tiny flames. My hair and clothes are too heavy, too present. My brain feels… itchy? I can never explain that one. If I need to be verbal it escalates faster. This is as far as it gets with a game. I usually remove myself.
In life, sometimes they escalate more and lead to physical response. I’ve screamed and torn my larynx. Once I almost tore a feeding tube from my stomach. It spirals. I lose control.
It’s awful, humiliating. Afterward, I’m ridden with exhaustion and guilt.
Even if I can put off a meltdown it goes into a bank and I’m more likely to end up there as a result of being out in the world. Nothing happens in isolation.
As designers, when we create access barriers it’s an impact. I get vulnerable because I need people to see that accessibility isn’t about can or can’t.
Stories. Are. Power. It grounds my practice and keeps me mindful. Again, we approach from the lens that we’re not here to fix the person, we want to address the harm we cause or simply where our designs aren’t successful.
All disabled people are impacted by the intersection of cognitive barriers, whether it’s due fatigue or pain, often exacerbated by other types of barriers. Even non-disabled people experience it to a mild degree. It’s most often chalked up to preference, frustration, or dislike.
Many of the players most severely impacted, especially with specific cognitive disabilities, don’t talk about it due to stigma. I see a lot of people blaming themselves. They’re also massively under-diagnosed, especially among people marginalized by race, religion, gender, or background.
There’s a lot of developers under this umbrella but too many have told me how they don’t feel safe.
Some of the most celebrated releases for accessibility have had significant cognitive barriers. That’s OK, no game ships how we truly want it to and it’s still early days.
Let’s see if I can briefly sum it up:
Cognitive access is best addressed by core design practices rather than settings. It’s tied to cognitive load, which many of us know a thing or two about, but some players have less tolerance for that load. It involves executive dysfunction, attention, problem solving, reading comprehension and memory. Then there’s decision fatigue which leaves players unable to make any decisions at all.
All genres are impacted, but open world games are particularly troublesome.
If the world expands too quickly, players are landed with too many repetitive and seemingly inconsequential tasks, the map is too cluttered or hard to navigate, text is difficult to read, information overload with features like skill tree UI, pacing, timing or language issues in tutorials, too many distractions in the UI, HUD and so much more.
It comes down to design choices but being aware of potential problems attention can be paid to navigation guidance, balanced pacing, rewarding and non-punishing exploration, comprehensive, optional and repeatable tutorials, practice areas, and clear, brief, consistent language.
With UI it’s good flow, formatting, user dismissed text pop ups, non-animated text, sorting features, and getting rid of distracting notification markers with options like ‘mark all as read’.
In terms of addressing decision fatigue, it’s important not to force constant, fast paced and intensive memory tasks or decision making by allowing users to compare upgrades or armour, not inundating the player with too many decisions too fast or early, and providing AI assisted upgrade and modification options. Including legends, catalogues, and documentation is vital too. Player auto-logs could be a really innovative solution. We allow players to pace themselves and try to avoid overload.
Minimizing distractions or how players learn can be quite individual so this is where settings can help: in-game HUD customization, turning off NPC chatter, ignore, hide or reject quests, minimizing animations, light or sound, options for adjusting the number of tutorials or hints. Shadow of The Tomb Raider did great.
In Far Cry New Dawn I even used the colour-blind setting because first of all, the colours were… gorgeous (; and secondly, I was able to process being hurt by enemies. It was suddenly visible to me. It was vivid pink instead of dark red and I often don’t see the subtle dark red or tunnel vision. As with subtitles and audio, cognitive disability manifests in ways where the brain just plain won’t tell us that our eyes, ears or hands have sensed something.
It’s impossible to just prescribe solutions because games are all so unique. We’ll only get really good, innovative solutions when we’re creative.
So what works in my practice? I try to guide colleagues through problem solving. I bring in as much knowledge from across the industry as I can – what’s worked recently in other games, what hasn’t, what’s been a good starting point and needs to go further. I relay community experiences and feedback.
Checklists and guidelines can be a really good way to ground our practice and find starting points, but we really push the games industry forward when we move beyond them. SO, collaborative design is the key component to my work.
My favourite thing is hacking away at designs and working together to find ways to address barriers that still work within the core goals of the project. Games are about creating barriers, that’s what makes a game a game, so we need to address the accidental barriers and be deliberate in our choices as designers.
The industry is fractured by discipline. Sometimes we have to design solutions around or over other teams. It’s the nature of the beast. What do you do when you’re working with a systems team to address a barrier in the combat, but the combat designers want nothing to do with accessibility efforts? We design a system that works with the combat to break those barriers in other creative ways.
Project management is an important step, balancing impact vs. priority, leading to road maps grounded in an understanding of possibilities for scope. This is a step that project, testing, and QA managers should be most focused on – understanding the needs of the community and the difference between statistics, telemetry and the momentous impact on smaller numbers of players.
I try to encourage developers of all disciplines to become connected to the experiences of their players and the impact of designs. I really want everyone to grasp the basics, somehow, because it makes us better developers.
Settings are a brilliant jumping off point, but there’s a lot to be said for establishing usability in core design. If we can do it without bloating menus, we should.
Managing cognitive and physical load, precision, timing, audio, animation, lighting, world design, progression systems, onboarding, UI, and how we design interaction for everything.
Diversifying User Testing, actively recruiting disabled players, learning to spot undisclosed disability or access barriers for what they are –someone experiencing cognitive or sensory overload may have an extreme and unexpected emotional reaction, someone with undisclosed motor disabilities may just tell you they ‘hate’ the controls.
Don’t lose hope! There’s so many creative possibilities for usability from documentation, cute in-game guidance, creative game modes, practice modes, character classes or traits, to robust UI. I believe in your capacity for innovation and inclusion.
I want games accessibility to bridge the gap and not be so isolated from the wider tech community. There’s so much to learn from each other.
I want us to have specialists across the industry, just like in tech, I want there to be so many of us it’s a recognized role. I want us to fight the competitive urges capitalism instills in us and lift each other up, mentor each other and show the world we have a space and deserve it!
I want publishers, large studios, small studios and tiny independents to understand that they can test across the spectrum of humanity, including disability! Even if players don’t know the best design solutions, they are experts in their experience.
I want to move past ‘accessibility features’ versus ‘features’. We’re still in our infancy and there’s a certain amount misconception of ‘we just need these settings and hey presto: accessibility!’. We need to be cautious of thinking that accessibility is extra or different to all other design and features. It’s rooted in the stigma of how society considers disabled people. I believe we can avoid making the same mistakes.
We need to be careful not to approach accessibility from a place that’s divorced from the disability rights movement. When we do we end up with things that only further stigmatize rather than create progress such as euphemisms for disability.
Accessibility menus show a wonderful commitment, but they’re not the best UX solution. Organize settings by which aspect of the game they affect, not by who you expect to use them. This is what players generally look for because it’s how we’ve done it historically.
More research at Ubisoft shows users will miss settings under this umbrella. Not everyone thinks accessibility is for them. To be truly accessible we also need to consider discoverability, approachability and acceptance.
In segregating accessibility, we contribute to stigma that disabled players are different which leads to very real toxicity and bullying.
Definitely talk up your commitment, approach or settings in dev blogs and promo. Disabled players need this info before buying and it helps build brand loyalty! This goes a long way for de-stigmatization. Pixelnicks did this with Eagle Island as did Shadow of The Tomb Raider and it went over so well.
It’s never possible to do everything in game dev so don’t let the fear of perfection stop you from doing anything. By doing something you’re allowing more to experience your game and that’s too wonderful.
We may make mistakes. It’s how we learn! Celeste got an update with less alienating language. That’s how we do it!
Happy accidents absolutely count if we realise, correct our biases and continue going forward.
Games that provide user control for rules and playstyles, flexible controls, robust onboarding like Risk of Rain 2 or Don’t Starve are great. Accessibility is good Usability.
Still, it’s always better, in the end, if we’re deliberate in our approach.
It’s quality of life, not always zero access. Disabled players are more likely to push through and find a way. It often means playing is painful, exhausting, extra frustrating or not fun.
If one person tells you they can’t play, there’s even more who are affected negatively.
Inclusion is when everyone can talk about how exciting or downright damn beautiful a game is. We can laugh at our failures and cheer at hard-earned wins together.
I deeply adore this industry. I want games to be the best they can be for everyone, regardless of gender, race, identity or whether they’re disabled.
It’s dangerous to go alone!
“Nothing About us Without Us” is integral to getting it right.
Accessibility really is enormous and I’ve barely scratched the surface!
Googling isn’t a solution. Biased searches get us biased results. It’s how we end up with colour-blind simulators or dyslexia fonts instead of designing for usability.
The Game Accessibility Guidelines is a robust living document made with feedback from the entire community. It can be overwhelming so consultation with specialists helps, which is likely more within your budget than you think.
Watch talks from Games Accessibility Conf and look up the Game Makers Toolkit Series on YouTube.
Little known fact: all GDC advocacy track talks are free, even when design focused.
AbleGamers have a card deck that guides you into early approaches. They also have over 400 players for testing.
Leverage your community. Take feedback, prioritize it, if not for this project then the future. The internet is hostile and having been targeted, I have huge sympathy. We also can’t let toxic elements silence marginalized players.
Provide disabled players and outlets like Can I Play That, which was actually in the talk before I decided to give this out on Can I Play That so it sounds like a funny PR thing but (laughter) there it is! (Laughter). Send them review copies is what I’m trying to say!
With Glitch and one-person development, HyperDot, we created a user research campaign with disabled content creators. I’ll be co-delivering a presentation on this at the UXR Summit next year if we can convene by then, but here’s a summary:
When I met with the team at E3, HyperDot was already massively accessible due to the flexible nature of the design. They low-key became the Adaptive Controller station in the Microsoft theater. I played the demo with a footboard with my arms, while coming down with the flu, and overworked from three back to back jobs in a really loud convention. I still fell in love, so knew they had something special. I immediately picked out some fantastic features of the core design.
When they told me they had some ideas for research with disabled players I could barely contain myself. Due to some of my work looking at approaches to user testing, I’d also long had an idea of working with content creators, which was the line of thinking Glitch was taking too!
They asked players to stream or record gameplay and answer a short questionnaire about barriers. We approached recruiting with fundamental research ethics such as not asking for disclosure of medical information and Glitch are already a team of amazing researchers so have data collection covered.
Due to my connections to the community and friends in content creation we started off with a robust list across the spectrum of disability, bolstering it with public recruitment. This improved the number of players who could commit and gave us an even better cross section of the community.
Several players on my initial list are experienced Subject Matter Experts, advocates and consultants so their feedback was particularly focused and excellent.
The end results were really something. Not unusual for user testing, some players didn’t know when they were hitting barriers, roadblocks or missing information, so specialist observation alongside feedback enabled us to build a concise and productive list of around 35 key design points in the UI, Gameplay and Onboarding. Holly at Glitch expertly ran the streams while we observed.
Reports were compiled by myself, as a specialist, and Nicolaas at Glitch as an experienced User Researcher, making sure we weren’t influenced by each other. Our findings overlapped nicely with nuanced differences based on our specialities. This solidified the findings and provided a framework for areas, Charles, the solo developer, could look to improve in the months leading up to release. I also provided some impact, priority and design guidance.
You can find some of the findings on the website in the slide. In short, I was pleasantly surprised. The game was even more accessible than we thought. Player experiences also provided great insight into areas we already knew might be a choke point. In the future there are definitely ways we could improve the approach such as focusing the testing. Still, leaving it largely open also meant we didn’t influence player reactions much.
This kind of practice not only gets us brilliant and actionable results similar to user testing at larger scales like AAA, it uplifts a marginalized community that often doesn’t have the numbers to be considered ‘influencers’ into a public pre-release campaign. It’s a fun way to build loyal community and could even be rolled into early access production.
Please pay for your player’s time and expertise, as if you would any user test – even if visa gift-cards, merch, or similar. Their feedback is invaluable.
So much has been accomplished, I’m so proud of everyone. Let’s keep building. ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better world.’
Thank you SO much for listening, my weird fumbles. I know remotely delivered talks are a bit weird and harder to stay engaged with, and jokes just don’t land without laughter! But I hope that you are well and safe, thank you.
Can I Play That?
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