Cognitive Accessibility in Gaming 101 With Stacey Rebecca

Stacey Jenkins7 minute read

What the heck is cognitive accessibility and how does it relate to video games? Stacey is going to take you through the basics and give you a little taster of where to start with making accessible games for those of us with cognitive impairments. You may have caught Stacey’s Marvel’s Avengers cognitive accessibility impressions video earlier this year, if not, go give it a watch!

Watch Cognitive Accessibility in Gaming 101 on YouTube


What’s up guys, welcome back to the channel. Today I wanted to give you a really quick overview of cognitive accessibility, because I know a lot of you had some questions after I posted my last couple of videos. So, I’m going to try really hard to give you guys a brief summary of what it actually is and how cognitive accessibility relates to video games.

Cognition at a very basic level refers to the process of thinking, and as an umbrella term, cognitive disabilities cover a huge range of conditions such as autism, dementia, ADHD and dyslexia, but cognitive impairments can affect lots of other people too.

Someone with a cognitive impairment might have trouble with memory, attention, communication, processing, problem solving and reading.

Video games involve using most or all of these skills, so it’s really important to think about. Since cognitive accessibility covers such a huge area, it can be a little intimidating. There isn’t really a set check list or a series of quick fixes, so it can be quite challenging.

Here are a few key areas to think about when designing for cognitive accessibility.

Executive dysfunction

Executive function relates to planning, organisation, problem solving and time management. In video games, this usually means figuring out what actions you need to take, planning those actions and carrying them out.

  • Having clear mission objectives with simple instructions is a first step in making sure that players know what it is they’re meant to be doing – and having them somewhere they can either see on screen at all times or having them somewhere in the pause menu is also really helpful in helping players who might have forgotten or need clarification along the way
  • Maps can often be overwhelming for players, especially if you’ve got a big open world game with lots and lots of markers. Giving players the option to filter out some of these markers is really useful as it helps players focus on the task at hand and gets rid of extra information they don’t need to worry about right now
  • Navigation assistance is also super helpful – whether that’s including waypoints, objective markers or arrows on the screen telling the player where they need to go, this ensures that players don’t get lost and frustrated, potentially putting the game down altogether
  • Additional hint systems can also give players a bit of a push if they are struggling – this can be something as simple as leaving tips in the loading screen when a player dies, or even giving subtle clues in the environment like the recent Tomb Raider games which has white paint to indicate things you can climb on
  • Difficulty modes can be a controversial topic, but adding easy or assist modes can allow more people to play your game who wouldn’t be able to otherwise
  • Deeper customisation can be really helpful, being able to tweak the difficulty of different mechanics like combat and puzzles like we had in the new Tomb Raider games means that players can customise their experience and remove any barriers they have to actually play
  • Giving players extra time takes some of the pressure off and allows them to enjoy things at their own pace. Similarly, practice modes where players can play around with the controls without any impending danger can also be super helpful.
  • In addition to practice modes, a good tutorial and the ability to go back and replay it is also key

Dyslexia and reading

Many players with reading disorders like dyslexia might find in game text hard to read, but there are things we can do to help these players (and it helps everybody else too):

  • Clear, easy to read text – That means simple language and sentence structure, but also big enough to read from 6ft away on the sofa. Adjustable font size is one of the most requested features from players with all kinds of disabilities, so this is super important to get right. This means not only the subtitles, but the UI too. Obsidian did a great job recently, adding completely resizeable font to The Outer Worlds post release.
  • San serif fonts – That means a font that doesn’t have those decorative strokes at the end of letters. Research has shown that san serif fonts are the most readable for people with dyslexia, and while dyslexic fonts exist there is no evidence to suggest they perform any better than a good san serif font like Arial or Verdana
  • A solid background can make the words easier to read so having this as an option is always good, and you can also let players press a button to move on so they have all the time they need to read
  • Oh, try to stay away from typewriter effects – moving letters are even more difficult to read

Sensory overload

Sensory overload can happen when one or more of your senses are overstimulated and your brain might struggle to process all these different signals. Anyone can experience sensory overload but it is particularly common in people with autism, ADHD and anxiety disorders.

It’s best to avoid too much flashing or rapidly repeating patterns, such as weather effects – Stardew Valley, for example, lets you adjust the snow effects as well as things like lightning, which not only helps avoid triggering seizures or migraines, but it also helps players better see what’s going on in the game a little better which can help players to process the key information

If you still want to include these features in your game, give players the ability to turn some of these features on or off.

Independent volume sliders can be helpful for players with sensory processing difficulties so they don’t get overwhelmed by too many sound effects and can hear exactly what they need to in order to play the game.

Motion sickness

Motion sickness can occur when the brain receives conflicting signals – your eyes are telling you that you’re moving when you are in fact sitting on your couch. This can induce headaches, nausea and dizziness. This is particularly common with first person games, especially shooters. The good news is that there are plenty of options that can alleviate motion sickness for players if your game has them.

Being able to switch off weapon and head bob, motion blur and screen shake can go a long way, as well as being able to adjust the field of view and add a crosshair or centre dot.

The Last of Us 2 actually had an entire menu dedicated to motion sickness which was incredible for players that struggle with it.

People with cognitive impairments can also benefit from other areas of accessibility, for example someone with trouble processing information might benefit from using subtitles, or a high contrast mode to filter out some of the distractions on screen.

Designing for cognitive accessibility really benefits everyone – maybe you’re super tired, or just distracted, maybe there are builders making noise outside and you can’t concentrate. Giving players a wealth of options to help them play their way really does help everyone.

I know that we barely scratched the surface there, most of these topics deserve a deep dive so let me know if there’s anything you want me to make a full video on.

If you’re interested in learning more about cognitive accessibility, Can I Play That dot com have a great Cognitive Accessibility Guide, as well as reviews and articles from disabled gamers. The best way to learn is from the players themselves, so make sure to include people with cognitive disabilities in your user research, get them in to playtest and really listen to what they have to say.

Thanks so much for watching, I’ll see you again soon with more of my thoughts – in the meantime if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below, hit that subscribe button, and have a wonderful day. Bye!

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JenkinsWorkshop Developer and FacilitatorShe/They

Stacey works with Can I Play That? to develop valuable training for game developers to ensure that all content is inclusive and accessible for the whole community. With fibromyalgia and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Stacey has ‘pain brain’ which affects her cognitive function when it comes to gaming. She has used her own personal experience to consult on cognitive accessibility and to educate others on topics such as diversity and inclusion, life as a disabled streamer, and accessibility in gaming. Stacey has spoken at multiple TwitchCons, the wonderful GAconf, and has spoken at GDC 2021 with Courtney, delivering a special version of their a11y workshop. An aspiring assassin and lover of all things spooky, Stacey loves stealth, horror, and the occasional cozy game. Okay, a lot of cozy games.

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