Digital Accessibility and the Fighting Game Community

In October of 2020, a group of fighting game players with various disabilities sat down with TheOnlineLocal’s Joe Munday to discuss digital accessibility in the Fighting Games Community (FGC), a topic made more poignant by the necessity of digital interactions during the current pandemic. This article is a review of those thoughts, and seeks to provide guidance and direction on how to create content that is accessible on a number of different axes of disability.  Please note that while I have collected and compiled this information, each section was written in direct consultation with experts of each field. The experts involved were Brandon “SuperBlindMan”  for blindness, Chris “DeafGamersTV” for d/Deaf and HoH-based disability, Brian “ThatPhageGuy” and Mike “BrolyLegs” for motor-based disability, and Emily “TokiMekiEmily” for both motor and cognitive disability.

When considering this topic, the overarching digital interactions around the FGC were broken into several categories: Playing in tournaments, watching streams, interacting on Discord and Twitter, and learning from videos.  Each of these categories will be discussed from each of the perspectives provided: visual, audio, cognitive, and motor-based disabilities. Note that these recommendations are a great starting point, but may not cover all access barriers faced by a given individual – please use this as the beginning, not the end, of working toward a more accessible FGC.

Online Tournament Play

Visual: For players who use screen readers, initial signup, recognizing their match has been called in a busy Discord chat, and the process of actually entering a match can all be challenging. The two most commonly used sites, Matcherino and smash.gg, both present significant obstacles for screenreader users, making both initial account creation and registration for a given event frustrating in many cases. It’s worth noting here that, with the recent acquisition of smash.gg by Microsoft and Microsoft’s historical commitment to accessibility, it’s entirely possible registration will soon be much easier via screen reader.

The Sentow Shodown, a tournament for blind Mortal Kombat players, tackled this issue by having sighted assistance or blind players familiar with the system available to perform registration based on a submitted Google form. Similarly, they avoided the issues around catching individual matches in a busy discord channel by calling all matches audibly on the associated stream, though direct Twitter or Discord DMs may also be another option for many players. A standardized method of match entry within the game that can be tested by the player beforehand is also helpful.  

Audio: For d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) players, online platforms generally work well in terms of registration for matches and catching when they have to play. The largest barrier here tends to be the assumption that speaking louder or slower will allow them to understand what is going on – if someone says that they are deaf, please provide written instructions for calling matches or making other requests.

Motor: In many cases, the process of registering and participating in tournaments is fully accessible for players with motor-based disabilities. However, offers by a TO to register on a given player’s behalf to minimize fatigue are always appreciated, even if they aren’t used.

Cognitive: Registration processes are frequently cognitively inaccessible due to the number of things that need to be done, and the lack of design to make these tasks naturally lead to one another. Clear instructions provided by the tournament organizer (TO) (including screenshots of websites) and offers to walk a player through registration via a voice call and screen sharing can both be extremely helpful. Similarly, Discord channels that are not heavily moderated to contain only pertinent information on matches being called can be overwhelming. Either careful content control or offering to DM players to call their matches can help to mitigate this issue – this particular barrier may vary drastically from player to player, so please engage on an individual basis to ensure a given player has access.

Watching Streams

Visual: Blind players tuning in to fighting game streams rely heavily on audio balance to understand what’s happening in a match. The two key components of this are the presence of stereo sound and the ability to hear character actions over music, commentator voices, and stage sounds. Many games inherently run into problems with these – for instance, Tekken 7 and Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator 2 do not have stereo sound, preventing blind players from determining who is located on which side of the stage, as well as limiting the ability to track projectile and character movement. 

Along similar lines, non-Grid stages in Street Fighter V have stage sounds that are tied to the same volume control as character sound effects. As a result, all stages but the Grid cause matches to be more difficult to watch, as well as presenting significant barriers to meaningful play. For a full description of stage sounds, please see this list compiled by Deng. An accessible stream will have character sound effects that can clearly be heard as the commentators are talking, descriptive commentary that points out things like corner specific combos that may not have been readily apparent from audio alone, and stages that allow character sounds to be heard over any stage-based audio.

The Grid, Street Fighter V's training stage
The Grid: Great for online play and accessibility!

Audio: The primary concern for d/Deaf or HoH viewers is the inclusion of captions. While these are ideally created live for maximum accuracy, auto captioners are generally used as a more feasible alternative. At present, DeafGamerTV’s recommended extension for Twitch captions can be found here, and was created by Erik Guzman. When setting up these captions, please keep in mind that isolating commentary voices (including combining local mic and Discord-based commentary into a single audio output) is essential when providing an audio source to the captioner in order to achieve maximum accuracy. If you need an example of implementation, look no further than TheOnlineLocal’s Twitch channel, which has been running a combined-audio version of this approach since March 2020. Please note that any VODs on YouTube will have autocaption tracks added – if an important announcement is included, make sure you correct these captions to ensure no pertinent information is lost.

Motor: There are generally no motor-based access barriers to watching a stream, assuming the viewer has a way to get to the stream in the first place. Some barriers do exist in terms of chat participation, but are the responsibility of Twitch and other streaming services to resolve, rather than problems that have solutions available to community-based productions.

Cognitive: The primary concern from a cognitive perspective is the inclusion of step-by-step breakdowns of the action. Many commentators will say what moves were used, or that a combo was good or interesting, but fail to break down why those choices were important or impactful. This type of progressive explanation, where the action is described and then dissected to point out why a given choice was optimal or interesting, is essential for meaningful viewing by many folks with cognitive barriers.

Discord and Twitter Interactions

Visual: As previously mentioned, busy Discord channels can rapidly become overwhelming for folks using screen readers. Ensuring that any particularly crucial information is placed in a less-busy channel and providing some opportunity to engage in a non-hectic text channel can both be helpful for folks using screen readers. However, the larger concern is with images and gifs posted on both Twitter and Discord. Screen Readers that reach these images will, by default, read off “embedded image” or just “image” for Twitter, and the associated image’s web address for Discord. To make these accessible, use the alt text function on Twitter, and provide descriptions of posted images and gifs in Discord chat. Please note that this extends to vision-based giveaways as well – if you’re hiding a Steam code in an image and it isn’t in alt text, your contest is inadvertently discriminating against folks who rely on screen readers.

A tweet by @PreusseFGC that says "it appears your jump was not as "safe" as you presumed, Mr. Bond" with an associated image, all embedded in a Discord chat.  In the chat, MilyMentalist provides the alt text: "Casino Royale's Le Chiffre with a fight stick and a monitor photoshopped in"
Alt text provided on a tweet embedded in Discord by MilyMentalist. Used with permission.

Audio: The primary issues d/Deaf and HoH players run into on Discord are videos without captions and the use of voice channels to communicate. When posting a video, be sure to post what is said in the video in chat if no captions are available. If a d/Deaf or HoH player is in a voice channel, understand that they may be able to talk to other players, but will still be unable to hear. Check with the player and see if they need written conversation in chat to meaningfully engage!

Motor: Many players with motor-based disabilities can type or dictate without issue, but may run into fatigue issues with extended use. Offering to hop into an audio call, wait a while before continuing important conversations, and generally being conscious of what actions you’re asking someone to perform within a community can go a long way toward both mitigating pain and actively demonstrating a commitment to inclusion.

Cognitive: Busy discord channels, especially those without strictly enforced rules where bigotry are concerned, can quickly become overwhelming and, by extension, inaccessible to folks with cognitive disabilities. Providing channels that aren’t constantly busy for discussion and specifically prohibiting the use of ableist slurs (among other derogatory slurs) can go a long way toward lowering cognitive barriers, as well as being specifically inclusive of disabled players.

Learning from Videos

Visual: Many instructional videos on YouTube, both for combos and other concepts, feature written instructions or combo notations combined with game visuals and a rocking soundtrack to make the presented combo seem particularly exciting. Presenting this type of video to someone without sight is the equivalent of showing them a music video – it might sound cool, but they have no way to gain the information provided in the video. Ideally, a combo video will include a description of the inputs used beforehand, including movements that may be left out of traditional notation, an “input sounds” version so players can hear the timing of button presses and stick movements, as well as a final version of the combo, including a discussion of the ending state in terms of frame advantage/disadvantage and screen positioning. Transcripts of what is spoken or written on the screen, available as a google doc in the video’s comments section, can also go a long way toward providing access by making the onscreen notation readable by screen reader. Please also ensure the date the video was made or the game patch on which it was created is included, so players know how relevant it is to the current state of the game.

Audio: Some combo videos or instructional videos only contain a verbal description of what’s happening in the combo. While auto captioning technology has come a long way, many technical terms or combo notations will be picked up as garbled speech, leading to nonsensical auto captions. This is also a concern when using auto captions generated from a caption track in a different language, as demonstrated by Guilty Gear Strive’s infamous “anti-aircraft techniques” for Ky Kiske.

A screeshot of Ky Kiske's tutorial video in Guilty Gear Strive, including the caption "Kai is an all-rounder with a complete set of flying tools and anti-aircraft techniques."
Guilty Gear Strive’s character introductions feature captions auto-translated from Japanese.

While corrected captions are the optimal solution, providing a transcript based on the written script of the video can also be helpful, allowing the player to follow along with the text as a concept is shown visually. Again, please make sure to point out what patch of the game was used to create the video, as accessible videos are currently few and far between, and that context is frequently lost.

Motor: There are no specific motor-based problems with learning from combo or instructional videos, though providing images of hand movement and suggestions for different motion shortcuts that can be used are frequently helpful.

Cognitive: Many combo videos suffer from the same problems as match commentary – a lack of context with which to understand what is happening. Providing a move by move breakdown of a combo, or an initial set of basic background information for general instruction, can go a long way toward making content cognitively accessible. A perfect combo video, for instance, would feature the end product of the combo, a step by step guide explaining how each part links together, hand motions used for each link or cancel as well as associated timings, and provide suggested drills to learn each section of the combo prior to piecing it all together. Building up to a final concept rather than only providing notation and the whole combo is essential to lowering cognitive barriers.

Conclusion

These explanations and recommendations provide an excellent starting point for any community or content creator to begin making their specific portion of the FGC more accessible, but please keep in mind that accessibility is a journey, not a destination. Improvements should be celebrated, but use the joy of players now able to access your content as a driving force to continue advocating for accessible content and events. If you have questions or concerns, all of the contributors to this review can be reached via their Twitter accounts, which are listed at the beginning of this article, and are happy to help you increase accessibility in both the immediate future and when planning for an event months away from inception. Please help us help you make the FGC a more inclusive and accessible community.

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