Games accessibility for all

Back in the 70s, the first gamers were lone-wolf teenagers who only needed to tap the keys on a keyboard or roll a wheel to enjoy the latest in entertainment software. Just 30 years later, video games have become virtual, multi-sensory experiences that let couples, groups or families enjoy multimedia environments designed to help us live, learn and work, all in a fun way. Today’s games — buoyed by the appearance of ever more complex and sophisticated peripherals and programming based on interactivity and the user’s experience — are capable of creating new virtual worlds that players can manipulate and modify at will.

For their part, gamers’ demographics have evolved dramatically in recent years, resulting in the appearance of new player profiles that the video game industry is beginning to find of interest. According to data from the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of video game players is now 34, and this average age is increasing year by year. What’s more, 40% of gamers are women, a percentage that has also been growing over time and that is making the female sector one of the user profiles with the greatest growth and potential. Nevertheless, some of the most interesting and unknown facts are that more than 25% of gamers are over 50 years old, and from 20% to 25% of gamers over the age of 18 have some form of physical or cognitive disability. Another interesting study, conducted in the United States in 2010 by popular online video game company PopCap, revealed that almost 21% of casual gamers have some sort of physical impairment (varying degrees of hearing or sight impairment, arthritis, fibromyalgia), cognitive impediment (autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or mental disability.

These new player profiles have pushed developers to create games that can attract and captivate new market segments. Senior citizens are now enjoying video games that exercise their mental abilities, but what about the percentage of gamers with disabilities? Even today, game developers are reluctant to take this segment of potential buyers into account when they conceive and design their products. Does this mean that people with disabilities live completely outside of the world of commercial video games? Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite difficulties in playing the same games as people without disabilities, many groups of gamers have developed their own ways to overcome the barriers to access presented by commercial games. One of the most striking examples is the work of the group from Waterloo Labs, which has developed a system that consists of attaching electrodes around the eyes that read eye movements and allows them to be used to control characters on the Nintendo console. Some organizations, such as, are also involved in developing and selling customized peripherals that make it easier for people with different kinds of physical disabilities to play video games.

This reluctance to create accessible games is usually due to three things: a lack of knowledge about the characteristics and potential of players with some type of disability, a lack of training in game accessibility and an unwillingness to invest money in techniques that are not considered profitable. However, the goal of any good game developer is to reach (and sell to) as many players as possible, whether they be men or women, senior citizens or children. For this reason, developers always follow certain common design principles that ensure the usability and playability of a title when it hits the market. Since many usability problems are also problems of accessibility, we could say that accessibility is nothing more than extending all the principles of usability and taking them to a level that includes a greater number of players, whether that be in different locales worldwide or within different subsegments of any given population.


Accessibility techniques

In any given demographic, people may have varying degrees of disability; for example, people with a mobility impairment may be able to use only the lower limbs, one hand, one finger or their eyes. This is why it is difficult to propose a single solution suitable for all degrees of disability, and why it is sometimes necessary to design a number of different solutions, or even different versions of the game that can be adapted.

Most techniques designed to facilitate accessibility to a game for a person with a visual impairment must be carried out by the game’s programmer and interface designer — for example, text with an easy-to-read and properly sized font, the possibility of enlarging or simplifying the graphics and the availability of a high-contrast mode. However, for localized games, there are at least two important tasks that should be carried out by someone with experience in audiovisual accessibility: dubbing the game into the target language, which must be done by a translator, preferably one trained in translation for dubbing; and audio description, which can be done by an audio describer. Dubbing is an option that many developers try to avoid because they believe it is not profitable, especially in minority languages; instead, they prefer to opt for subtitling in the language of origin. However, dubbing a game not only enhances its quality, but also its accessibility, since a person who cannot see cannot read subtitles and probably won’t be able to understand the original language. Audio description is a technique that has been used in audio-visual accessibility for film and television for a number of years in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain and Germany. It consists of using moments that either have no sound or ambient sound only to describe all the visual elements that are relevant to the film. Although there are still no practical examples of its use in video games, what is true is that the increasing complexity of the graphics and the progressive importance of in-game movies (also called cinematics) are making it ever more necessary to use a compensation technique that allows the gamer with a visual impairment to enjoy the beauty and artistic quality of the animations under the same conditions as any other gamer. It is important to remember that the ultimate goal of video games is to create a user experience through sensory experience and emotions. In the case of players with disabilities, we can use other senses to create the same user experience. Although audio description in games is still experimental, the truth is that many games already have audio instructions and cues that compensate for the lack of visual cues.

Within accessibility for people with hearing impairment, we find three main techniques. Two of them are quite common in most video games, whereas the third one is just beginning to appear in video games like Half Life 2 (Figure 1). The first of these techniques — the ability to set the volume of voices, sound effects and ambient sounds separately — would, once again, be part of the programming and design phase of the game. This technique is mostly for people who retain some residual hearing but who find it difficult to distinguish the voices when there is a lot of background noise. The second technique, which is usually implemented during the internationalization and localization of a game, is subtitled dialogue. As stated previously, many developers prefer to sell their products with the original voices subtitled in different languages because it is more convenient and cheaper than dubbing them. This conventional subtitling is of direct benefit to people with hearing impairments who can read on the screen what the characters are saying. However, video game subtitles do not usually adhere to any standard of quality, contrary to what happens with subtitling for film or television, which may lead to the subtitles appearing in letters that are too small, too big or that disappear too quickly from the screen, all of which explain why they can be difficult to read.

Some of the most interesting research in this area is being carried out by Carme Mangirón of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who is currently studying the quality and effectiveness of subtitles in video games using eye tracking techniques. Lastly, we have a special type of subtitle designed specifically for people with hearing impairments. This closed captioning includes not only dialogues, but also relevant sounds that occur in the game. First person shooters, where it is important to hear someone approaching, is one genre where we can see this happening. Closed captioning for people with hearing impairments, just like audio description for people with visual impairments, is fairly widespread in film and television but, to date, only three games have implemented this technique: Zork: Grand Inquisitor (1997), Half Life 2 (2004) and SiN Episode 1: Emergence (2006).

Today, mobility accessibility has numerous techniques and external peripherals that allow almost any type of game to be customized to each user’s particular degree of disability. Here, again, those with the greatest responsibility are programmers and designers, who should include different setting options in the game that allow it to be played with a single button or hand, a microphone or by means of special peripherals for each user type.

Cognitive or mental impairment is perhaps the most challenging of all, since the key to making a game accessible to people with these disabilities may be precisely to enhance the simplicity of the game’s mechanics, something that goes against the grain of many commercial video games. For this reason, most techniques associated with this type of disability fall under the responsibility of designers and programmers, who must ensure the complete customization and configuration of all of the game’s elements. They may need to include different levels of difficulty and levels of training, design large, clear icons for the navigation menus and, lastly, use clear, simple vocabulary.


The market

As mentioned earlier, universal access is not a major priority of game developers, who see the potential market for players with disabilities as not profitable enough. But is this actually the case? Let’s take a look at some reasons indicating that it most definitely is not.

Firstly, the current gaming market is highly competitive. Both developers as well as game platform owners compete every year to hit the market with the latest technology, the best peripheral and the most stunning graphics. It is, therefore, a market that is very difficult to stand out in. However, the market for accessible video games is still very young, so any game that is released with a feature or two that improves accessibility garners immediate attention from disability-related media, associations and websites, producing a domino effect. One example of this is the prize that the AbleGamers Foundation awards to the most accessible commercial game of the year. In 2010, the winner was Forza Motorsports 3, a console video game belonging to one of the most inaccessible of genres: race cars. Some of this game’s biggest novelties include the ability to use a single-switch peripheral (switch access), which allows gamers with a significant degree of physical disability to play the game. Since the Foundation’s publication of the press release, the game’s accessibility has been featured on more than 1,000 specialized pages, including, for example, Wikipedia, the Daily Telegraph, and the and websites.

It is also interesting to note that the demand for accessible games for any type of gamer will continue to increase as the average age of the gamer population increases. As time passes, older players tend to suffer minor visual, audio or even cognitive difficulties. In the not-too-distant future, we will have a sector of society that has grown up (and grown old) playing video games, and they are going to demand games that are adapted to their physical and cognitive abilities.

On the other hand, accessibility features are also often used by people who are suffering from a temporary disability, are in noisy environments or can’t see the screen well. This can easily be seen in other media such as television, where an ever-increasing percentage of the population uses subtitles to hear voices in the original version, or to learn a new language.

We should also bear in mind that often, gamers with disabilities have access to just a few simple games developed specifically for them, but they can rarely access commercial games. This hinders their integration and makes them particularly receptive to any initiative that would allow them to play on equal terms. To date, there is no developer known for making accessible commercial games; thus, it appears that the first companies to take this step will garner greater support and recognition, and will attract a larger number of players with a sense of loyalty.


One of the main problems when developing accessible games is that both of the existing methodologies present a number of disadvantages.

The first option is to take games that are inaccessible due to their design and programming, and make them accessible using external technologies such as screen readers, amplifiers or custom peripherals. The problem stems from the fact that these are usually rather rudimentary adaptations that are not derived from previous study of accessibility, and as a result, they are often useful only in certain specific cases and the level of accessibility is limited. Another problem arising from this approach is that it is usually done by volunteers or fans, so it is only available on certain games and it may have implementation or compatibility problems.

The second option is to make games specifically for people with disabilities, such as audio-based games for people with visual impairments or single-switch games for people with severe motor impairment of the upper limbs. Critics of this approach argue that rather than increasing the access of people with disabilities to the world of video games, this type of game actually isolates them from the rest of society, since it only allows them to play within established limits. Another drawback of this approach is that, again, we cannot speak of universal accessibility, but rather only about video games that are accessible for a specific type of disability.

With the aim of overcoming the problems posed by both methodologies, in 2005 the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory of FORTH-ICS introduced the concept of Universally Accessible Games. This technical proposal is aimed at helping the creation of quality accessible games that fit the needs of players with varying accessibility degrees and types, ones that can be played on different hardware and software platforms and that above all follow the Design for All principles already used in areas such as web design or physical accessibility.

Another of the great challenges that remain unresolved is whether it is even feasible to develop a fully accessible video game. The truth is that, to date, not even the video games with a greater degree of accessibility can be adapted to all different types and degrees of disability, on any platform and under any circumstances.

One solution to perhaps consider would be to develop different versions or expansions of the game aimed at specific disability groups. That way, developers could start out with only one type of disability, measure its acceptance in the market and open direct communication channels with players through forums or websites. This solution would also allow the different versions to be launched gradually, in response to the demands of the gamers, thus allowing developers to decide on their level of commitment.

At the end of the day, we’re not talking about video games for people with disabilities; what we are proposing instead is to make games that are universally accessible. The industry has long understood that its future lies in niche markets that are yet to be explored. This is why video games are localized into different languages, after all.