The Secret To Creating More Accessible Games

Accessibility and inclusion are terms that have gained incredible traction during the last decade. In fact, almost every industry now needs to apply some sort of accessibility approach in order to comply with modern inclusivity standards.

Being a staple of modern culture, video games have not escaped this reality. Today, video gaming has become an integral part of the lives of almost 3 billion people around the globe. It is no longer seen solely as a way to kill a few idle hours. For many, it has become a channel to expand their social circle and widen their reach in terms of activities, socialization, networking, artistic expression, and, of course, entertainment. 

It can be argued that video games have accomplished more in terms of empowering individuals than any other technologic development. The world of video games is a natural haven for those who possess a limitation that prevents them from enjoying the world as it is. It is the great equalizer.

However, it does not mean there is no room for improvement. There are still many titles and features that present obstacles for players with specific disabilities. The problem is that not many studios and developers are able to accurately define accessibility or apply it effectively to their projects.

What is accessibility in video games?

People have always created tools that grant them abilities they did not possess before. Stairs are a classic example, as they give us access to areas that would otherwise be unapproachable. However, even a short flight of stairs can be a huge obstacle for people who depend on a wheelchair to navigate the world.

The core concept of accessibility revolves around the extension of usability for people who live with certain restrictions. So, adding ramps and elevators to the design of a building will help in this case. Moreover, people who would typically use the stairs also benefit from this, especially when need to carry heavy loads up or down or have motor impairments.

The same concept applies to video game design.

Many games demand taking specific actions or having certain skills, like pushing several buttons in sequence (or smashing them rapidly), having lightning-fast reflexes, or the ability to recall vital information. These elements usually make games exciting and fun to play. But these types of activity aren’t available for everyone, talking about both mental and physical states.

Accessibility in video games means the creation of user interfaces that eliminate all the possible limitations for people who have certain disabilities.

How should gaming studios approach accessibility?

For years, the most common way to make games more accessible was creating special controllers that allowed people with disabilities to get a more comfortable grip, or provide input alternatives for those with limited mobility. Controllers with oversized buttons, footswitches, and eye-tracking technology were developed to give players with limiting motor conditions or restrictions a chance to play their favorite games.

This approach was based on the traditional concept of disability that revolved around strictly medical terms, such as blindness or the inability to properly hold a controller. The medical model is still considered correct in many respects, and millions around the world have benefited from the solutions it has helped develop. However, that model is too narrow and leads to a very limited understanding of UX design.

As a result, many game studios and designers are lagging behind when it comes to accessible gaming. Most game designers do understand the need to start taking accessibility into account when designing their games. But there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of making games truly accessible. First thing first, we need to understand what we mean when we are talking about disabilities. If we keep the old medical model when approaching disabilities, most solutions will come in the form of prosthetics which only addresses one aspect of gaming.

It was necessary to develop a newer cognitive model that would allow us to address disabilities in more inclusive ways. Today, many prefer to adopt social models of disability to define how people access reality. For instance, the social model does not evaluate disabilities in terms of physical impairment. Instead, disabilities are perceived as mere mismatches between the environment and how a person perceives and interacts with reality.

The social model radically transforms the way we think about disabilities. A person is no longer disabled because of a physical or mental condition as long as their environment does not pose specific obstacles that affect them. This new approach has opened the door to immense possibilities for inclusion in the world of video gaming.

Designing more accessible video games

Every game designer worth their salt understands the basic building blocks of gaming. First, the player receives information from the game, typically through sight, hearing and haptic stimuli or vibrations. Then, the player processes that information and comes up with a proper response, which is lastly executed via an interface. That response generates new information, and the cycle goes on.

Ideally, the game will communicate the rules and objectives effectively and provide engaging challenges and rewards to keep the user playing. However, thanks to the social model of disability, we can detect several critical points in which game designers can unintentionally introduce obstacles that prevent certain players enjoy the game to the fullest.

For example, a game that relies heavily on auditory cues to let the player know when to perform an action could leave out players with a hearing impairment or even those who enjoy gaming but need to remain environmentally aware (parents with small children, for example). Many games today address this by adding captions, visual cues, or controller vibration.

Another typical example can be found in games requiring to quickly smash a button to get past an event, or mechanics that make it necessary to perform several actions simultaneously. Again, players with motor limitations can be left out of the fun if they cannot perform these actions, and see their gaming experience being limited.

But now there are games that allow players to remap their controller input or skip quick events so they can advance the story without having to press buttons fiercely.

Some people may complain about how features that favor accessibility and inclusion affect the gaming experience and make the game less challenging. However, there are two great arguments to counter these claims.

First, many gamers from the disabled community appreciate challenges as much as anyone. Accessibility options help overcome particular challenges, such as having to tap a button repeatedly by adding a “turbo” button mode or increasing the text font in text-based games. Games with accessibility options remain hard and perfectly balanced, but disabled people can beat it without any non-game-related obstacles.

Secondly, whenever a studio solves a problem for one small section of its audience, it usually ends up expanding its target audience. For example, adopting vibration or clear visual cues enables gamers to play their games in noisy or very quiet environments, opening up more opportunities to play for people who enjoy games on the go. Bigger fonts allow older people to join the gaming community.

Overall, accessibility doesn’t make games more boring but lets more people enjoy them.

How can we adopt accessibility?

Now that we understand the importance of accessibility, it’s time to talk about how we can make games more accessible. And here we need to discuss several ways that expand gamers’ possibilities differently.

Game accessibility is an essential branch of UX development today. UX always focuses on delivering a more intuitive gaming experience, ensuring the user has the most relevant information available and the gaming process is clear.

Game development teams must be mindful of certain UX aspects when designing or improving their products. For instance, after developing the core concept of a game and the objectives they want the player to accomplish, developers need to decide how they will display the necessary information.

When the person sees the information, there are many ways in which they can perceive it. An informed UX design will be aware of potential obstacles that affect the game’s accessibility and devise ways to prevent or overcome them.

Three major areas must be addressed when introducing accessibility features in games: output, cognition, and input accessibilities.

Output accessibility

When we turn on our computer or console, it initiates billions of internal processes that are ultimately translated into sensory outputs or signals that the user perceives. The most common among them are visual and auditory cues, but controllers and more complex interfaces also transmit vibration and other sensations (steering wheels are a good example).

When a game relies on only one type of output, it introduces obstacles for people who perceive reality differently.

For example, many games are mainly based on visual outputs but can be played by people with visual disabilities. Gaming studios address this by implementing helpful cues that let the player know what to do next without relying solely on their vision.

Solutions to visual and audio disabilities can also be built into the game. Elements such as spatial sound, environmental music, or text-to-audio options let a wider audience enjoy titles that would be impossible to play if they relied on video alone. Moreover, these features have introduced additional layers of realism, making games more immersive than ever, and enriching the experience for all players.

Still, many titles in the FPS market represent hostile elements with bright colors or variations of red and green. Other games rely on the player’s ability to perceive distances so they can choose the right tool depending on the proximity of the challenge. These traditional approaches negatively affect the gaming experience of people who are color blind, don’t necessarily associate red with danger or caution, or people with impacted depth perception.

How people with different types of color blindness can view the same image

For example, people with different types of colorblindness will perceive the same image differently, and potentially miss vital visual cues if they can only rely on their eyes.

One way to address this is to make sure essential information can be conveyed in different color palettes depending on the player’s needs.

Splatoon offers a color lock so players with impaired visibility can change color palettes they can easily identify. But there are other aspects that could also impact the player’s ability to access vital pieces of information needed to advance the game. The use of subtitles to provide the player with additional in-game information or added support for dialogues can be of immense help for users with hearing disabilities. However, factors such as font size, background contrast, text volume, and screen placement play a huge role in how accessible the final text is.

For instance, in Kingdom Come Deliverance, we can see that the font size, placement, and color choice all play against the user’s ability to understand what the game is trying to communicate.

Dialogue in Divinity Original Sin 2

Not taking these aspects into account will inevitably mean that certain players will be forced to navigate through a set of extra difficulties that were not a part of the gaming experience. They must not only overcome the intended challenges but also deal with additional obstacles imposed by limited information about their environment.

The game For Honor does a great job at applying discernible color palettes on texts and icons, always surrounded by white outlines or other UI elements enclosed in dark outlines. This ensures the player will be able to access vital information regardless of the background color.

For Honor

Designers must also be aware of other challenges that affect the overall experience, so they can provide built-in informative cues for players with visual disabilities. The most common way is to utilize every output channel available to communicate vital information. For example, surround sound features now allow players to pinpoint objectives and assess distance without having to rely solely on what the screen shows. In addition, haptic outputs can be used to simulate impacts, proximity, or danger.

Even fighting games such as Mortal Kombat and Skull Girls have been made accessible for people with visual impairments, including blind people, through the use of clever sound cues. There are competitive blind fighters who leverage these cues to pummel opponents down with ease in tournaments and streaming events.

Other elements can be introduced through game settings, allowing the player to modify the size of on-screen information, background detail, color contrast and brightness, waypoint indicators, and even crosshair size.

Shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive have implemented several options that allow players to modify the color, style, size, and even behavior of their weapon´s crosshair. This gives visually challenged players a fighting chance in the battle arena.

Game settings in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Many titles used to start with impressive voiced-over cinematics before the player had any chance to access the settings menu, making users with impaired hearing, or those who didn’t speak the language natively, enjoy the game.

One way to make sure our games are accessible to a wider audience is to offer opening cinematics with subtitles, and settings menus before any sound or action takes place. The game Destiny 2 offered a dramatic intro with subtitles that were unobtrusive yet easy to read, enhancing both inclusivity and accessibility.

Intro of Destiny 2

On the other hand, there are titles, especially in the horror genre, that rely heavily on audio signals to let players know that something lurks in the dark. Ominous music in crescendo and echoing step noises coming from behind the door can be great additions for immersion. However, those who can’t hear clearly won’t be able to experience the suspense and might even walk right into a trap.

Adding subtle visual and haptic cues, such as flickering lights, changing the environmental tone palette, and making the controller vibrate as the danger approaches, are ways to enrich the experience and make sure everyone has the same information. One other tool that has proven useful in action-packed titles is the visual identification of sound sources (explosions, dialogue, gunfire).

As an example, games that rely on spatial knowledge of rivals such as Fortnite provide visual indicators that signal the presence and proximity of enemies, giving both auditory and visual cues that make sure every player has access to the same information regardless of who’s playing the game.

Visual indicators in Fortnite

Cognitive accessibility

After players perceive an output, they need to decide the best course of action. This depends on how the information has been presented and the expected outcomes.

Many titles require the player to pay close attention to cues or key environmental elements and their meaning. Other games rely heavily on memorizing processes or in-game lore to advance the plot.

These factors are usually part of the fun of playing video games but might pose barriers for players with memory, learning, and attention-related disabilities. As a result, some might encounter problems deciding what to do next.

Typical examples are found in games with extremely dynamic background animations and sounds. These can be very distracting when players are just learning the game’s ropes or trying to put together a strategy.

As an on-point example, by giving players the chance to disable background animations, Civilization IV allows the player to focus on strategizing or learning more about the game’s context without unnecessary distractions.

Civilization IV

Lowering the music volume and graying out all background actions whenever vital information is displayed, is another great way to eliminate cognitive barriers for players with limited attention ranges.

In morally complex games, the information the player needs to process in order to make a decision is sometimes too subtle or requires excessive pondering for the game to remain fun or playable. Crusader Kings 3 deals with this problem by color coding positive and negative actions that could impact the story or game difficulty as the game progresses.

Crusader Kings 3

On the other hand, input arrangement, especially in games with complex controls, demands both muscular and cognitive memory. Who hasn’t put down a game for a few weeks and then returned to it not remembering how the basic controls worked?

A simple solution to this common problem is giving the player quick access to the control scheme or quick practice modes where they can relearn moves and jump back to action.

Batman: Arkham Knight controls

These examples allow us to narrow down a definition of cognitive accessibility, which is a way of helping players overcome unintentional mental barriers. However, there are other benefits to adopting this approach. For instance, as gamers get older and are tasked with more responsibilities related to family or professional life, many can hardly remember where they put the TV remote or car keys five seconds ago. Titles designed with inclusion and accessibility in mind provide a more seamless gaming experience for people with hectic schedules and busy minds.

Clever designers, like those involved in the development of Skyrim, have implemented memory-aid techniques into their titles to nudge players in the right direction should they forget the particulars of the task or mission at hand.

Memory-aid techniques in Skyrim

Many other studios have implemented methods related to productive settings like to-do lists, journal keeping, breaking down tasks into smaller objectives, and measuring completion. These tricks do wonders in the work environment and are now being implemented more and more in the gaming industry as they help overcome unintended cognitive barriers and allow gamers to enjoy their games by reducing frustration.

One aspect developers should also take into account is that many players want to be the character they’re playing. If they’re playing a character who boasts about their keen senses and wit, then vital environmental information should become more evident to them.

Assassin’s Creed developers understood that there is no point in letting the user play a trained and perceptive character if it will constantly miss important clues because they’re hard to see for the player. They represented the character’s determination and knowledge of the environment through the display of vital information and tasks on-screen.

Assassin’s Creed

Character design also plays a critical role in UX. For example, adding some important and prominent features, such as special weapons or tools, will constantly remind the player what their character can do to get out of a particular situation.

In terms of organization, titles with complex progress trees (for skills or goals) also require the player to possess certain abstract cognitive abilities. This means that those who process reality in different ways won’t be able to recognize organizational patterns as easily as the rest.

To solve this, studios have borrowed concepts directly from psychology to remove these obstacles, while also creating beautiful and intuitive menus and inventories for beloved IPs such as Diablo, The Witcher, and Zelda.

In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the skill tree is organized in such a way that the player can recognize which slots belong to what specialization based on proximity and general areas or groups.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt character

When talking about visual elements and graphic design, developers can help players establish intuitive or departmentalized relationships within groups of options by changing shades or shapes. Horizon Zero Dawn does a great job at this by color-coding the skill tree, allowing the player to know which skill branch they´re improving with each skill point spent.

Symmetry is another important factor developers can leverage to let the player establish hierarchical relationships. In Homescape, for example, we can see two obviously superior choices based on size, amount of information, and even color schemes, providing more “weight” to one side of the screen, hinting the player about the desirability of these options.

«Homescapes» shop

One last aspect comes in the form of using loading screens to offer tips and gameplay advice. This is now considered a good practice as it keeps vital information fresh in the player’s mind.

Input accessibility

Once a player has decided what to do next, they need to provide physical input that the software can understand. PC games are usually designed for a mouse and keyboard combo, consoles rely on controllers, and mobile games are controlled using touchscreens.

Motor disabilities can cause limited interaction of a player with the game. There are many mobility aspects involved, each raising different barriers between the player and the game.

In video games, most actions require the players to perform precise movements like accurately tilting a very sensitive analog stick or pressing several buttons in a specific sequence and timing. However, such actions might be hard to perform for people with musculoskeletal issues.

To solve this problem, The Last Of Us Part II offers a wide range of options that assist players, allowing those with serious motor limitations to enjoy the story and overcome in-game challenges without any added obstacles. Features such as auto-aim, or the option to adjust the mouse or control stick sensibility, give players a better chance of enjoying their favorite titles without feeling left out.

Last of Us Part II

On the other hand, disabilities that affect strength can be overcome by giving the player the option to use assistive technology that can be activated by foot, elbows, or even eye movement tracking. Microsoft has made great advances with the introduction of their Xbox Adaptive Controller. It allows the user to make use of an incredibly wide variety of inputs that can be completely customized to match the player´s needs.

However, other disabilities might affect dexterity and coordination, making it necessary to decrease the number of inputs to perform basic actions or give the player the option to remap all inputs. That’s why many companies today have developed different options aimed at reducing the gap between the player and how they access and interact with reality.

Wrapping up

Of course, there are many other ways to address accessibility in the gaming industry, since every player is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. So, how should gaming studios ensure their games are 100% accessible and inclusive?

As mentioned earlier, adopting the social model to define disabilities is always a great starting point. This approach allows you to think of better solutions when developing new gameplay mechanics. Additionally, there are helpful game accessibility guidelines out there that compile the most recent advances in UX design.

However, the best way to end up with a product that is both accessible and inclusive is to work with experienced professionals dedicated to creating and enhancing game mechanics, UX design, and assets for renowned gaming studios worldwide.

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    Elena Natsvlishvili
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    Vadim Krayevoy