Accessible gaming: An interview with Ian Hamilton: Part 1

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 09:50am

Media Access Australia spoke to Ian Hamilton, UX designer, accessibility specialist and co-author of the Game Accessibility Guidelines about accessibility issues in gaming.

The Guidelines, a free web-based resource created to help developers create games which are more inclusive of disabled gamers, were recognised at the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman’s Awards, picking up the prize for Advancement in Accessibility.

In this first part of a two-part interview, Ian spoke about common accessibility issues, how accessibility has been addressed by game developers and device manufacturers, and some of the barriers to producing accessible games.

Media Access Australia: Ian, can you tell us about some of the more common accessibility issues for mobile device, console and PC gaming?

They vary greatly between platforms. On mobiles it's about screen size, obvious issues for vision impairments, and the touchscreen itself, which can be extraordinarily difficult for people with limited fine motor control, especially when complex gestures are involved. And then of course a greater likelihood of situational impairment, such as playing in direct sunlight, on power saving mode, on a bumpy train and so on. It's in part balanced out by some fantastic built-in accessibility features, particularly on iOS, such as the built-in screen reader support for blind users.

On consoles the hardware issues are split between lack of support for custom controllers and an almost total lack of built-in accessibility features. There are also some problems with novel input devices, such as Wii and Kinect, which are a huge boon for some motor-impaired players but completely exclusionary for others.

PC gamers have it pretty good by comparison, with a pretty huge range of assistive hardware and software available, but there's the issue of the high cost of buying and maintaining a decent spec gaming machine, which can be a real barrier for people on limited incomes.

Platform specific hardware issues are only really a part of it though. The most common barriers are those that have been unknowingly placed there by game designers, excluding swathes of gamers through simple arbitrary decisions, such as which colours to use to indicate which team you belong to.

To what extent/how have these issues been addressed by developers and device manufacturers?

Apple is by far the leader when it comes to device manufacturers. The built-in screen reader is the obvious one, but other things too, and even the switch support in iOS7, allowing any iDevice to be controlled using anything from a headrest mounted button to a sip-puff tube.

Other manufacturers could learn a great deal from Apple. The big consoles do not look good at all by comparison put next to an iPhone. There's pretty much zero consideration, with only a couple of rare exceptions, such as Kinect's voice commands, and XB1/PS4's excellent subtitle customisation options (even though they apply to stand alone video only, game developers are yet to make use of them). It means so much wasted potential, so many easy things that could be done that would make a huge difference.

A great example from outside gaming of someone who is doing it well is YouView, a set-top box available in the UK that's the kind of feature set that we really need to be seeing on consoles.

So although the lack of accessibility on consoles is frustrating to see, there are at least good examples out there, so when they do decide to take the plunge it's just a case of copying other proven methods, rather than costly R&D.

What are some of the barriers to including accessibility as a consideration when producing a game?

There's a common misconception that accessibility involves spending loads of time and money, watering down your ideas to address a tiny lowest common denominator demographic who aren't interested in the content anyway. I come across some combination of that all the time, and I certainly used to have the same misconceptions too.

But they're just that, misconceptions. The majority of game accessibility comes down to two simple principles —use multiple means of communicating information, and allow gamers some flexibility in play style. Those things don't equate to watering down, quite the opposite, they mean making your game better for all players. And the numbers are huge, PopCap's research showed that people with disabilities are actually more likely than anyone else to want to game. Makes sense, all the usual reasons are there, and of course the numbers are huge; 15-20% before you even start taking into account things like colour blindness, at 8% of males, and low reading age, at 14% of adults.

Then there's cost. Some complex work for niche demographics can be expensive, but for the most part it is fairly cheap and easy, if you think about it from the outset, rather than trying to retrofit later on. Sometimes it can even be free, just a simple design decision. And the considerations that help the biggest numbers of people are often the easiest too.

It all ultimately comes down to lack of awareness, either labouring under the above misconceptions, or just never even having thought about it.

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