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Why developers are designing video games for accessibility
With more than 3 billion estimated players around the world today, the video game industry has grown far beyond its kid-focused, arcade origins. Yet while more people pick up and play, limitations of the games still leave some behind.
It used to be rare to have settings to adjust anything beyond volume control. Options for subtitles, the ability to completely remap the controller or change the game's brightness were scarce. But now mainstream developers are leveling up – increasingly considering accessibility when designing their games, whether to accommodate a visual impairment, a motor control issue or an anxiety disorder.
The $184 billion game industry's massive growth over the last couple decades includes an expanding number of people with disabilities interested in playing, according to Alec Frey, a senior producer at Obsidian Entertainment.
"That gets executives to just look at this as more of an option because there's a much bigger pool of people," he said.
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Let's say you open the recently remade Sony game "The Last of Us Part I" (now adapted into a popular HBO show). The first thing you see is a question about what language you want to use, and whether you need a screen reader to read the menu text. After that, you are asked to adjust the brightness and contrast of the screen, before you get several options to change the size and color of subtitles. Lastly, you are directed to a menu where you can turn on presets for vision, hearing and motor accessibility. All of this happens before reaching the main menu where you actually start the game.
Anita Mortaloni, accessibility director at Xbox, said such features not only help players who have disabilities, but allow most people to enjoy the game no matter the circumstance.
"How you play changes over the course of your life or during the day. If I've been staring at the computer all day, maybe I need night mode. If I broke my wrist snowboarding, the standard controller mapping doesn't work for me anymore," Mortaloni said. "And so by adding accessibility options in, it means that I can play how I need to in that moment."
She said it's Xbox policy that creators consider accessibility from the very start of the development cycle. That makes integration much easier compared to previous decades, when features and accommodations were often slapped on at the end of a game's creation, she added.
"If there are barriers to play because a game's not accessible or inclusive, people won't play it," Mortaloni said.
How we got here
Frey credits disability advocates who have pushed for these options for years – and whose voices are starting to be heard in the broader industry – with helping make this change happen. When testing these games, he explained, older projects didn't have the budget or inclination to invite people outside of the target demographic – teenage boys who do not have disabilities.
People often overlook such communities or assume they don't want to participate in certain entertainment genres, said Kat Zigmont, senior director of operations and deputy director at the World Institute on Disability.
"People have these expectations: 'Blind folks don't want video games. Why would they? That's a visual thing.' But that's not true always," Zigmont said. "Blind people want to be in programming and want to play games and want to be included."
In the last few years, however, companies have made an effort to include greater diversity in testing.
"There's plenty of people out there willing to play your game and give you feedback," Frey said.
Many of these changes have roots in the "indie" gaming space, where smaller teams of developers had the breathing room to experiment, said Adam Brennecke, a game director at Obsidian Entertainment and Frey's colleague.
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The 2018 title "Celeste," created by indie developer Maddy Thorson and her small team, was notable for providing ways to make progression easier in a notoriously difficult game, noted Frey. He explained that options for difficulty tie closely to accessibility, as they allow people to experience the game in full without hitting a challenging roadblock they can't surpass due to skill level or for disability.
"Allowing [players] to progress and enjoy more of the title is very important for myself," Frey said. "A lot more people want to play games … and we want people to play games."
Meanwhile, Laura Kate Dale, a video game critic with a focus on accessibility, attributes the 2020 sequel "The Last of Us Part II" for bringing more options to the mainstream.
The game, developed by Naughty Dog, "undeniably brought conversations around gaming accessibility to a mainstream audience" by becoming a "big budget example of a video game that not only went above and beyond in a lot of regards, but got big praise for it during end-of-year awards."
After the game's release, Dale said, there was a "really big shift" among developers. Other big-budget Sony games like "God of War: Ragnarok" and "Horizon: Forbidden West" have followed a similar model as "The Last of Us: Part II," adding extensive accessibility support. In 2021, the latest game in Microsoft's flagship Halo series also added more settings than there had ever been in the previous games.
Eyes, ears and thumbs
When making games more accessible, a ton of creativity must go into addressing the gamut of wildly different needs. Here are just a few of the solutions that designers have made reality:
Making enemies easier to see
Modern games that reach new heights of graphic fidelity have allowed players to see detailed environments and characters like never before. But for people with impaired sight, more complex visuals can be overwhelming or just appear like a mess.
Emilia Schatz, lead designer at Naughty Dog, explained that "The Last of Us Part II" introduced an optional "high-contrast mode" that turns characters and enemies into bright colored objects in a gray space, making important objects and characters much easier to see.
"I've already seen high-contrast mode actually crop up in several other games, which makes me super proud and excited," Schatz said.
Audio cues for blind players
On a smaller scale, some independent creators have made games specifically for people who are blind.
David Evans, creative director at Falling Squirrel, a Canadian game company, wanted to challenge himself by making an audio-only game. "The Vale: Shadow of the Crown," published in 2021, is entirely audio-based. Using a keyboard or controller, the player leads a blind princess battling her way through a dangerous valley using only audio cues, no visual information on screen.
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Evans didn't have any connection to the blind community before he started work on the title. But as production went along, software developers and video game fans from that community became integral to the project. He was gratified when the game received a lot of positive feedback from blind players that he had gotten it right.
He's just one of the most recent developers to join a small community of engineers building games for blind people, a community largely under the radar of the mainstream industry.
"I wasn't stuck completely reinventing the wheel. I just wanted to raise the bar as high as I could," he said.
Giving players more control
Unlike film or television, gaming requires that the consumer have a degree of motor control and an ability to react quickly to prompts in order to progress in the game.
The current Xbox and PlayStation controllers sport over a dozen buttons and two joysticks. Players may need to do multiple things at once, like pointing forward with a joystick while pulling the controller's trigger or pressing and holding multiple buttons at the same time. These can be challenging to manipulate for people with physical disabilities or those who have been injured.
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Schatz said part of the reason they included extensive controller options for "The Last of Us Part II" – such as the option to change prompts where you have to mash a button into just holding the button down – was to invite more players in who may be intimidated by the complexity or intensity of modern gaming. Even for people who don't have a disability, it can be hard to engage with the hobby as a brand new player.
"Our games require a base level of controller proficiency … to even engage with them at all," she said. "And that's kind of a shame."
For people with serious difficulty using conventional controllers, both PlayStation and Xbox have also adopted unique controllers designed for heavy customization to suit the needs of individuals with disabilities. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, for instance, has two large, circular buttons that are easy to press and connection points where players can attach arcade-style joysticks and other unique hardware.
Mortaloni said the Xbox Adaptive controller was "designed for and by people with disabilities."
Navigating phobias and tough subjects
Video games are an especially immersive medium, offering both challenges and opportunities for mental health concerns.
"One of the amazing things about video games specifically is that they really allow you to step into a world that you just couldn't access through any other medium," said Dr. Kelli Dunlap, community director for Take This, a mental health advocacy organization, which provides tools and resources to video game companies. "You get to decide what happens."
"Psychonauts 2," a game where you literally jump inside people's brains to help heal trauma, has a warning at the beginning, written in partnership with Take This, that outlines some of the themes in the game, potential fears that may be triggered in players, as well as how to find additional help.
In the game "Grounded," players are shrunk down to insect size and must fight to survive in a hostile backyard that contains large, aggressive spiders.
When Obsidian first asked people to play a demo, volunteers reacted viscerally to these spiders, occasionally dropping the controller and walking away, Brennecke explained.
Their developers consulted with Blake Pellman, a researcher with Xbox who happened to be an expert on phobias, and together they figured out what they could do to combat the fear.
"Because of our research, we knew that the legs were a big part of why people would freeze up," Brennecke said.
The "Arachnophobia mode" allows players to turn off features of the spiders until they're just a floating blob with eyes.
Dunlap said that adding such features is a matter of "basic human empathy" and that developers have an important responsibility to "think about the person who is going to be playing that game and the care you take with their psychological well-being."
While these examples suggest a massive stride forward for the industry, there's still more to hone and explore.
Dale believes one of the biggest ways to improve accessibility is to standardize options across all games, which will make it consistently easier to find the right options for every person.
"The video game industry generally is not great at having any kind of predictability about what kinds of support is offered to disabled players," she said.
Schatz explained that the game industry is "very iterative" and that ideas that get introduced are often copied and improved upon later, which means current ideas will only get better as time goes. She also hopes the industry finds a new baseline standard for such features.
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"We borrow from each other all the time, and so once momentum gets started it gets going with other games," Schatz said.
"I think it's still really early and we're still learning and we're still growing, so there's so much more I think we can do," Brennecke said. "This is the first iteration of a lot of these ideas and I think, over time, we're going to continue to improve that as an industry."
Disability advocate Zigmont believes this push for accessibility will ultimately benefit everyone who picks up a controller. She explained that when engineers design with disabilities in mind, it often leads to benefits for everyone. Adding curb cuts at a crosswalk, for instance, makes it easier for wheelchair access, but also for parents pushing strollers and workers moving items on a hand truck.
"If you build for the disability community, you make it better for the whole community," she said.