Video Game Accessibility Not Yet Up to Par

July 25, 2011

Last year, I wrote about the potential added value of the PWD (people with disabilities) market for the video game industryAbleGamers has spearheaded the push for making videogames fully accessible for disabled gamers.  Yet, as Wired magazine pointed out last week, gamers with disabilities still have a long way to go to fully participate in videogames.

AbleGamers co-founder Mark Barlet says in the Wired article, “What game creators do not truly understand is that as we get older, we are more likely to be disabled. We have two wars going on, and our soldiers are not all coming back in the same condition as they left. Those men and women are gamers.”

Video games typically are on the leading edge of innovation in software design and development. Yet, as Wired says, in the process of developing a game, the focus tends to be on finishing within tight deadlines, which often do not offer much room for incorporating accessibility features such as closed-captioning and button customization. According to game designer Matthew Burns, “accessibility options are often the first thing cut during crunch time, when time and money are at a premium.”

Which is unfortunate, because up to 15% of Americans identify themselves as disabled.  Research shows that a greater proportion of people with disabilities play video games than the general population — a significant opportunity for the video game industry.

There are at least two approaches to making something accessible, whether it is a video game, a building, an online video, or anything else: develop accessibility around an existing design, or incorporate accessibility into the design itself. If accessibility is incorporated into the design process, this saves time, and results in maximum return from the widest possible gaming market.

An example of accessibility around an existing design is a ramp for wheelchairs that is constructed at a historic building, separate from the main entrance. While this enables access for PWDs in wheelchairs, it is not always the most convenient and most inclusive option. When accessibility is incorporated into the design process itself, it results in cost savings, and makes it easier to develop access features that everyone, not just PWDs, can use. When accessibility is considered with EVERYONE in mind, it is “universal design” — a concept in which everyone, whether disabled or not, utilizes the same access features. In the wheelchair ramp example, the ramp is incorporated into the main stairs itself. This brings everyone together, instead of forcing PWDs to go to a separate part of the building to access it. And it is less expensive, more efficient and more inclusive.

Universal design in video games is an effective way to include the widest possible pool of gamers in the market. In order for customers to enjoy a video game, it is always helpful to make the controls easier, not more difficult, to use even for those without disabilities. Why turn off a significant portion of the gaming market if your game is so difficult to use anyway?

Games designed for hardcore players (those who spend significant amounts of their time on games) tend to include as many user controls as possible so these players have granular control over their videogame experience. Historically, games designed for these types of players are a major challenge for gamers with disabilities. As long as the game developers’ strategy is to focus on the niche hardcore market by incorporating complex controls, that is fine. However, it is important to keep in mind that if a higher percentage of people with disabilities play videogames than do the general gamer population, then the companies in the niche hardcore gaming market risk excluding this important revenue stream unless they make themselves fully accessible.

The Wired article points to a effective solution for complex controls that is simple and easy to implement: button customization. This helps disabled gamers with hand-control issues (such as quadriplegics and those with cerebral palsy) get around the issue by developing buttons and controls on their own that enable them to enjoy a complex game as much as one without a disability. Unfortunately, that is not incorporated into many game designs.

As good as universal design sounds in theory, in reality it does not always neatly provide access for everyone. But this approach is far more inclusive than creating accessibility “after the fact” — in other words, after the design and development has already been completed, which makes it more challenging and less cost-effective to develop accessible features. When the video game industry is as competitive as it has been these days, and programmers are burning the midnight oil to complete games on time, a game development process that incorporates access for every segment of its targeted gaming market is an excellent competitive edge.

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