Improving Game Accessibility

By Kevin Bierre

Introduction

For most gamers, the process of setting up a game and starting to play is pretty straight forward: install the game, skim over the instructions, and start playing. Unfortunately, people with disabilities find this process considerably harder.

The difficulty starts at the store. A disabled purchaser has no idea if a game is accessible to them or not. There are no ratings on the box that will indicate if the game is closed captioned or supports alternative input devices. In many cases, game ratings in the popular media do not address the accessibility issue, so for many purchasers, buying a game is very much a gamble.

After the game is installed, the player needs to often customize the settings to support their system and adaptive hardware. This is often not addressed in the documentation and most help desks have little experience dealing with these problems.

Once in the game, further problems can occur. The difficulty level may not be controllable, making it impossible for a person with mobility problems to play. Vital information may be given in cut scenes without closed captioning, making it impossible for the deaf to succeed in the game.


Doom3 [CC] for the hearing impaired.

Unfortunately, many games fail to address the needs of a disabled gamer, and as a result prevent them from playing. The solution to this problem is to make games more accessible.

What is Accessibility?

The Wikipedia defines accessibility as "a general term used to describe how easy it is for people to get to, use, and understand things."

Let's look at why some gamers are not able to use or enjoy some computer and console games and why they are encountering problems playing these games.

Who Needs Accessible Games?

Depending on whose statistics you use, most countries view between 10% and 20% of their total population as disabled. (Unfortunately, there are no universally accepted definitions of when a person should be considered disabled, nor is it easy to define since disabilities may range from mild to severe. For example, hearing loss can range from a slight problem hearing conversation in a noisy room to complete deafness.)

The major forms of disability that could affect game use are shown in the following table:

Name

Definition

Effect on Games

Auditory - Deaf or Hard of Hearing

"Partial or total lack of hearing".

http://www.answers.com/topic/deafness

Depending on the severity, could be referred to as "deafness" or "hard of hearing".

•  Prevents gamer from following cut scenes that may contain plot information.

•  Could prevent gamer from receiving game cues such as footsteps or other sounds.

Visual - Blindness, Low Vision, or Color Blindness

"Partial or total loss of sight".

http://www.answers.com/topic/blindness

The term "low vision" is often used for the ability to see using magnification. Color blindness refers to the inability to see certain colors.

•  Color schemes may make it difficult for the color blind to see the game.

•  Small objects on the screen may not be visible to those with low vision.

•  Visually based games will not be accessible to the blind.

Mobility

Accidents, birth defects, or degenerative neurological diseases could lead to problems moving a mouse or other input device. We are also beginning to see older gamers having problems with games that have high coordination requirements.

•  Games that do not support alterative input devices may be inaccessible.

•  A lack of configurable difficulty levels could prevent gamers from being able to set a usable level.

Cognitive

A variety of different problems could be seen in this category:

•  Lack of a tutorial mode could be a problem for dyslexics.

•  A large printed manual may be useless for gamers with ADD or ADHD.

•  Games that require a lot of micro-management will be difficult for those with memory loss.

Why is Accessibility Needed for Games?

There are three main reasons for providing accessible games. The first one is economic. By not providing accessibility in games, the game industry is losing out on a potentially larger audience for their games. With anywhere from 10 - 20% of the population considered disabled in one form or another, this could be a fairly significant increase in the market for a given game.

More importantly, there is a moral issue involved. A person who has a disability should have equal access to same services and entertainment as others in the population. This is why we have closed captioning on TV shows and movie theaters will have closed captioned showings of movies. In the same vein, why can't we have games that are accessible to those with disabilities? This becomes a quality of life issue.

Finally, there could be legal issues involved. Some countries already have legislation in place mandating equal access to all. In the United States, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires the use of accessible technology within the government. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides for equal access in many areas. Other countries have similar types of legislation. Note that many of these laws are covering access to services. How long do you think it will be until someone decides a multiplayer online game is a service? With the scrutiny games have been receiving from various quarters, sooner or later someone will start looking into the accessibility issue from a legal point of view.


Hardware and Software Approaches to Accessibility

There are a variety of ways to address accessibility in games. The major difference in approaches is whether they are hardware or software based.

Hardware based approaches involve the use of adaptive hardware to provide the ability to interact with the game. Devices such as the following could all be used with games:

Most of these devices require specialized software, in addition to the necessary hardware. Because they can be rather exotic, it may be difficult to get them to function with games.

On the software side, there are a variety of approaches:

Many of these approaches require additional support within a game in order to function correctly. For example, screen reader software often will only work with text displayed using a specific set of programming interfaces.

Examples of Accessible Games

The good news is that we are starting to see commercially available accessible games. In some cases accessibility was designed in from the beginning. In other cases, gamers were able to add accessibility after the game was released.

Here are some examples of games that are accessible:

Half Life 2: Half Life 2 was designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning. After Half Life was released, deaf gamers complained that the cut scenes were not closed captioned. Valve responded to the gamers by releasing the game dialog.

When it came time to start work on Half Life 2, closed captioning was designed into the product. Deaf gamers were consulted during the design phase and were part of the testing process. Reviews from sites like DeafGamers were very complimentary.

One of the nice things that Valve discovered was the addition of closed captioning really did not extend the project schedule. Because the necessary code is part of the game engine, other games using that engine could easily be closed captioned.

Doom3 [CC]: Another highly anticipated game in 2004 was Doom3. To the disappointment of the Deaf community, the game was not closed captioned. However, there was a way to modify the game using tools provided by id Software. A team to create a closed caption mod for Doom 3 was formed. (Doom3 [CC]).

id Software was extremely helpful, providing files of the dialog used in the game. In addition to providing closed captioning, the Doom3 [CC] team also provided translations of the dialog into four additional languages and added a heads up radar display that provided a way to identify the direction from which a sound originates.

The team developed the “Dynamic Closed Captioning system” as part of the project and is allowing the use of this software free of charge by others who are willing to follow the requirements stated on their website.

Terraformers: Terraformers is an adventure game that can be played by gamers who are blind. It provides the standard graphics seen in this type of game for sighted gamers, but can be played in a no-graphics mode for the blind.

 


Terraformers provides a standard graphics mode (as shown here) but also can be played with no graphics for the blind.

 

A form of sonar is used by the player in no-graphics mode to locate and identify objects. In addition, the player can change their orientation by using the keypad to face their character in one of eight directions. A personal digital assistant (PDA) is used to handle inventory as the player collects objects. Puzzles are sound based, with the player using tones to determine what codes to enter to open a door.

This game was the winner of the “Innovation in Audio” award at the Independent Games Festival in 2003.

Resources available:

This list is incomplete, but covers some of the more visible groups doing work on the issues of game accessibility:

IGDA Game Accessibility SIG:

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has provided support for a Game Accessibility Special Interest Group (GA SIG). A white paper discussing aspects of game accessibility was published in 2004. In addition, members of the GA SIG are presenting a paper at the HCI International conference in July 2005.

Current projects include work on a survey about closed captioning in games, as well as a book on game accessibility. New members are always welcome and are invited to sign up for the mailing list.

AGDev:

Accessible Game Developers (AGDev) has a Wiki that you can sign up to join. They are looking at projects such as a game accessibility rating system and a level markup language.

AudioGames:

AudioGames has provided information on games for the blind for several years. The site originally housed a database of audio games, but has evolved over the years to provide game links, reviews, and research articles into the production of audio games for the blind. A major part of the site is a searchable archive of games. Search results describe the game and contain links to locate the developer and game.

ACM SIGACCESS:

The ACM's SIGACCESS has been instrumental in promoting research and awareness of accessible computing. They support an annual conference on computers and accessibility. Their focus is more general and covers hardware and software approaches to accessibility.

Summary

The good news is that a growing awareness of the need for accessible games is starting to appear in the game development community. The release of highly visible accessible games shows this idea is starting to be taken seriously.What is needed now is the ability to do research on game accessibility and publish the results. There is a fairly large body of work on web accessibility available. We now need to start doing the same within the game industry. Industry and government support would help address this problem.

If you find this issue interesting and want to contribute to the work being done, contact one of the groups listed under “Resources”. We are always looking to new members.

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