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Designing Games That Are Accessible To Everyone

February 13, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Every year more and more people join the ranks of gamers, and new and innovative products are created to feed this influx. However, despite all this progress, disabled gamers have been routinely left behind.

Many of the most popular games and systems are inaccessible to various forms of disability, such as visual impairments. Equally troublesome is that the games that are accessible are generally not playable by the mainstream market, due to the very design quirks that made the game accessible in the first place!

For instance, there are a number of games designed for the visually impaired, but they frequently neglect critical elements for the sighted (i.e. graphics). And therein lies the problem -- games for the blind shouldn't mean games for only the blind. Games for only the blind is a terrible model that most blind people themselves hate.

Developers should try to make games that work well for both disabled and mainstream gamers to be profitable. With relatively minimal investment in what's simply better user interface design anyway, game developers can capture this additional market share that's eager for new offerings and has nowhere else to go.

In this article I'll take a look at the impact usability changes have had on the expanding gaming industry, and argue how to make interesting games for a mainstream audience that are accessible to the disabled. I'll use examples of games that have interesting accessibility solutions, and get into which genres are especially suited to such efforts.

Motivation for Accessibility in Games

Why should game developers care if their game is accessible or not? The strongest reason is that accessible games are almost always extremely usable. Usability refers to how easy it is for someone to pick up and learn a control interface, and is a critical metric for game assessment. It is strongly linked to accessibility, as games that are highly usable generally have many design elements that make them accessible to various disabilities as well.

The first video games tended to be highly usable due to the lack of game complexity. Tennis for Two, Pong's predecessor created in 1958, had a dial to move the on screen paddle, and a button to serve. This interface had a clear mapping and simple controls, and was extremely easy to pick up.

Simple to learn, simple to play

As games became more complicated, control complexity increased proportionally; the Atari 2600 had a joystick and one button, the Famicom/NES had a directional pad and four buttons, the Super Nintendo had a directional pad and eight buttons, and the PlayStation 2 had two joysticks, a directional pad, and ten buttons.

Luckily this trend has been reversing to some degree in recent years with the advent of simplified and more intuitive control schemes, such as seen with the Nintendo DS, Dance Dance Revolution dance mats and Donkey Konga bongos, and Guitar Hero controllers. In fact, the super-popular Wii Sports tennis game feels very similar to Tennis for Two, with the controls simplified to a serve button and a tennis swing motion.

In large part because of this change back to simpler, more usable controls, the Wii has sold millions of units. In a similar fashion, accessible games have the potential to reach a huge audience since they need to be highly usable, which in turn makes these games very appealing to the mainstream market.

The other strong motivating factor for the creation of accessible games is the untapped market share. To wit, over the past few years games have been shifting in large degree from "hardcore" to "casual".

As a result the user base for video games has been steadily growing to include groups which had previously been largely ignored, such as the elderly and women. Many companies devote large amounts of resources to tap into these lucrative demographics.

However, games are by and large still unusable to a large percent of the population, specifically the disabled. According to the 2000 US Census, some 18.6% of American citizens aged 16 to 64 suffers from some form of disability -- that's over 30 million people in the US alone!

Despite the fact that not all disabilities prevent people from playing games, these numbers are quite telling, and raise an interesting question -- why would the gaming industry ignore such a large, hungry market share with no where else to turn?


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