Accessibility and Games Design - Interview with Ian Hamilton, video game accessibility specialist and advocate

Ian Hamilton Twitter profile imageLast month AbilityNet (AN) had the opportunity to interview Ian Hamilton (IH) - an accessibility specialist and advocate working to raise the bar for accessibility in the games industry. Prior to accessibility, his background was in design and UX but for the last ten years Ian has specialised in game accessibility and is often called on to speak about the topic at various conferences and events.


AN: Hi Ian, thank you for letting us interview you! Let's get straight in with our questions... We know you first got involved in accessibility when you were working on kids' games - what specifically in that environment triggered your interest in video game accessibility?

IH: It was seeing playtesting footage of preschool games that had been adapted to work with a single accessibility switch. Seeing kids who would otherwise have been passive participants in the classroom as a result laughing, playing, doing the same thing as their classmates, being equal participants in society. It was seeing that the work we all do day to day has so much more impact than many of us realise and that any designer or developer has the ability to make a profound difference to people's lives.


AN: Adapted technology that can change lives in that way is amazing but many people probably aren't aware it exists. Are you happy about the rate of uptake of accessibility in video games and the levels of awareness surrounding it? We know in other interviews you’ve talked about how it’s only in the last few years that accessibility has really gained standard consideration by video game publishers and consoles - adjustments for colour-blindness being a good example of this.

IH: Well as always I'd love to see it progress faster, I'd love to be able to just hit a fast-forward button and immediately get the industry to where it could and should be. But it's a very different scenario to just a few years ago. The progress year on year is exponential, and we're now seeing the magic three elements of cultural change slotting nicely into place; bottom-up pressure from developers who care and know what to implement, top-down pressure from management who care and want to empower and enable their staff to do it, and external pressure too, with gamers feeling comfortable to keep the feedback coming in. With those three things working together it's inevitable really that we'll continue to see nice progress.


AN: Absolutely, and we think it can only be helped with greater awareness of temporary and situational impairments. We’ve heard anecdotally that subtitles in video games are a feature used by many new parents - presumably to play games with low volume and avoid waking babies! Have you seen any other good examples of the cross benefits of accessibility features to the wider audience?

IH: Oh absolutely. Assassin's Creed Origins is a great example of what you mentioned; they recently published usage data showing that 60% of their players play with subtitles turned on. That's an astronomical leap on from the number of people who are deaf/Deaf/Heard of Hearing, and a perfect example of how designing for a niche can not only benefit that niche, but also people with temporary impairments, situational impairments, and simply different preferences.

Two more nice examples of real-world data; firstly Uncharted 4, which has a range of nice motor accessibility conditions. This includes camera assist, which moves the camera automatically, meaning the game can be played just using a single stick - a third of their players use it.

Secondly Into The Dead, a mobile game where you need to duck from side-to-side to dodge zombies who try to grab you as you run through a field filled with them. The controls for that game were tilt based, right up until the end of development when their user researcher pointed out that some people can't physically tilt a tablet or even hold it upright. So they decided on an altruistic gesture of adding in an extra three alternate control schemes specifically for that tiny demographic; a right-handed virtual stick, a left-handed stick, and virtual buttons on the left and right sides of the screen. Each of those new modes was in fact used by 25% of their players. So in all, designing for that small group actually made their game a better experience for 75% of their players.

Into the Dead controler presets example for title, left/right buttons, and virtual thumbtack

Photo credit: Into the Dead controller presets via gameaccessibilityguidelines.com


AN: You just mentioned Uncharted 4 - we've noticed accessibility efforts for AAA games, a term used to classify games with the highest budgets and levels of promotion, differs from indie developers, and in the UK many iOS and Android games being developed are inaccessible. Do you have any thoughts or comments about what can or is being done to address this?

IH: Well firstly, as far as AAA and indie games go, there are different kinds of pressures and barriers involved. In a big company there's the advantage of time and money being available - if you're able to fight for it. Barriers are more about having to persuade other people; how to overcome misconceptions about ROI, how to get features prioritised on a huge backlog already filled with many features that other developers are really passionate about, knowing that the list will have to be pared back considerably before launch. At the other end of the spectrum, at small companies, the barriers are more misconceptions about cost and effort, whether it can be justified when you're self-funding and panicking over whether you'll be able to launch in time to make your mortgage payment. Indies have a tremendous advantage over AAAs though. If you want to do something you don't have to persuade loads of colleagues and managers, you can just do it. There's a great story from 2012 about how additional controls for accessibility were added to Legend of Grimrock the same day they were requested, in response to a request from a motor-impaired gamer.

Photo of additional controls added to Grimrock for accessibility

Photo credit: additional controls added to Grimrock for accessibility via gameaccessibilityguidelines.com

The second point is about the inaccessibility of mobile games. This is because the middleware frameworks that most developers use to build games with do not render out their interfaces in a way that the system level accessibility functionality is able to understand. This is something that the middleware developers - primarily Unity, also others such as Unreal - really need to fix at their end. Until then some progress has been made on a workaround, in the form of an incredibly dedicated developer called Michelle Martin developing the Unity Accessibility Plugin, which is basically the voiceover and talkback functionality duplicated inside Unity.


AN: The Game Accessibility Guidelines website does a great job of collating game accessibility guidelines, but do you think there is potential for more strict accessibility guidelines to be implemented?

IH: That's a great question. Gaming is different from other industries in a really fundamental way; they're explicitly designed to be inaccessible. They have to be. To meet the definition of "game" there must be some kind of ruleset and challenge, and any kind of challenge will be an accessibility barrier for some people. If you remove the challenge what you're left with is no longer a game, it's a toy or a narrative.

So accessibility in games is an optimisation process. Every game has loads of barriers in it, it's a case of taking a step back and figuring out which barriers are a necessary part of what makes the game enjoyable, barriers that support the designers' vision of what they want the players to experience, and which barriers are unnecessary, barriers that get between the player and the designers' vision. Which barriers are necessary and unnecessary varies completely from game to game, for example in Civilisation a requirement to avoid precise timing is very easy and entirely appropriate. The same requirement in Call of Duty? Not so much.

That means you can't really have a set level of what constitutes a reasonable level of accessibility. What constitutes a reasonable level is entirely dependent on that specific game's mechanic. But having said that there are a few key features that are complained about more than anything else, and are all applicable to the vast majority of games. Button remapping, colourblind friendliness, decent and well-presented subtitles, adequate text size. It would be lovely for a gamer to be able to pick up any game safe in the knowledge that even just a few of the basic common requirements have been considered.


AN: And do you think enough is being done to ensure basic common requirements have been considered? We know the Federal Communications Commission's waiver for video game accessibility has been extended for the last time and the new deadline is set for January 1st 2019. What do you think will be the result of this?

IH: I'm not a big fan of accessibility through legislation, as I think you get the best results from people doing things because they want to rather than because they have to. But it has already played a strong role in advancing accessibility across the board - not just accessibility of comms. It has elevated the levels of conversations within companies around accessibility. People at higher levels are gaining awareness of accessibility, then once it is on their radar it's resulting in various initiatives and considerations which has been great to see. 


AN: When we think about accessibility in video games specifically, we sometimes think of it as sitting in two camps - input accessibility such as remapping controls and difficulty accessibility, allowing the player to control how difficult a game is to play with options to become invincible as an example. Do you have any thoughts on how accessibility in video games can become more holistic? 

IH: It's actually much broader than that. There are lots of people doing really nice things across the whole accessibility spectrum, from Madden 18's haptic cues for blind gamers to She Remembered Caterpillars' addictive symbol mode to perfectly represent the game's colour mixing puzzles to colourblind gamers. But where we're currently at is pretty disparate, with lots of different games doing lots of individual good things, but without consolidation. That's in part due to where companies are with their accessibility journeys. Lots of studios are just starting to dip their toe in, but doing so late in development when it's too late realistically to spend lots of time unpicking and retrofitting. So now the games currently in development are in a position to know upfront what kind of things to consider, and so will be able to implement much more, cheaper and to a higher standard.

It's also good to see advances taking place outside of game software, like Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller, a switch interface that will make gaming hardware more accessible to people with a broad range of motor needs. What that equates to is a broader range of people with a broader range of abilities, needs and preferences as part of the gaming community, in turn meaning more need than ever for accessibility considerations in games themselves. It's all inter-related.

Xbox adaptive controller being trialled by a young man

Photo credit: Xbox adaptive controller being tested via xbox.com


AN: A great answer and thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. A final question before you go - do you have any thoughts about how accessibility in gaming might develop over the coming years? Perhaps about a specific issue you want or expect to be solved?

IH: The point I mentioned earlier about consolidation and thinking about accessibility earlier in the process is something that I think is now inevitable. I'd dearly love to see that progress to the point where any gamer can pick up any game and be able to have a reasonable expectation that the basics like colourblindness, remapping, text size and decent subtitles have all been considered... that would be lovely.

In terms of specific issues, I'd love to see subtitles properly sorted out. Compared to other industries they're awful across the board. Individual studios have done nice things e.g. subtitle size options in Walking Dead, Life Is Strange and Hitman, configurable letterboxing (black background behind the text) in Assassin's Creed, toggleable speaker indication in Tomb Raider. It should only be a matter of time now until someone brings together the various efforts happening in the different studios and puts them together in one package.

I'd also like to see progress on blind accessibility, part of which needs to be handled at engine level, due to the middleware incompatibility with screenreaders that I mentioned earlier. The engine/middleware incompatibility issue is a big one, it slams a big wall down in front of developers who want to do good accessibility work, so it needs to change.

The other side is considering blind gamers in game design decisions. That has been happening already, with games like Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, Madden 18 all being patched specifically for blind accessibility. There are lots of low hanging fruit around, lots of game mechanics that would be blind-accessible if only one little thing had been considered. I'd love to see more of those opportunities taken by developers, and for those opportunities to be exposed to developers through them having greater dialogue with blind gamers.

That dialogue is now starting to happen. For that and many other reasons I'm more hopeful for and excited about the future of accessibility in games than I have ever been before.


Want to know more?

You can read our blog on 5 ways accessibility in video games is evolving.

You can follow Ian Hamilton on Twitter or connect with Ian on LinkedIn.

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