Upgraded: The Gaming Accessibility Conference 2018
In dedication to the eternal legend Stan “the Man” Lee. #RIP.
The ancient being named Uatu The Watcher ponders “The year 2018, it started off relatively similar to any other year so why am I here?” Uatu’s presence signifies the commencement of a major universal shift.
That shift is occurring in the gaming industry, it’s called the Accessibility Revolution. 30% of gamers have a disability so companies cannot afford to alienate that valuable passionate user-base. The awareness and application of accessibility have grown exponentially, developers are making their long overdue venture into this hidden field to create an inclusive sanctuary. However, the effective usage of singular voices all working towards similar goals mean that those influential voices need unification.
The GA Conference EU 2018 held in Paris on the 22nd of October was the perfect platform by bringing passionate disabled gamers together with talented developers to discuss the present and the future state of accessibility. Ian Hamilton (Director of GA Conf 2018 & an Accessibility Consultant), stated that consistent feedback from the “first two events in the USA were really successful” however potential guests or speakers from Europe “were unable to take part because they couldn’t make it across the Atlantic.” This meant that the “good work being done around Europe” wasn’t acknowledged or shared. True inclusion can only be created through spreading knowledge as widely as possible which was a key goal of the event. The GA Conf had brilliant sponsors, so thank you to Epic Games, Ubisoft, Paris Games Week, Shara and support from Microsoft.
The GA Conference featured valuable educational talks covering a whole range of topics, presenting eye-opening talks about accessibility even for me as a disabled gamer. Developers need to be open to change or new ideas so that they can design accessibility features with the proper knowledge, to fully connect with the idea of making the industry a more inclusive space. It was excellent to see developers from big studios like Epic, Square Enix, Guerrilla, Ubisoft, Microsoft, PlayStation connecting and sharing ideas.
Accessibility is gaining traction from every part of the gaming industry, so developers are attending in order to keep up with best practices. David Tisserand (Ubisoft Accessibility Project Manager) articulates that the event is “the single most informative conference… due to the diversity of the talks, from case studies, experts sharing detailed user needs and real-life stories”. The output of accessibility needs the input of collective knowledge so developers will not be at a disadvantage in the future when accessibility will become a vital part of game design.
Mark Friend (Senior Researcher at Sony) said that this conference was a great inspiration as it was an opportunity “to see what different people at different companies are doing to make their products more accessible” His talk For All the Players: Accessibility, explored how PlayStation in Europe promotes accessibility, to incorporate it in games to fit their audience. “It’s also great meeting gamers with disabilities, hearing their stories, & getting a deeper understanding about what challenges they face…”
It’s important to think deeply about all forms of disability not just your own. I never realised the challenges faced by colour-blind gamers until Douglas Pennant the Associate Development Manager at Creative Assembly spoke about the invisible problem of designing games for colour-blindness. It’s impossible for someone without colour-blindness to detect these issues during gameplay design so it’s a tricky challenge to overcome.
Jamie Knight BBC’s Senior Research Engineer explored gaming through an autistic lens. His talk on cognitive accessibility explored options that can aid users in receiving, processing & acting on information in a game world with too many cognitive stimuli. Open-world games with millions of icons can be overwhelming, games like Zelda Breath of the Wild provide a vast world that you can explore at your own speed.
The panel Empower Us! Including Players with Mobility Disabilities was chaired by the inclusion advocate Cherry Thompson. Gaming with a mobility disability had never been covered before, so having the platform to discuss experiences with the panel & answering questions from developers was empowering. We all agreed that including remapping buttons in the game should become standard, along with developers listening to feedback and consulting with disabled gamers. The Able gamers VP Chris Power opened the conference he said “The next step goes way beyond providing a list of options to bypass inaccessible mechanics. Accessibility needs to be a key part of the creative process & include disability representation in video games.” We need to consider this realistically, accessibility thinking in the industry is just beginnings so there’s still a lot of education ahead to get the fundamentals right. Mistakes only create the next stepping stones on our journey towards inclusion.
Tara Voelker (Co-Director of GA Conf, Xbox Gaming & Disability Community Lead) presented the Microsoft’s Inclusive Technologies Lab, a permanent space specifically dedicated to game accessibility. The lab has a multitude of vital applications from research, feedback from disabled gamers who visit & educating developers by tangibly demonstrating evidence of what an accessibility-centric space looks like. Personally, as a disabled gamer, finding my own setup was quite scary as it is a huge unknown. I wasn’t aware of the devices available, I couldn’t test the said equipment so a space like this would be vital. You don’t realise how powerful visual feedback can be especially for changing perspectives of developers who are fearful of designing accessibility features.
During the whole event, we were joined by Bryce Johnson (Inclusive lead at Microsoft) who was heavily involved with the creation of the Inclusive Technologies Lab. Bryce exemplifies accessibility by celebrating the amazing Xbox Adaptive Controller. The possibilities are endless with the XAC. It definitely will change gaming, it’s a simple idea with a huge impact, nobody can ignore accessibility now that Microsoft has made this bold statement.
“There is no room for pride when it comes to accessibility. We need to reach between companies and talk to each other, learn from each other. We all want the same thing, wins for disabled gamers” – Meagan Marie, Senior Community Manager at Crystal Dynamics
The Tomb Raider retrospective by Meagan Marie illustrated how accessibility has been threaded throughout the whole Tomb Raider franchise. Earlier games included multiple pre-set controller configurations and lock-on aim, those options were accessible without Square Enix fully understanding the impact, they were decades ahead of their time. My first gaming memory was of playing Tomb Raider 2 and the safety of Croft Manor because combat scared my 7-year-old self especially when having to shoot tigers. This ability to explore Croft Manor in the earliest trilogy was a genius example of environmental storytelling, a safe playground reflecting Lara’s personality. Exploration not only had practical usage, but the mansion went beyond the detail necessary for a simple tutorial, it had the added benefit of unintentional accessibility. I personally loved searching for the secrets hidden in Croft Manor, this combat-free zone still allowed me to feel like a Tomb Raider without missing out on other gameplay elements. Throughout each iteration the Mansion evolved as part of the ongoing dialogue between developers and fans, so returning to it now, I admire Croft Manor as a feature ahead of its time.
The recently released Shadow of the Tomb Raider was groundbreaking for its accessibility mindset, taking the crown from Uncharted 4 by adding another layer of inclusive features for gamers with cognitive disabilities. You were able to alter the difficulty of 3 key gameplay elements: Combat, Exploration and Puzzles. For example, if you lowered the difficulty during puzzles Lara would instruct you exactly what to do step-by-step.
Meagan Marie felt that “representing the hard work of Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s accessibility advocates at the conference was a huge honour” and “a great opportunity for me to expand my knowledge base and bring learnings back to stakeholders at Square Enix.” Spreading awareness of great practice is important internally as a foundation to build upon but also externally for other game developers to reappropriate great ideas. Accessibility goes beyond mere company rivalries it’s all-encompassing so it requires a holistic approach.
Strong examples of successful AAA developers working with an accessibility philosophy, hopefully, that will create a positive and convincing example for all developers. David Tisserand, “We’re trying to do exactly that on all Ubisoft franchises. One feature at a time like the improvements from AC Origins to AC Odyssey.” Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Assassins Creed Odyssey and Spider-Man are huge commercial successes, so accessibility doesn’t hinder global sales.
Kirsty McKnaught from Special Effect explained Eye Mine, the wonderful way to play Minecraft only using eye-gaze assistive technology. It’s a revolutionary step for accessibility, illustrating how flexible assistive tech can be even if you have rudimentary knowledge, as Ian Hamilton said, “Simplicity and flexibility can go a very long way, and open the door to all kinds of great things being layered on top.” The new Tobii Eye-Gaze 4C supports games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey so even more exposure of eye-control efficacy can only be a good thing.
Tara Voelker (Co-Director of GA Conf, Xbox Gaming & Disability Community Lead) states that the best part of the event was the large “variety of studios presented. Everything from a one-person indie to a AAA studio. We wanted everyone to find the content they could relate to & I think we hit it.” Ian Hamilton said that “community building is a really essential part of advocacy work, the amount of good that can come from you spending 30 seconds preaching is really incomparable to the amount of good that can come from spending 30 seconds introducing people to each other. It’s through those connections that efforts multiply…” The life of an inclusion advocate can become quite isolating, as you’re “either working as a sole advocate or trying to be a lone voice of reason in a wider company. So being in a room full of 100 other people who all care about the same things, understand the struggle… it’s all really valuable at a personal level.” The awesome news is that ”a common story we get is of people leaving the events feeling re-energised and re-enthused.”
David Tisserand says “I always learn about new ways to communicate about accessibility. Be it, how to convince my colleagues to care and act, or a sentence/slide which describes very well a design challenge we must solve, or just learning how to communicate with the community. It may sound shallow to focus on communication, but I believe this is how you change mentalities and convince people to do the right thing.” I agree accessibility and inclusion rely heavily on advocates.
Speaking of strong accessibility advocates, we ended on a high with Cherry Thompson passionately exploring disability representation in-games, it was absolutely insightful. Accessibility should be a key element during all aspects of the whole creative process and as Cherry stated, it can and should also consider disabled representation in video games. Cherry said that gaming “saved my life” and for me it’s definitely the truth. Disability representation is more powerful than our understanding of it as it reaches into our heart. As Jamie Knight said, “If I exist in a game world it helps me persist in the real world.” As creators, you can’t be properly focusing on narrative design if you are not considering what all your players want, how they might feel and the impact you have left behind. The talk discussed games with extremely negative representations of disability or wheelchairs like Bloodborne, Life is Strange and how damaging it can be to gamers living with a disability. Cherry openly spoke about difficult topics such as Suicide, which is a common narrative stereotype of a disabled character. However, she loves the gaming industry and appreciates developers, we celebrated positive representation in games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice so progression is happening. It was such an insightful, and powerful end to the conference. With strong advocates such as Cherry, the gaming industry will evolve even faster into a space ready to fully embrace accessibility.
I want to thank all the wonderful sponsors, everybody who attended, and the amazing people featured in this post. Without you, none of this would have been possible and the industry is now better for it.