Last week, developers from all over the world flocked to San Francisco to convene for GDC 2016. GDC is a chance for game developers to network, discuss the latest and greatest trends in game development, and show off their recent accomplishments with industry peers. These men and women take pride in the games they make, and are excited by the prospect of the industry growing, and getting to share their games with more and more people. Yet many might be shocked to learn that there is a huge audience just waiting to play their games, and with just a few small modifications, they could improve the accessibility of their games, and tap into that audience.
I attended two sessions at GDC that were all about making games more accessible. I am referring to the process of removing barriers that prevent people — primarily those with impairments, but also those without — from playing games. The first session, given by Ian Hamilton, dealt with accessibility in mobile games, while the second session, given by Mark Barlet, introduced the concept of “includification,” a term Barlet coined that refers to developers including as many people as possible in the potential audience for their games.
I sat down with Barlet last week to talk about includification and the state of accessibility in games today, and to hear more about what his organization, AbleGamers, and others are doing to help address and educate developers on the issue.
The Case for Accessibility in Games
Both Hamilton and Barlet shared some surprising statistics and reasons developers may want to make their games more accessible, and some ways they could do so. Before diving into the reasons and methodologies behind accessibility, it helps to understand the numbers they provided in their talks.
- 15% of the general population is disabled in some way.
- PopCap did a study that found 20% of their users had some sort of impairment.
- By the time a person reaches 65, the rate of impairment goes up to 50%
- There are over 60 million disabled individuals in the United States.
- 33 million of these are gamers.
- Disposable income for people with disabilities is $247 billion.
- Many, many others suffer from other conditions that affect their gameplay experience, such as color blindness, temporary impairments like broken limbs, or situational impairments, such as the new parent who has to turn the volume off while playing at night so they don’t wake the baby.
As these numbers show, there is an excellent business case to be made for including more accessibility features in games and trying to capture a portion of this underserved market.
If thinking of this in terms of revenue and market share seems cynical, there is also a case to be made based strictly on the human benefit. As Hamilton noted in his talk, games can profoundly change lives and improve quality of life. People with disabilities can use games to connect online and interact socially with others when it would normally otherwise be prohibitive. Games have even been used in therapy and to treat pain. It is perfectly summarized thusly on gameaccessibilityguidelines.com, “Games are entertainment, culture, socialising, things that mean the difference between existing and living. ”
Barriers to Address
There are four main barriers to address in order to ensure as many people as possible can play a game.
- Mobility: How we move, which affects how people control games.
- Visual: How we see, which affects anything from the colors people recognize on the screen to their ability to recognize enemies or read subtitles.
- Hearing: The sounds, voices, or even ambient noise people can hear in a game.
- Cognitive: How people take in and process information. This can affect anything from being able to understand complex rules and systems, to ability to read, or being able to remember objectives.
The methods to address these barriers can vary, and AbleGamers has gone so far as to classify suggestions into three tiers denoting difficulty to implement. Level one suggestions are the easiest to add to a game, and include things like color blind options or the ability to change subtitle fonts, sizes, and color to make them easier to read. Just focusing on these level one suggestions could help developers reach an enormous new audience with minimal effort.
It’s Just Good Game Design
Fortunately, many of the ways to address these barriers also happen to be good game design that will benefit all players. In fact, Microsoft did a study finding that 82% of people were already using some sort of accessibility feature when playing games. Many of them were doing so simply to customize their experience.
Hamilton gave an example of one mobile game that shipped with four different control schemes. The developers thought most people would use the default tilt controls, as they were the most fun in their opinion. The other modes were included for accessibility, to allow access for the minority of people who were physically unable to tilt their device. But when they started getting data back, they found that usage was split evenly across all four schemes. Had they just chosen to only support the default scheme, 75% of their audience would have missed out on what they considered a better alternative.
By raising awareness of the barriers people can face when trying to play a game, and giving developers the knowledge and tools to address these barriers, people like Hamilton and Barlet are helping to grow the industry and the gaming community, while simultaneously ensuring all gamers will be able to continue to enjoy the hobby they love for as long as possible.
Note: The image used for this article is the Game Accessibility Information symbol.