PAX Australia: Disability and computer games

This panel of computer games industry professionals discussed disability and gaming: what games were good and why; some games presented barriers they were not able to overcome; why developers should aspire to provide accessibility during development and how accessibility increases financial gains.

As always, this panel is a write up from my notes, it is not a transcript. If I have made any errors, please let me know and I will correct them.

The panelists were:

Joshua Meadows: Co-Director, GX Australia. Maybe. I might have that wrong. In which case, I apologise and ask that someone corrects me.

Dan Clayton, Creative Director, Dime Studios, is losing his voice! Dan was born with a shoulder injury and limited mobility in his left hand. Designs games in the way he can play them using touch devices and simple mechanisms.

Ben Kosmina is a producer at Tin Man Games. He works in the industry from a business standpoint. TMG try to implement accessibility features for wider audiences. Ben has mild epilepsy controlled by medication. He thinks this is hilarious when his career is making video games.

Ian Hamilton is an Accessibility Specialist with the IHDC. He works with government and industry bodies.

Clara Reeves is a manager working with Games, Digital Content and Animation at Film Victoria. She’s an ex game developer, working with developers to get the games where they need them. She also works on implementing accessibility measures in games.

Sierra Asher is an artist and Software Designer, Halfbrick Studios. He’s interested in developing games and has albinism, therefore he faces challenges developing games as an artist and player.

Joshua, the moderator, is gay but not disabled; thus representation is still important to him. Taking for granted is about representation; if no minorities are involved in development, they’ll be absent from the games themselves.

Ian: To define the social model of disability. Cerebral Palsy is a medical condition that may require use of a wheelchair. Cerebral Palsy is not a disability. The steps are the barrier, creating the disability. By being aware of barriers, we can prevent this kind of situation.

Dan: I have experience of disability in games: controls, input. I’m used to having limited functionality in left arm so my right arm compensates. Controls are the big thing; being able to rebind controls to a mouse is a big issue. I struggle with certain genres like RTS (Real Time Simulator) because I don’t have mobility. Much as I enjoy them, it’s a struggle. Game pads are a good solution because my left arm can control them.

Ben: I found out about my epilepsy in year 8 when I did the 40-hour famine and passed the time playing SuperMario and (another game). Playing a game for 12 hours straight and being very very hungry and having this condition triggered a seizure. My condition is quite mild and easily controlled with medication. I can drive and play video games and stuff. I can’t play games like Hotline Miami with lights flashing everywhere. It’s better not to take the risk. Games with the ability to turn off the flashing lights are a real benefit. I don’t see it that often but when I do, I really appreciate it.

Sierra: The main problem is lack of detail. Most people have detail in the middle of their eye but for me it’s like peripheral vision all the way around plus light sensitivity. In the game the contrast factors in; I miss important details. Really clear, large font is good. Games progressively become less accessible when more detail is put in the visuals.

Ian: Colorblindness is really common: 8% in males. Sim City and Borderlands started dealing with colorblindness, doing a helluvalot to raise awareness. Once people start doing it, it snowballs.

Clara: It’s awareness because it’s not costly to fix.

Ian: Accessibility is about what stage you start thinking about it. If you wait until the complaints start coming in, you have to go back and unpick. Previously it’s been reactionary. Now people are thinking about it at the early stages.

Ben: Tin Man’s stuff is interactive fiction. Features catered for colorblindness, ensuring you don’t require different colors to distinguish them. The open dyslexic font allows you to read the text. So you can change the font from a standard font that may be more difficult to read to a font that is easier to read.

Dan: With mobile stuff for my company, it’s always really simple. If you can touch a mobile screen, you can play the game. The home button is a house. Play is an arrow, making it universal. Form of assets contrast with the background. We make them short, punchy experiences.

Ian: Games have to have some kind of barriers or they would just be a toy. It’s figuring out what barriers are necessary.

Dan: Game pacing is scaled, starting easy and ramping up. It’s also an age thing. One game, adults could play for 7 minutes and children for 3 because it was scaling to their skill.

Sierra: I was working as an artist on a game. Once it was released, we got into trouble. I could see the bright red laser on a grey background but a workmate couldn’t see it. If we’d been aware during development, it would have been easier but afterwards it’s extra work. Some tools have the ability to change what you’re looking at and change the colorblind version. But these programs are all different, specific to program. I convinced team to develop Glassbrick, a magnifier for Windows. It allows any color to be changed to any other color to cater for different kinds of colorblindness. Some people prefer color overlay instead of white behind text; this was easy to implement.

Ian: Color oracle is a really accurate color simulator too.

Sierra: Glassbrick is a free tool. It’s good for people having trouble with small fonts, etc.

Clara: Expanding the audience to cater to diverse players makes sense for investments. Most developers want to do this but don’t know how or think they don’t have time.

Sierra: It’s really not much work if you’re aware. Accessibility for one type of person makes it more accessible for everyone.

Dan: Assassins Creed auto-jumps with one button, making it easy. One button and the character does cool stuff. If you jump and you hit the wall and miss the jump, it’s a punishment if you mistime it. If you hit the wall, the character automatically jumps over it.

Dan: if your game doesn’t have subtitles, there’s a good chance people won’t play it.

Ian: There are so many reasons like when your child is asleep, you won’t play unless you have subtitles. Colored circles for everyone isn’t just bad for people with colorblindness; add another level of reinforcement and its better for everyone.

Dan: Design redundancy is good.

Ian: Witcher!

Joshua: Kingdom of Animals has the option.

Ian: Communicating information in more than one way adds reinforcement.

Sierra: The Playstation has too many buttons. Do directions rather than buttons. I still don’t know the Xbox controller.

Clara: I’ve been playing PS controller for I don’t know how many years and I still don’t know the order of the buttons.

What is one reason why games should be more accessible?

Dan: Business and cultural, opening up a wider market and providing your experience to someone who can enjoy it in spite of their conditions.

Ben: Financial. If a game is accessible to a wider audience, you’ll sell more copies.

Dan: I want everyone to play my game and love my game.

Ben: I was showing off one of my games to a guy with dyslexia in standard font then turned on dyslexic font. He discovered he could read it.

Ian: More access to games gives people access to culture and community. I couldn’t play Alien Insulation because of the camera. I couldn’t play Costume Quest 2 because I couldn’t turn vibration off and I’ve injured my wrist. Over 65s have a 50% chance of having some kind of disability.

Sierra: It’s future proofing.

Clara: I should bring up business because that’s what I do but I won’t. I get so much enjoyment out of playing games. Like any media, I escape into a story. We should get as many people in as we can and make it as inclusive as possible.

Ian: Over 20% of gamers have disabilities. Games offer enjoyment, games as therapy, distraction from pain… Difficulty reading has massive social stigma which impacts enjoyment of games.

Sierra: If a game considers my particular need, I feel grateful. I do not like playing games on a small screen like the DS and that’s a whole chunk of games.

Dan: when I physically can’t play the game I feel bad. I don’t want people to feel that way about my games.

Ian: Legislation in US has increased accessibility.

Accessibility is still a work in progress but the gaming industry has come a long way.