Disability news

How the gaming industry is becoming more accessible

Joel and Bella in The Last of Us video game

With the recent success of The Last of Us TV series it's a safe bet to say thousands of us will be controlling Joel and Bella around a post-apocalyptic world from our own living room.

But for years disabled gamers have been left…gameless, with software developers not taking into account accessible functions.

As society became more aware of inclusivity, with an increasing number of venues improving the facilities for disabled people and a steady rise in disabled celebrities gracing our screens, the gaming industry failed to take notice.

Despite gigs and live shows providing accessible seating, gaming events such as Summer Game Fest and Game Awards were slammed for not offering facilities for disabled people.

But over in Australia things were different, a volunteer organisation called Accessibility Unlocked gathered data from disabled developers, resources and students to see how games could become more accessible.

Speaking to NME Cameron Hopkinson, co-founder of Accessibility Unlocked, said: “Our primary focus is on developers, and how to make their experience better as they move through their career, but we’re always happy to encourage people towards resources for their audience.”

A New Zealand Interactive Media Industry survey in 2022 found only 5% of game developers classed themselves as neurodivergent and just 1% as disabled.

In contrast, a 2021 survey by the International Game Developer Association [IGDA], the organisers behind Games Connect Asia Pacific [GCAP], found 295 identified as disabled.

Sav Wolfe, IGEA’s Manager of Events, Content, and Diversity and Inclusion said, “As with game design, very often making something accessible is also just good design practice anyway.”

“Over the two years [of holding GCAP virtually], our most surprising and meaningful interactions actually came from software we used to create ‘coffee catch-ups’ – a queue you could join to meet with another attendee for a timed 5-minute chat before it would move you to another person.”

Wolfe added, “It was so intensely popular as a low-stress way to meet other like-minded people in a safe way during a pandemic, but it was also easily accessible and provided those who were quite socially anxious and unused to conference conversations a chance to meet people on their terms.”

The IGDA’s Games Accessibility Conference, known as GAConf, takes place in America and across Europe. Using the messaging platform Discord after the Covid-19 pandemic the event is now accessible for those who are unable to attend in person, either because of their disability or the fact that they live miles away.

Co-founder of GAConf, Ian Hamilton, said: “When we eventually returned to having an in-person component it was essential for us to avoid the usual trap of in-person being the primary event and online just being a second class thing. So we flipped it; everyone’s consuming the same content in the same way and in–person attendees are still engaging on Discord, the in-person event is more of a watch party.”

“The thing about being disabled or needing accessibility is you can be anywhere in the world and be disabled. You can be any race, gender identity, sexuality, or economic status and be disabled. So for us, these are all groups we want to feel included in GAConf. We’ve definitely improved over time in this space. Our last in-person event, we finally had pronoun badges for our guests. I’m excited that we finally had them, but it shows that we’re still growing in supporting all our attendees.”

Making games accessible is not as expensive as one may think, as Hamilton explained in the grand scheme of things it only costs a few pence.

“If you think about it early enough to make the right upfront decisions, it really isn’t expensive. We operate on a very small budget and we still manage it just fine. To provide what we do for accessibility (full live captioning, live sign language interpreter, and then recaptioning everything again in full archival quality when it goes up on youtube) for a two-day single-track event costs around $7,000 (£5,887). That’s a drop in the ocean of the finances of many events.” 

Xbox has been recgonised as leading the way for accessible gaming with having over 400 million gamers across the world. In fact their stand at Gamescom led by Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager Brannon Zahand and Technical Program Manager Nisha Patel, became a talking point at the US edition of GAConf after the space was equipped with ramps, signage and trained staff to assist disabled people.

“We are very targeted in our event participation and would be cautious of supporting a show or venue that does not provide basic accessibility features for attendees,” said Jennifer Nichols, Director of Global Events at Xbox, told NME.

Zahand is aware he works for a multi-billion pound company and smaller businesses which don’t have millions of pounds to throw behind gaming development may feel they can’t meet disabled gamers needs.

But according to Zahand “you can do a lot with very little.”

“Also, based on our experience at Gamescom, I would estimate that nearly all of the accessible features and inclusive design considerations we implemented in our booth were utilised by at least one or more members of our ‘Gaming and Disability’ community, with the vast majority utilised by multiple individuals,” added Zahand. “So, I would be cautious assuming a more inclusive space would go unused.”

With the gaming industry catching up with accessibility it looks as if Joel and Bella will have no shortage of help when they eventually start their third adventure. 

Let’s just hope all of us can join in the fun.

[ Two tabletop games based on The Last of Us are in development - Escape the Dark is due out in December 2023 ]

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