I was really moved this week to see how a small number of people have powered a profound change in games. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I often overlook accessibility in games, which isn’t to say I don’t benefit from it. And I assumed the range of accessibility options in modern games was simply improving because someone somewhere decided it should. But of course that’s not what happened. Behind the celebrated and ground-breaking accessibility tools in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, for example, is the tireless work of a community campaigning for the opportunity to play and enjoy games too.
It’s that community I watched in action this week at the accessibility in games conference, or GAConf for short, and I’ve rarely been around a more engaged or supportive group of people. The conference is having something of a moment, because, wonderfully, the tide of accessibility in games seems to be turning. The Last of Us Part 2 – the sparkling diamond of accessibility and deservedly so – as well as Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Gears of War 5, Watch Dogs: Legion, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, and Remedy’s Control, are all setting industry-leading examples of what good accessibility in games can look like. There is a long way to go, but this is progress.
Good accessibility can look like high-contrast modes for low visibility, and automatic navigation and clever, spatial audio cues. It can look like assistance for aiming and movement, and the removal of time-pressured button presses and quick-reaction challenges. It can look like invulnerability, because some people like setting their own challenges. It looks like a whole suite of options you can tailor your gameplay experience with if you want to. Accessibility looks like choice.
What surprised me was that much of this didn’t exist even as recently as a couple of years ago. Naughty Dog didn’t actually know what it was doing with accessibility in The Last of Us Part 2, only that it wanted to do something more after Uncharted 4. So it was to this community it looked for inspiration. And I mean directly. Naughty Dog’s Emilia Schatz was at the GAConf a couple of years ago and was asked what the studio was doing about blind support in their then upcoming game, The Last of Us Part 2. And the answer at the time was “nothing” – they hadn’t really thought about it.
So, Naughty Dog talked to the person who asked the question, a champion for blind gaming called Brandon Cole – and watched his GAConf talk on an accidentally helpful feature in Resident Evil 6, the auto-orientating PDA/map device – and from it came a plan for the rich support in The Last of Us Part 2. Cole would even be brought in to test and advise on the game, along with others from the GAConf community. The result? Genuine tears from other pillars of the blind-gaming community, and – and this is very important – an acclaimed and best-selling game others will want to follow.
Or take a game like Remedy’s Control. It shipped without much in the way of accessibility in 2019, but the company would go back and spend a year adding a suite of accessibility options to the game because of feedback it got from its community. And the upshot: everyone benefited. Because that’s the other thing I’m beginning to learn: accessibility is beneficial for everyone. I know I increasingly lean on motion sickness-reducing options, particularly when watching other people play, and I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of people switching on various assists to help them along. Something like a third of all people who completed Control apparently used some kind of Assist Mode help.
It’s a similar story for Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. When the original Spider-Man came out on PS4 in 2018, there wasn’t much in the way of accessibility, but when Miles Morales launched with PS5, there was. It was actually about this game one of my favourite quotes of GAConf came. It was by Vivek Gohil, someone we’re lucky to have write for Eurogamer. He said, “With great accessibility comes great inclusivity,” and the GAConf Discord went wild.
Do you see how recent it all seems to be? I think that’s why there’s such an air of hope among the people at the conference, because things are beginning to demonstrably, significantly change. Sony’s Worldwide Studios is enabling teams like Naughty Dog and Insomniac (and hopefully many more) to integrate accessibility design from the beginnings of their projects, and bring in collaborators to help iterate and test along the way. A message I kept hearing was that good inclusivity takes an entire team, and many years, and Sony seems to understand that. Microsoft is active too. There’s the acclaimed Xbox Adaptive Controller, the advertising of which, during the Superbowl in 2019, may be the widest-reaching accessibility-related gaming advert ever (this was a quiz question on the GAConf holding screen).
Microsoft has also just refreshed and expanded its encyclopaedic, and public, Xbox Accessibility Guidelines for developers and publishers, and anyone else who wants to know more. And it recently launched its own Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Service (MGATS), to test games against these guidelines, for a price, though it’s scalable so indies can benefit as well as bigger teams. In its first month, it tested five games and raised 177 concerns, said program manager Brannon Zahand during a talk.
“At Microsoft,” Zahand added, in his closing remarks, “we believe accessibility is a journey, one we’re still in the early phases of.” I thought I’d highlight it because it’s a salient point. Although progress is being made in game accessibility, there’s still a long way to go. Many things are still being flagged for consideration by developers when making games, and even though there are examples of games with good accessibility now, they remain the exception rather than the norm. The overriding message from the GAConf community, however, is that it is there. It’s there to help, there to guide, there to advise. People only need to ask.