For well over a decade, PAX Prime has been one of the premier events for all things related to gaming
and at this year's 2015 convention in Seattle, a panel of experts sat down to discuss what videogame accessibility means and why it is so important, as well as share personal stories and advise game developers how they can make their products more accessible. Among those panelists was Mark Barlet, founder of the Able Gamers Charity, author of the Includification guidelines for accessible game design, and creator of the website unstoppablegamer.com, which provides game reviews and accessibility assessments for the latest PC and console titles.
Mark and his team spend a great deal of their time discussing game accessibility throughout the conference circuit each and every year. While a panel about accessibility is likely to appeal only to a small niche, reporting between 20 and 50 attendance this year; and may not be as popular as other panels that ran at the same time, they typically get enough attendance to ensure that they get invited back, indicating that making video games accessible is an issue that becomes more and more relevant as age of the average gamer increases, and as medical technology advances so that human beings are able to survive more traumatic injuries and recover from more severe diseases.
One of the major issues discussed at the panel was the set of accessibility guidelines created by Barlet, which they call Includification.
Drawing on years of experience from Mark and his team, collaborating with their own accessibility experts and staff gamers, and finally running the document by the industry's leaders in development and publishing, Includification takes four different types of disabilities (mobility, auditory, visual, and cognitive), and sets three tiers of standards for each of them, outlining specifically the features necessary for a product to be accessible to them. For example, I specifically have a mobility disability brought on by a 12-year-old spinal cord injury. At best, I play video games with one hand, but most of the time I play hands-free, requiring the highest level of accessibility features, according to Includification: adapted input devices (which I have), and games that allow me to control the flow of time (which I generally prefer).
That said, it is important to realize that no two disabilities are alike, so simply coming up with a comprehensive set of standards like this is pretty incredible.
Speaking with AbleGamers COO Steve Spohn about the challenges of catering to such a diverse community, he said that "the range of motor impairments and the swath of people with various mobility challenges is so vast that doing a one-size-fits-all list is nearly impossible." Even still, using the set of standards they created as a guide, they have created resources for developers, disabled gamers, and even the people who care for them. And at this panel at PAX Prime 2015, they unveiled their latest project: The AbleGamers Fellowship: a scholarship program for disabled video game developers to create accessible games for disabled players.
And it's clear that their work is having an impact.
Even though disabled gamers are still in this day and age considered a niche audience, leading to companies charging "exorbitant prices… that are simply trying to prey on a vulnerable audience that just wants to improve their quality of life," according to Spohn. In most cases, such equipment is priced at a level affordable by institutions like medical rehabilitation centers as opposed to the average gamer. Unfortunately, companies that actually could contribute to the problem, such as Razer, for example, "do not realize there is a market for these types of devices… [leading to] ridiculous prices and in some case product shortages."
It therefore behooves the entire disabled gaming community to demonstrate the existence of a viable market in which people would spend (enough) money, if companies are expected to cater to that audience. In speaking of my previous example of Razer, they released a line of left-handed mice two years ago "because of the constant request that were coming in from both people being relayed through AbleGamers as well as the general public." Which makes sense, because companies exist to make money, not necessarily to undertake philosophical endeavors. Companies aren't people, they are a collection of interests based on money, demand, and profit margins, and if the disabled community expects to get anywhere with them, they must essentially play their game.
In regards to the future of improving access of all players to all games, Spohn does have some words of encouragement that are important to bear in mind.
"It's important to not feel ignored but simply underestimated, and that's something we can change. Slowly but surely we are beginning to show companies in the hardware and software sides of the industry that there are millions of gamers with disabilities, that they can be marketed to, and in fact should be." And if one were to take the time to go down the rabbit hole of all of the independent contractors who work in accessibility on twitter or Facebook, they would see that changes are really beginning to happen, especially compared to what video games were like a decade ago. As accessibility options from colorblind settings to remappable controls are being included in more and more games, one can see that "the principles of Includification are working, but there's more work to do. And you can rest assured that AbleGamers will not stop, so everyone can game."
Mark Barlet was joined on the panel by Linda Carlson of Trion Games (Defiance, Archeage), who provided the invaluable perspective of a nondisabled player/developer which is necessary to keeping the discussion between the disabled and the able-bodied, and the gamers and developers ongoing and relevant. Also in attendance was game artist Victoria King and head of communications for Mortiga, Inc, Troy Hewitt.