Game Accessibility Guidelines project aims to help developers understand and design for a wider audience

The Game Accessibility Guidelines project released a list of steps developers and publishers can take during the design process in order to accommodate gamers with disabilities in their final product, with its goal being to help developers understand the tweaks needed to prevent games from unnecessarily excluding potential players.

Earlier this month, the Game Accessibility Guidelines project released a categorized list of steps developers and publishers can take in order to accommodate gamers with disabilities when designing their games. The goal of the project is to help them understand the tweaks needed to prevent games from unnecessarily excluding potential players, and how to make those tweaks.

"For some people, this can mean the difference between being able to play at all," designer and accessibility consultant Ian Hamilton told Polygon. "[The project] started out as just a personal reference going back a few years, but after repeated requests from developers for a simple, clear but extensive resource we gathered a suitable group together to evolve them further into just that."

The list divides disabilities into three distinct categories — Basic, Medium, and Advanced — based on the physical type and severity, and provides extensive accessibility solutions and explanations of how and why they can increase a developer's audience.

The categories balance three factors: the reach, or number of people who benefit from the solutions; the impact made on those people; and the cost to implement it. Solutions range everywhere from using specific sounds for certain in-game actions to pingable sonar-style audio maps and voiced GPS options.

"For some people, this can mean the difference between being able to play at all."

Lynsey Graham, designer at Blitz Games Studios, is one of the developers who worked together to produce the guidelines.

"By being aware of what to avoid from the very start of development, you can avoid issues without them ever arising in the first place," Graham said, using colorblindness as her example and naming is as one of the easier disabilities to accommodate. "You can ensure that you're not trying to convey critical information to the audience in a form that is indecipherable to ten percent of the male population without compromising the look of the game."

Graham also believes that designing for disabled gamers should be treated no differently than designing for ones who are not.

"Why cater to any gamer? Because they're people who want to play our games," said Graham. "I enjoy being able to escape into fantastical worlds, or being able to compete or cooperate with my friends, or being able to create and build my own story. I don't like the idea of anyone being excluded from enjoying those same experiences, especially when many of the measures (such as ensuring that games are color blind -friendly, control remapping and including subtitles) seem to be such basic features."

"Games are a huge part of our society now," Hamilton added. "The 'find a different hobby,' line doesn't really wash. Games mean access to culture, socializing, escapism, things that many of us take for granted, but for some people games can be the only means of accessing them."

"Why cater to any gamer? Because they're people who want to play our games."

Ready-made gaming solutions for players with disabilities are hard to find. Tweaking a game post-design is more difficult than developing with these solutions in mind at the start. While there are hacks that can be made, they still do not provide permanent solutions.

Hamilton and his team hope to see publishers take a more active role in encouraging accessibility features. While they understand it is unrealistic for every game to be made playable for every person, it is possible to avoid excluding certain groups. They encourage disabled gamers and others who support them to speak to studios and publishers directly, citing Visceral Games' button remapping of Dead Space 2 as an example of the disabled community succeeding in being heard.

The landscape is changing in regard to awareness for designing with disabilities in mind, but while the project founders believe significant progress has been made there is still a ways to go.

"I remember back in 2006 a well known game site publishing a really offensive article linked to game accessibility," said Barrie Ellis, director at OneSwitch, an assistive technology resource for developers looking for design tools. "What was far more frustrating to come up against at the time was the amount of ignorance in general around what things in gaming design were commonly disabling people, what it was that stopped people from being able to enjoy playing a game.

The landscape is changing, but there is still a ways to go.

"It wasn't that people in gaming didn't care about their fellow humans. It was frequently that they simply just didn't know anyone was finding it a struggle," he added.

"The change in attitudes in the last couple of years in particular has been incredible but there's still a way to go," Hamilton said. "But it is heading in a good direction and momentum is increasing rapidly. It is now reaching tipping point, and there will be some really wide ranging developments over the next couple of years."

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