Meet the people pushing to make video games more accessible to those with — and without — disabilities.
When Mortal Kombat hit arcades in 1992, Carlos Vasquez was right there with all the other kids besotted by its edgy take on fighting games. He'd put his quarters in and play for hours, just for love of the game and the competitive environment around it.
One entry after another, he stuck with the franchise — a dedicated fan like any other. But then his vision started to fade, and eventually closed-angle glaucoma rendered Vasquez completely blind. He had to give up soccer — one of his great passions — and, it seemed, maybe video games too. "But as I got used to it more and more," he says, "I decided to go back and start paying attention more to my hearing and kind of realizing, 'Hey, this game actually emphasizes every single hit as you play!'" Mortal Kombat's stereo sound effects may have been intended to enhance the visual experience, but for Vasquez they meant an opportunity to keep playing his favorite game entirely by ear.
And he didn't play only in his own home, either; Vasquez reached the finals in his pool at international fighting game tournament Evo last year, and he was instrumental in developer NetherRealm Studios patching an accessibility mode into its fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us earlier this year.
He's part of a growing group of gamers with disabilities who are speaking out against accessibility issues in games and who run the whole gamut from big-budget AAA fare to tiny one-person indie productions. They're backed by charities, such as AbleGamers and SpecialEffect, plus dozens of passionate individuals doing their best to make the hobby more inclusive to everyone — disabled or not.
There are signs that more developers are listening, too. Infinity Ward included a colorblind option and a special "N0M4D" control layout for disabled players in the latest Call of Duty. Indie survival adventure The Last Door has a dyslexia font and closed captions. The recently released MMO WildStar has, among other accessibility features, support for all three main types of colorblindness. Games are finally opening up to audiences that previously couldn't enjoy them, and everyone's gaining from the trend.
Sight or sound
For Vasquez, there's nothing quite like the feeling of being taken seriously. "I don't want my blindness to be just another gimmick," he says. "Because like I told all the competitors [at Evo], if you're playing against me, don't play at your worst or hold back just because I'm blind. Play at your best; I don't care if I get owned, if I get beat 100 percent. But the fact that you take me seriously is the best feeling ever, because you're letting me know that I could be a threat if allowed."
And he doesn't want to be held up as an inspiration for playing the game. He's just a fan who happens to be blind. "I'm playing the game simply for the same reasons these other players are doing it. Because they love the franchise, they love the characters [or] maybe they love the story and now they love the competition."
It was this passion that first thrust Vasquez into the spotlight. He drew attention with the fan community on Mortal Kombat Online in July 2012 for a series of videos and forum posts about how he plays and learns the ins and outs of Mortal Kombat 9. He was later sponsored to attend Evo 2014 by the former Acclaim Entertainment developer James Fink — who contributed to the Mortal Kombat Super Nintendo port and currently hosts a weekly podcast about fighting games.
Evo is like the World Cup of fighting games. It's where the best players gather to compete. So for Vasquez to win his first two matches without dropping a round (each match is best two rounds out of three) was a huge deal, even though he succumbed to top talent in the following two matches. The feat was covered on both fighting game community forums and across many broader-focused gaming blogs and news sites, and it got the attention of current Mortal Kombat developers NetherRealm Studios — who interviewed Vasquez and promised to improve Injustice's accessibility to blind players.
Unlike the influential blind blogger, Brandon Cole, who embraced his unintentional position as a leader within the blind gaming community with aplomb — at least, where it concerned serving as a guide for other blind gamers and as a speaker on blind accessibility issues. But Vasquez isn't entirely comfortable with being a spokesperson for blind gamers. He's learning, and he hopes the community is too. "I think as a blind community we need to learn how to be less aggressive and approach developers in a more professional manner — a more business[like] manner," he says. "But I am learning as I go because I have never been a public figure like people are portraying me now."
"Accessibility for the blind can be a lot less complex than people initially assume."
He's paying close attention to how Cole conducts himself, especially as the outspoken blogger grows in profile. Cole spoke on a panel about accessibility at the Game Developers Conference in March, then received a standing ovation for his acceptance speech of his ambassador award at the Game Audio Network Guild awards that week. And as an extra highlight of the trip, Cole met with many developers. "[I made them] realize that accessibility for the blind can be a lot less complex than people initially assume," Cole says.
Vasquez and Cole aren't the only blind gamers politely pushing developers for added accessibility features. Polish drummer and sound designer Tomasz Tworek considers Skullgirls one of the best 2-D fighting games of all time, but he (and the game's many other blind players) initially had issues reading menus, tutorials and options text. "I jumped on the official IRC channel," he says, "where I met a lot of fantastic people who helped me."
One of those people was Mike Zaimont, the project lead, who spent around a day editing the PC version's code to work with text-to-speech programs like ClipTrap and ClipReader. He's still improving the blind experience with added features like voice-overs that announce the number of combo hits in the training room and sound effects that indicate you or your opponent's health is getting low. "I'm pretty surprised other PC developers haven't done this," Zaimont told fighting game site Shoryuken in January. "It takes very little time, and if more people can potentially enjoy your game, there’s really no reason not to do it."
Statements like these are exactly what accessibility expert and consultant Ian Hamilton hopes will become more common. Not only are there solid business and moral cases for accessibility, he argues, but it's also surprisingly easy to integrate such features — especially if they're taken into account early on in a project.
Hamilton travels the world advocating for and consulting on game accessibility. He speaks at conferences and works with developers to ensure that their games can be played by as many people as possible. He sits on a panel of judges for the Accessible Game Design Contest and he co-organized the Accessibility Jam. He also helped pick The Voxel Agents' Puzzle Retreat as winner of the inaugural Accessibility Award in the Australian Game Developer Awards last year. But a decade ago, Hamilton thought accessibility was all hogwash.
"I started out with no interest at all — negative even — with the same misconceptions that so many people have," he says. "Despite having close family with disabilities, I assumed that accessibility is a wasted effort, lots of time-consuming, difficult work just to water down your idea to a lowest common denominator for a tiny minority who wouldn't even want to play games anyway."
Hamilton's view — and to some extent also his life — changed in an instant roughly eight years ago. Then a designer at the BBC, he saw playtest footage of preschool games that had been adapted for a single button. "This meant that external hardware such as a button on a wheelchair headrest, a sip-puff tube or a blink detector could be hooked up to it," he says. "Exactly the same technology that Stephen Hawking uses. So what I was seeing was video footage of very young, profoundly disabled children who not too long ago would just have been lying there being cared for, now independently laughing, playing, doing the same things as their classmates.
"Despite having close family with disabilities, I assumed that accessibility is a wasted effort."
"The lives they would lead would be so different to even just one generation [before], all thanks to some relatively small advances in technology."
Hamilton pushed to be more involved in projects for profoundly disabled people, and he looked to the more mature field of web accessibility for principles of openness and best practice that could be applied in game design. "I soon discovered that the vast majority — particularly the things that benefit the largest numbers of people — are easy," he says. "If thought about early enough, they are cheap, and through analytics and metrics I saw that they were used by large numbers of people, disabled and otherwise."
He gradually moved further into the BBC's accessibility division while continuing to work on its children's games and websites, but he was frustrated at seeing developers consistently making trivial decisions over things like color and typography that excluded large swathes of players. Hamilton left the BBC in August 2011 with the intention of focusing on games accessibility as a career. He planned to fix these problems full time. Becoming an accessibility specialist is a standard career path in many other industries, he says, such as web, tourism, construction and town planning.
"I somewhat naively assumed that it would be the same in gaming," Hamilton says. "So I [asked around] about it, about which other companies I could move to and carry on doing the same kind of role." Nobody was aware of any such positions.
The natural move, then, was to begin a mission to make accessibility a core tenet of design in the wider games industry. He got together with a group of other accessibility specialists, academics and developers, and they produced the Game Accessibility Guidelines — an online resource for developers to reference in designing games to be accessible to the widest possible audience. It explains the basics of how and why a game should have remappable controls, skippable timing-based sequences, easy-to-read text and captions, high-contrast visuals and sensitivity options on movement and looking plus loads more — all broken down into basic, intermediate and advanced guidelines to allow for simpler prioritization.
The Game Accessibility Guidelines earned the Federal Communications Commission's Award for Advancement in Accessibility in June 2014, largely due to its equal emphasis on learning and developmental disabilities with the more commonly recognized motor, vision, hearing and speech disabilities. "Having the importance of accessibility in gaming recognized by a big government body like that is pretty big," Hamilton says. "[It's] a nice sign that the wider world outside gaming is starting to take notice of the life-changing potential that games can have."
Hamilton and company's Game Accessibility Guidelines isn't the only accessibility resource in town. The AbleGamers Foundation released the first version of its 50-page Includification document in September 2012 — approximately the same time as the Game Accessibility Guidelines went live. It's a very similar entity, too, with guidelines tiered from basic through advanced and examples (both written and illustrated) littered throughout of games that exemplify each concept.
It was the culmination of eight years of lessons and insights for the charity and its cast of expert volunteers — and a sign of their growing presence in the industry. It was also just one small part of AbleGamers' strategy to reach developers and players. Over the years, the charity has hosted scores of accessibility arcades, made inside contacts at major developers and publishers and attended conferences and events such as the Penny Arcade Expo.
At PAX East four or five years ago, AbleGamers even made inroads at the notoriously insular Grand Theft Auto creator, Rockstar Games. "[AbleGamers co-founder Mark Barlet and I] were at their booth," says Chief Operations Officer Steve Spohn, "and an individual who worked there had taken a pamphlet that we had drawn up to show developers to introduce what we were doing and how we could help."
"The dude from Rockstar took the paper, said 'Thank you,' didn't look at me because I'm a wheelchair user — completely ignored that I existed — grabbed the paper, said 'Sure I'll look at it later,' and then turned around, crumpled it up, threw it in the trashcan and walked away."
The pair immediately tweeted about the incident, receiving hundreds of retweets, and that very night executives from Rockstar and parent company Take-Two Interactive were calling to ask what had happened. "From there we got invited out to Rockstar's headquarters, which — you know, Rockstar doesn't invite anybody out to their headquarters," Spohn says. "[We] got to give some lessons on accessibility. Got to help them design the accessibility of L.A. Noire and really help them get on track for Max Payne 3. We sort of helped them out and they turned around and helped us out with PAX East booth space."
This is just one of the many cases when AbleGamers got an inside track at major game companies — although normally it does so more organically with people at lower levels taking an interest in the cause and then championing it from the inside.
The problem, though, is that many of these inside leads shun attention. Spohn tells of one programmer at a AAA developer who went above and beyond the call of command to actually take apart code from a released game to identify why Spohn could not set up the usual mouse and gameplay hacks that disabled players use.
"That dev would never speak to me again if I was to give you his name because he wanted nothing to do with press," Spohn says. "Nothing to do with being acknowledged for being a good guy. He just did that because doing that for me enabled me to write it down and share it with other people, and I think it sucks. I think it's horrible that the publishers are still that low on accessibility that the devs are fearful that if they spend an extra — it took the guy probably 20 minutes to answer my question, but it probably enabled 1,000 people to play that game because I was then able to tweet about how to do it."
"I think if more devs were willing to talk and say it's OK to support accessibility, our cause would advance by 10 years," Spohn says.
Some developers do talk, though, such as Johnny Richardson, who volunteers for AbleGamers as director of industry outreach and works by day as lead user interface engineer at Game of Thrones: Ascent developer Disruptor Beam. In his case, supporting accessibility is easy. Game of Thrones: Ascent is a text-based asynchronous social game. By very nature of the format, he says, "You can go at your own pace, and anyone who plays in the browser can utilize any mode of screen readers and things like that."
Richardson's interest in accessibility stems directly from his experience with cerebral palsy. "I've been gaming my whole life, but I started to notice as I got older that some actions a game would request from me were just difficult," he says. "So I would have to get a friend or family member to assist me in some cases."
Then God of War came out. "I discovered that I couldn't get past a lot of the button mashing, and I thought to myself, 'There's got to be a way around this — why is there no way for me to disable this?'" He looked around for organizations that could help and found AbleGamers, and in 2008 he met Mark Barlet and started to get involved as a speaker and panellist on developing accessible games. Now a developer himself, Richardson is pleased that he can focus some energy on trying to remedy the kinds of problems he faced with God of War.
Many people, through accident, injury or some other misfortune, come into disability later in life. Game accessibility is vital to them, says former International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group chairperson Tara Voelker, because it helps them hang onto some important element of who they are. She gives an example of a father and son she met at an accessibility booth at the Orlando Science Center's Otronicon in 2011.
"The son, who was probably a preteen, ran over to check out a demo while his father talked about the controllers with me," Voelker says. "When I got to the one-handed controller, he became very interested and started talking with his hands, which had been in his pockets during the entire conversation up until this point. He had lost all of the fingers off one hand in some sort of work accident and kept his hand covered because of that.
"As I told him where to order the controller, he started to cry. He and his son had always played video games together. That was their thing. But after losing his fingers, he assumed he could never play anymore because he had issues holding the controller and using the trigger buttons. For this man, he had thought he lost something that he actually still had."
Accessibility matters. Simply offering remappable controls could have made all the difference for this man, without him necessarily even needing to buy (and become aware of the existence of) an expensive third-party custom controller. It enables returning war veterans with life-altering injuries to hang on to at least one thing they love. It allows deaf or blind — or perhaps even deaf and blind — people to enjoy mainstream console games without assistance.
For some, like Robert Kingett, who works as a journalist, has cerebral palsy and partial blindness and speaks with a stutter, it's a way to reinforce a sense of self-worth. Kingett was 10 years old when his grandfather, who had raised him since birth, died from cirrhosis of the liver. Left in the care of his abusive, alcoholic mother, he found solace, hope and love in video games. "I used video games to prove that all things were mentally possible even when she was telling me otherwise," he says.
He stretched his problem-solving skills in Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee and learned of actions having consequences in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Games taught Kingett the power of his mind, yet somewhat ironically they became harder for him to play as he got older.
"Back in some of the older engines, games had bright environments," he says. "Things didn't blend in so much." In BloodRayne, for example, the high-contrast visuals make it easy for Kingett to distinguish a door from a wall. "In a newer game like, say, Outlast, everything looks so lifelike that a door that's the same color as the wall will almost blend in with the wall — except for a minuscule difference such as the handle or something."
Kingett can barely handle Steam, too. The digital distribution platform commands near total control of PC gaming, and many somewhat accessible games are available through the service, yet the Steam client has woeful support for visually impaired people. "My screen reader doesn't read anything after Steam loads up," he told IGN in May. Steam also overrides his high-contrast, text-magnified system settings, which leaves him with a headache.
Kingett dedicates much of his energy to raising awareness about issues such as these. He fronts the accessible Netflix project, which campaigns for blind accessibility on the popular media streaming service, and he writes and speaks about the accessibility of popular games. He's determined to give disabled gamers a voice in mainstream media.
"Mainstream video game reviewers are not talking about it at all in any big website or magazine, and I want to have that become a reality where we will see 'accessibility review' on sites like IGN and GameSpot or in magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly," Kingett says. "I want to have editors of future gaming magazines, and existing ones, actually feature accessibility reviews."
Specialist sites do cover the topic. AbleGamers, DAGERS and AppleVis, among others, all review games specifically according to their accessibility. But Kingett wants to see the big games sites hire disabled writers to write either standalone accessibility reviews or special sections within the main reviews that cater to accessibility.
It's about information, he says — disabled people read websites, and sometimes non-disabled people want to buy games for, say, their deaf friend — and diversity. More voices offering more varied points of view. And it's not enough, he argues, to simply have non-disabled critics just emulate a disability. "Disabled people have a hard skill set by default, and that's problem-solving. We have to problem-solve on a daily basis from shopping to, [in] some cases, eating," he says. "We're used to seeing many solutions to a problem all the time instead of a few solutions sometimes."
UK charity SpecialEffect specializes in solving problems. Staff members go into people's homes — people with conditions like meningitis and muscular dystrophy or who sustained injuries in combat — and set them up with custom control rigs (unassuming boxes and oversized buttons and the like, connected to special mounts).
These gadgets go beyond the one-handed controller of Voelker's chance encounter. They allow play of games as complicated as Grand Theft Auto 5 and FIFA 14 via tapping a foot or resting a chin against a joystick or blowing and sucking on a tube — perhaps even all of these for the same person. They can even do eye tracking.
"Everyone’s physical abilities are slightly different — some people we see might have finger movement but no strength to grip a controller," communications officer Mark Saville recently told magazine Game Informer. "Others might have limited abilities to move their thumbs."
"Everyone’s physical abilities are slightly different."
Legal hurdles related to liability for accidents and potential lawsuits forbid AbleGamers from doing the same in the United States. But in December the charity announced a grant program to provide equipment to those in need, and now it's in full swing on the Driving Home Accessibility Initiative — which will, if funded successfully, enable the AbleGamers team to travel around the country helping disabled gamers from a bus — which skirts the prior legal issues by allowing them to visit people without entering their homes.
"We needed a way to be able to reach out to the people that know us from facilities, from long-term living centers, from VA [Veterans Affairs] hospitals, from children's hospitals and even those who are homebound," Spohn explains. "They email us saying things like 'I love what you do, I'm a quadriplegic. I'm someone whose sister, mother, brother, aunt, uncle was in this accident and we can't come to your show [at PAX or Comic-Con or any of the AbleGamers laboratories].'
"It was really getting frustrating for us, because these are the ones that we really wanted to help when we started AbleGamers 10 years ago. And we needed a way to be able to reach them. And we thought, well why not just take all the equipment that we have in the laboratory and get companies to fund putting it all in a bus?"
Tara Voelker has experience reaching a different group of people. She now has less time to help AbleGamers or the IGDA Game Accessibility SIG because of the demands of her role in AAA development, but she has, over the years, given numerous talks at game development schools. She's taught students to think about accessibility from the very beginning of their game projects.
"It becomes part of their game development habits," she says. "If they’re graded on being colorblind-friendly for every project they have, they’ll continue to think about it going forward. Today's students are forming the foundation of solid accessibility practices for tomorrow's developers."
"If they're graded on being colorblind-friendly for every project they have, they’ll continue to think about it going forward."
It was as a student that Voelker grew interested in accessibility. In her freshman year of college, Voelker enrolled in a program called Women in Math, Science and Engineering taught by then-IGDA Game Accessibility SIG chairperson Michelle Hinn. "Michelle taught a small, fun class on video games," Voelker says. "Being a gamer, I was very interested and she taught me about this whole other world of people who wanted to play but needed help.
"I related to the things I was hearing personally. My favorite activities when I was a kid were dancing, riding my bike and video games. One day walking home from school I was hit by a car and sustained several injuries, including a broken hip that left me unable to walk while recovering. Just like that, two of my favorite three things were gone. Gaming was all I had while I recovered."
Not everyone recovers from such accidents, however. And some only ever had video games to begin with. Through this reflection, Voelker grew passionate about the idea of helping everyone play video games. And that, in time, led to her becoming an expert in accessibility.
She believes that the games industry doesn't place enough attention on these issues. "In a lot of cases, accessibility isn’t considered unless someone on the dev team was either personally affected by — or has a close family member or friend who is affected by — a disability that could impact the way they play a video game," she says. "It’s not that studios are purposely ignoring gamers with disabilities; they just don’t know any better."
Awareness is increasing, though, albeit more slowly than Voelker, Spohn and the rest of the accessibility advocates would like. "Over the years we’ve seen improvement on areas like subtitles and colorblindness, with even a handful of studios doing remappable controls," Voelker says. "I’m also hearing more frequently about gamers with disabilities being part of playtesting or their feedback being reviewed and addressed in a patch."
Notable examples include Valve bringing hearing-impaired players in to help test its games, Castle Crashers developer The Behemoth going out of its way to include disabled players of all stripes in playtests, the aforementioned cases of Skullgirls, Injustice and Mortal Kombat accessibility modes, and Infinity Ward patching a custom control configuration into Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007 after a petition from quadriplegic pro gamer Randy "N0M4D" Fitzgerald — whose disability forces him to play with only lips and chin on a modified controller. (Infinity Ward also pledged support to the cause via Twitter on Global Accessibility Awareness Day in May.)
But even as awareness increases, further accessibility inroads are still proving hard to come by. The reason? Business. Hamilton cites statistics that 20 percent of gamers have some form of disability — not including the eight percent of men who are colorblind or the 14 percent of adults who have a low reading age, and also not including the many temporary impairments, such as broken arms, sleeping babies or bumpy public transport, that most people face at one point or another. Yet translating that into a concrete argument for higher sales has proven difficult — especially with the big companies that experiment with one or two accessibility features unwilling to share data.
"It's very, very hard to tell a company whether or not they sold more copies because of accessibility additives," says Spohn. "More than likely they sold them to the same people that would have returned them when they couldn't play them. But they didn't return them because the accessibility option was there."
The problem doesn't end there. Disabled people tend to be reclusive, Spohn says, and they resist the kind of data gathering required: "A lot of people in the disability community do not want to be part of studies or fields or tested. Many of them have been guinea pigs all their life [and] the last thing in the world they want to do is be part of more studies."
And Spohn's even had multiple big-name developers — people like BioWare's Paul Barnett, who sits on the AbleGamers steering committee — admit that even assurances of a 1 percent increase in sales would provide enough of a push to make accessibility a top priority. "That's all they wanted," Spohn says, "a 1 percent markup. And we can't prove that. Which sucks."
Any numbers that do emerge tend to come by way of indies who make the leap into accessibility and who are less inclined to be concerned with the competitive implications of sharing data. Javier Mairena, co-founder and former developer at The Game Kitchen, made it a point to ensure that the indie team's episodic horror adventure The Last Door would be accessible to a broad audience.
It's a text-heavy game, he explains, "so we focused on accessibility problems that could emerge from that — such as people with reading problems." They made text boxes roll over only after player input and added an optional dyslexia font, plus closed captions to help deaf people complete puzzles with audio elements.
They shared their data publicly on The Last Door forums: 12.33 percent of players turned on closed captions and 13.78 percent used the dyslexia font. "Does that mean that 12% of the players were deaf and 13% were dyslexic?" Mairena says. "No. Many deaf and dyslexic players thanked us a lot on forums [for] those options, but the reality is that [the] options were also used by other people for various reasons. They were people that played without speakers or headphones, for example, or who were stuck in some puzzles and the closed captions helped them." Some may have simply disliked the pixelated standard font.
"You are also making a better product in which people can feel more comfortable."
Accessibility features don't just benefit disabled people. "You are also making a better product in which people can feel more comfortable because it has a better design and [more] options," he explains. Or as Hamilton says, "Something that's a showstopping barrier for someone with an impairment is often still an annoyance for everyone else, so even basic things like offering a choice of controls or backing up color with iconography are just good general game design practice." And in the long run we'll probably all need to fall back on at least one such feature. "The average age of players is increasing," Mairena says.
"In 30 years there will be a lot of gamers who still want to play, but they could not play if games are not accessible because they will have mobility, auditive, visual or cognitive problems."
Disabled people tend to be "othered" in public discourse. Much to their eternal frustration, they get cited as inspirations simply for living their lives as any other person would do. Take, for instance, Carlos Vasquez being called an inspiration simply because he continued playing Mortal Kombat after he lost his sight. In the games world, at least, these problems are hardly unique.
Accessibility advocates — whether disabled, like Spohn, Vasquez and Richardson, or not, like Voelker and Hamilton — may well be addressing a problem much bigger than whether a person with a disability can play a video game. Accessibility benefits everyone. It encourages creativity on the parts of designers. Take, for example, the iOS audio-only survival horror game, Papa Sangre. This game was created with the intention of being accessible for blind players, and it ended up being widely applauded for its innovative design, or the humble computer keyboard, which Hamilton points out can be traced back to a 19th-century invention aimed at allowing a blind woman to write letters.
Accessibility also opens games up to people who don't have fast reflexes, interminable patience or a lifetime of experience with button-covered joysticks, or who are merely getting old. And as Richardson argues, if for whatever reason somebody has trouble with a quick-time event or some other routine roadblock, without accessibility controls "you've pretty much just ended the game for them."