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An image of three characters in Just Dance. The one in the middle is dancing while sitting in a wheel chair. He’s reaching and twisting his hands out to the beat of the song. Image: Ubisoft

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Video games are becoming more accessible — and games are better for it

‘Disabled gamers deserve to be a part of the gaming space’

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Over the past few years, interest in the field of video game accessibility has grown. Developers of all sizes have incorporated accessibility features into their games, whether in indie darlings like Tunic or major AAA releases like God of War Ragnorök. As for hardware, Xbox released its Adaptive Controller in 2018, and PlayStation more recently announced Project Leonardo, which will be the company’s effort to bring more accessible controllers to the PlayStation 5. The conversation about who gets included in video games, and how people play video games, has never been more relevant.

Behind these splashy releases is the work of accessibility advocates who consult and advise on these games, paving the way for games to be more disability-friendly and available to a wider audience. Sometimes companies also hire particular organizations to serve as a consultant during hardware development, and or to speak up about issues as they arise. And now an awards show is acknowledging this work when it happens, celebrating accessibility in video games.

Enter the Game Accessibility Conference Awards.

The awards were started by the Game Accessibility Conference, a conference expressly dedicated to video game developers interested in broadening their knowledge on accessibility in games. The awards — which recognize the work of those who “raise the bar for accessibility” — cover 18 categories and celebrate work in different fields like academic research, publishers leading work in accessibility, and representation.

This year, God of War Ragnarök took home awards in the AAA Excellence and Best Deaf/HoH accessibility categories. The nominations are shortlisted by a panel with the final picks chosen by a combination of a public and jury vote. To learn more about the awards, and and what the future of games accessibility looks like, Polygon interviewed Tara Voelker, co-director of the The Game Accessibility Conference Awards and senior Xbox Game Studios accessibility lead. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Polygon: How do you judge what makes a game accessible? (I imagine it’s hard and complicated.)

Tara: Judging what makes a game accessible is both simple and complicated. At its heart, a game is accessible when disabled gamers can play it. However, different gamers have different needs and different barriers that stop them from being able to play. A title may be incredibly accessible to deaf/hard of hearing gamers but completely inaccessible to those who are blind. That’s the complicated part.

To properly evaluate if something is accessible for a group of gamers, you have to understand their needs and verify those needs are met. For example, for a game to be accessible to those with colorblindness, you ensure that no key information is shown by color alone and is supported by shapes, pattern or text. Honestly, it’s still very rare for a game to truly be accessible for everyone simultaneously.

An image of Kratos fighting Freya in God of War Ragnarok. Kratos is colored with an opaque blue color and Freya is highlighted with an opaque red color. You can clearly distinguish the two apart in a rather dark and snowy setting. Image: Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

What makes an “accessible game” accessible?

An accessible game is one that has thought about the unintentional barriers that can prevent gamers with disabilities from playing, and avoids them completely or gives the option to remove them. As a game developer, you know what experience you want to give players, and the goal is to ensure people can get that experience.

For example, the challenge of a racing game is getting your car around the track as fast as possible. The challenge isn’t supposed to be struggling to hit gas on the right trigger button on a controller because you have limited dexterity in your hands. This extra challenge can be removed by allowing the player to remap the gas to the A button. No more trigger button struggles and you can get on racing.

I understand that’s a nebulous idea, and how it manifests can be different per title.

How have you seen the field of games accessibility change throughout the years?

The field of accessibility in games has grown massively over time. When I first started in gaming, there were no full-time accessibility jobs in gaming. At all. And now there are multiple at both the studio and publisher level. When accessibility first started picking up speed, developers were rewarded and praised for things like colorblind filters, but now they are expected, and you’ll get a lot of complaints when you don’t have them.

Accessibility in games is on an exponential growth path, and the surge of accessible titles we’ve seen in the last few years has been truly amazing. The most exciting thing is the idea of accessibility is shifting to earlier in the game development process. For many years, accessibility was retrofitted. A game would be built and then devs would see how many accessibility “holes” they could patch. Some of these holes were un-patchable for reasons decided way earlier in development. Now we’re avoiding creating these holes altogether.

LeChuck from Return to Monkey Island reading a map. He is dressed up like a pirate and you can see his desk lit by a candle as he writes. Image: Devolver Digital

Why is it important to celebrate the work happening in this field?

Although accessibility is growing, it’s still a largely advocate-driven space. In many situations, it can still take tons of emotional labor to ensure that accessibility is a concern during development. It is real work. We want all of those who work for accessibility to know they are appreciated and have a moment to see the impact they had for players celebrated. Not only will it lift their spirits and recharge them for the next fight, it’ll be easier to win next time when they can point and say, “Well, look at this award and recognition…”

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?

Gaming has so many benefits and is truly part of pop culture. Disabled gamers deserve to be a part of the gaming space, and our games only get better when we consider their needs in development. Accessibility features aren’t just used by those who identify as disabled, they are used by gamers everywhere.

The easiest way to ensure that a game is accessible is to just get feedback from gamers with disabilities. There are plenty out there who want to play your games and will tell you why they can’t. Talk to them!