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Accessibility in Gaming: “We All Win”

Charting the evolution of gaming accessibility, from its origins to a future of enhanced play

The Evolution of Accessibility in Gaming

With over 3 billion gamers globally, most of us have participated in the immersive world of video games. Whether it is navigating through a single-player RPG or via competitive battle royale formats, gaming offers a space to compete, meet with friends, explore virtual worlds, and much more. But for some, the path to explore these worlds has been hard to access due to physical disabilities (whether from birth, a result of a disease, or an unfortunate accident/event in life). However, the gaming industry has made great strides in the past few years to make gaming as accessible and possible for almost everyone despite their physical limitations.

This week, we will dive into the history of physical accessibility in the gaming industry, its transformation, and where we stand today.

What Does It Mean To Be Accessible in Gaming?

Accessibility in gaming entails designing features that allow individuals with physical disabilities to enjoy gaming as fully as possible. Unlike other traditional tech and media, video games require interactive engagement (vs passive), requiring considerations like customizable controls and dynamic gameplay mechanics. By implementing this type of customization (both in hardware and software), game developers and game hardware manufacturers can expand their addressable audience and further increase revenue (a win-win).

Here are a few examples of disabilities and corresponding strategies for enhancing accessibility within gaming.

  • Blindness: Integrating sound and vibration cues, text-to-speech technology, distinct audio cues for game elements, audio descriptions for cutscenes, and spoken translations for visual communication.
  • Low Vision: Increasing visual cues' size, enhancing contrast, using clearer fonts, providing options to remove visual clutter, and accommodating players with eye strain or light sensitivity through adjustments such as decreasing contrast, reducing brightness, inverting colors, or automatically activating a "Low Vision Mode."
  • Players Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Translating audio cues into visual formats like subtitles and vibrations, offering customizable subtitles with options for font size, contrast, color, and typeface, indicating speakers and captioning non-dialogue sounds, providing visual indicators for audio cues and alternative indicators for sound-reliant mechanics such as stealth missions, and offering individual volume adjustments and an "enhanced speech" mode.
  • Low Mobility or Dexterity: Implementing customizable controls, supporting various input devices, providing options to disable challenging mechanics, adjusting controller settings like sensitivity and vibration strength, and considering dynamic difficulty adjustment or offering a range of difficulty settings accessible throughout the game to cater to diverse player abilities.
  • Cognitive Disabilities: Ensure vital information is always accessible, provide replay options for tutorials and dialogue, offer navigational aids like glowing paths, highlight interactable objects, address text comprehension challenges with pausing options and voiceover, and reduce noise through customizable settings.
  • Seizure Disorders and Motion Sickness: Avoiding triggers like rapidly flashing lights and minimizing camera effects that can induce symptoms. Including warnings, options to disable triggers, and providing visual anchors can enhance accessibility and ensure player comfort.
  • Color Blindness: Additional indicators such as symbols alongside colors for vital information, allow players to customize colors for key elements like team identification, and implement a "Colorblind Mode" featuring various color filters tailored to different types of colorblindness or enabling players to adjust colors themselves. Currently, the industry does a fairly good job of offering color-blind modes.

The History of Accessibility Within Gaming

The evolution of accessibility in gaming has been a journey spanning several decades, marked by significant milestones and technological advancements. In the 1950s, Bertie the Brain introduced different difficulty levels in arcade gaming, allowing gamers of all skill levels to be able to play (G2A).

Unfortunately, accessibility in gaming did not see a revolutionary change like this until nearly three decades later. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, text-based adventure games began incorporating adjustable text size and color options, such as those found in Zork, Planetfall, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (ReciteMe).

The first controls-related innovation was introduced in 1987 by Nintendo - the NES Hands-Free controller. This was the first controller built specifically for disabled gamers, specifically those who were not able to hold a game controller (G2A). However, it was a difficult device to order. It was only available for purchase by calling in to place an order directly with Nintendo - limiting customers to those with an existing interest in video games (while having a condition that necessitated this device) and the proactiveness to contact Nintendo to order it.

The 1990s saw improvements in console accessibility with the introduction of button remapping and customization in games like Mortal Kombat 2, Street Fighter 2 Turbo, and Doom. This allowed gamers with varying degrees of hand mobility and strength to choose what button configuration is the most comfortable for them.

As gaming entered the early 2000s, developers expanded accessibility features, including more options for adjustable difficulty levels and closed captions in popular titles like The Sims, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Madden NFL 2004, appealing to a broader audience and bridging the gap in content for those with hearing disabilities.

More recently, there has been a heightened focus on accessibility, with projects like the Xbox Adaptive Controller, released in 2018 (PBS), and the PlayStation Access Controller (shown above) released last year (CBC). Both offer customizable options and compatibility with various assistive technologies. These advancements (adaptive hardware, audio/visual adjustments, difficulty controls, etc) reflect a growing commitment from the gaming industry to making games as accessible as possible to anyone.

Recent Innovation: Microsoft and “The Last of Us Part II”

Microsoft made waves in 2019 with their Super Bowl commercial, “We All Win”, which displays the Xbox “Adaptive Controller” that came out later that year and was designed for gamers with disabilities (Cnet). The Microsoft commercial captured the hearts of viewers, spanning far beyond just gamers. Hearing firsthand one of the parents in the commercial say, “One of your greatest fears as a parent; how will the other kids view Owen? Well, he isn’t different when he plays”.

As human beings, we all want a sense of belonging and community. That is something that those without disabilities can find easily in games and is something that everyone deserves to have despite the physical disabilities they may have.

In 2020, "The Last of Us Part II'' exemplified this commitment to accessibility, offering a wealth of options from the outset to ensure that players of all abilities could enjoy the experience. With over 60 accessibility options covering eight main disability categories — strength, dexterity, vision, hearing, cognitive, emotional, and speech-based disabilities (CBC) — the game aims to cater to a diverse range of players' needs. We expect more games to follow this same path.

By Bringing in More Gamers, We All Win

In most countries 10-20% of the population considers themselves to be disabled to some degree and 66% of gamers with an impairment or condition say they face barriers or issues related to gaming.

By enabling these games and promoting these forms of access, companies grow the market of gamers who can play and enjoy their products. In other words, intentionally designing for accessibility is not only a benefit to society but also positive for revenue growth.

There is a clear financial incentive for companies to do this. According to a study by Accenture, companies that prioritize digital inclusion (in which video gaming is front and center) are twice as likely to have higher shareholder returns, achieve 28% higher revenue, and see a 30% better performance in economic profit margins.

This has implications on the gaming market as well. Today, ~50% of disabled gamers say that more information on the accessibility of a game has influenced (positive if they have it, negative if they do not) their decision to buy it (Scope). Even after purchasing a game, there is additional value left on the table by games that do not engage here. These gamers have a clear willingness to pay for add-ons, hardware, and subscriptions as well as engage in gaming-related livestreams and esports tournaments. See below:

Looking Ahead: A More Accessible Future

As we reflect on the evolution of accessibility in gaming, it is clear that we have come a long way. Yet, there is still a lot of work ahead to further bridge this gap.

To continue to address this challenge, developers and publishers must prioritize development and active communication about including accessibility features in their games. While some have embraced this approach wholeheartedly, others have faced criticism for their lack of communication in this regard. However, involving disabled players in the game development process (or industry best practices) and communicating their feedback to the game creators will help our industry meet the diverse (and specialized) needs of all players (Medium).

Media outlets also need to provide more comprehensive coverage of accessibility in game reviews and news reporting. By improving accessibility communication, we not only build trust and awareness but also create a healthier gaming environment for all players. Together, our industry should strive to make gaming increasingly accessible to everyone, regardless of ability, so that as many people as possible can explore virtual worlds and create unforgettable experiences.

Takeaway: The evolution of accessibility in gaming has recently improved, creating a more inclusive space for all players. From pioneering customizable physical controllers to digital innovations in-game like adaptive difficulty levels and settings for sensory impairments; gaming is making great strides in lowering the barriers to those with varying abilities (physical, vision, hearing, speech, cognitive, and more). Microsoft's impactful "We All Win'' campaign (watch the 2 min video) exemplifies the universal desire for accessibility in gaming, showcasing the transformative power of a controller.

While challenges persist, the industry's progress in this regard lies in innovative technologies that standardize game development and experiences across all audiences, not just those without disabilities. Our vision is clear: we anticipate a future where gaming transcends limitations, offering immersive experiences to anyone and everyone. We look forward to seeing more game companies innovating across both software and hardware in this space, as that will expand gaming to the widest possible audience.

Accessibility in Gaming: “We All Win”

Charting the evolution of gaming accessibility, from its origins to a future of enhanced play

Welcome to Game Changers, the podcast that takes you beyond the games and into the heart of the gaming industry's future. Brought to you by Konvoy, a Denver-based venture capital firm investing in the platforms and technologies at the frontier of gaming. This podcast is your backstage pass to the pioneers, innovators, and visionaries who are redefining how we play and experience these virtual worlds.

In each episode, your hosts—Josh Chapman, Jason Chapman, and Jackson Vaughan, the founders of Konvoy — invite you to join them for candid and open conversations with the industry's most influential leaders. These guests are the “Game Changers”, the masterminds behind the scenes who've built remarkable enterprises and continue to push the boundaries of what's possible for our industry.

Whether you're a gamer, a tech enthusiast, or a startup aficionado, the Game Changers podcast offers valuable insights, inspiring stories, and exclusive access to the minds shaping the future of the gaming industry. Join us as we explore who these Game Changers are, what they've built, and what they're doing now.

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