Games Are More Visually Accessible Than Ever. It's Just the Beginning

Games Are More Visually Accessible Than Ever. It's Just the Beginning<br />
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Apr 2023

Games Are More Visually Accessible Than Ever. It's Just the Beginning

For Elliot Dodsworth, a game designer and developer, his inspiration to get into accessible video game design was his blind father.

"My father has always been interested in what I make," Dodsworth tells WIRED, "but has never been able to experience it for himself."

Driven by conversations with his father and other visually impaired players, Dodsworth created Fortune is Blind as part of his final major project at Falmouth University's Indie Game Development Masters program. The UK Games Fund described his mobile game as a "fully accessible binaural AR [augmented reality] action-adventure" which uses haptic and auditory feedback to provide accessibility for visually impaired players.

"I have always wanted to make a game my father can play," Dodsworth says. "He's an avid reader and we would often talk about his audiobooks. So, I thought that a story mixed with visually impaired accessible gameplay would interest him."

It's an impressive endeavor for an academic project. But Dodsworth is by no means the only one with an interest in accessibility. "All the students I speak to know how important accessibility is," he says.

There are an estimated 253 million visually impaired people in the world. Exact figures on how many play video games is hard to come by, but we do know that around 40 percent of the global population plays video games. That means the number of blind players is likely in the tens of millions. Now, multiple major releases provide support for those players--and that list is only growing.

As accessibility becomes more mainstream, it's encouraging that the next generation of developers appears to understand its importance, especially as indie and AAA developers alike start to implement increasingly robust accessibility systems into their games.

This growing dedication includes adding features that make games playable for blind and low-vision players without assistance. Without those features, many blind players either need help from others to play their favorite games or find themselves cut out of swaths of titles.

Jesse Anderson, known as IllegallySighted on YouTube, avoided "most Japanese RPGs and similar games because of the large amount of text in these titles--not just story and dialog, but all the menus for combat, character, and item management," he says.

Ross Minor is a YouTuber and blind accessibility consultant. "The first fully blind accessible AAA game was The Last of Us Part II, which featured accessibility options like combat assistance, sound cues, navigation assistance, and TTS [text-to-speech] that reads everything in the game," he tells WIRED. "Without those accessibility features, it is nearly impossible for me to play a game independently."

Games Are More Visually Accessible Than Ever. It's Just the Beginning
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Others lauded Naughty Dog as industry leaders in AAA blind accessibility. Aaron Espinoza, a deaf-blind advocate, points to the revolutionary use of audio description in The Last of Us Part I.

"It's the feature that blind and visually impaired players needed the most to enjoy the visual aspects of a game like their sighted peers," he says.

Brandon Cole, an accessibility consultant and advocate, focuses on navigation. He tells us that "the navigational assist in The Last of Us Part II and Part I has already proven to be a sort of guideline for navigation in other games."

One of those games is God of War Ragnarok. It employs a smart navigation tool that allows a "button press to turn the character toward the objective," Mila Pavlin, design director UX at Monolith (and former UX lead on God of War) tells WIRED. This lets blind players track both main and side quests, providing a "large amount of autonomy in the game."

It's something Brandon finds especially helpful, though he notes God of War Ragnarok's text-to-speech function somewhat undoes the gains of its navigation.

"It does not narrate character, inventory, map, and shop screens, which is just ... painful," Brandon said before adding: "If something a sighted person can read is not read to us, that thing is not accessible. Simple as that."

Despite its issues, however, God of War Ragnarok's accessibility represents a major step forward from 2018's God of War. "The agency that was added is miles ahead of where we were then," Mila says.

In the realm of sound, another vital aspect of blind and visually impaired accessibility, indie game 1428: Shadows of Silesia remains a standout for its pioneering combination of blind accessibility features. Lukas Hosnedl, a Czech accessibility consultant, told WIRED that Shadows of Silesia "provides audio cues for obstacles in the way as well as enemies, friendly and neutral characters, and important or destructible but noninteractable objects such as traps, hazards, or barriers."

In conjunction with an extensive text-to-speech function, this gives blind and visually impaired players remarkable control over their environment.

While sound design is important, however, many blind and visually impaired players pointed out that it is variation within sound design that is key: the ability to identify different functions with different sounds.

"Encouraging your audio team to create unique and subtle sounds as much as possible will greatly improve the game experience for both blind and sighted players," explains Topher Winward, a software engineer at Rare Ltd.

But all of those accessibility features aren't worth much if they're buried in menus and difficult to find. That's why some games make sure those settings are the first things a player sees. TJ the Blind Gamer notes that this is already happening. "A lot of games have started putting accessibility menus right at the beginning of launching a new game," they say. "Even going so far as to have a text-to-speech or screen-reader implemented at boot-up."

Because accessibility features so often vary between games, studios, and consoles, many players we spoke with suggested the industry adopt across-the-board standards for everyone. "Due to the uniqueness of each video game, standards can be difficult to get right," Winward says. "That said, looking at other accessibility standards like web development's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and the WAI-ARIA system can provide great inspiration to bring back to your own games."

Important as individual features are in highlighting how far we've come with accessibility, and in particular blind accessibility, it's people that drive the industry forward.

"Games cannot just ship out the door with these features as an afterthought or missing, and players not consulted," Dan Fischbach, cochair of IGDA-GASIG, tells WIRED.

The industry is already bringing blind and low-vision players into the development process, both as consultants and testers. But Brandon Cole says we need more. "More accessible games, more attention on blind accessibility ... more developers willing to give blind accessibility a shot [and] thus willing to bring in more blind accessibility consultants."

The earlier and more frequently that can be achieved, the better. "The earlier in development you get feedback the more you can tune and adjust to make a feature better," Pavlin says. "The later in development you approach a challenge, the harder it is to adjust."

But feedback isn't the only way to improve accessibility. Also important is making sure the teams building games are diverse, full of people who care about accessibility from the beginning. "We are on the right path with studios hiring consultants to help provide that key feedback to help developers make games more accessible," said Steve Saylor, accessibility consultant. But we could go further. "In addition to bringing in consultants and blind players to provide feedback, there should be more accessibility champions at higher levels within studios that can make key core decisions throughout every step of the development cycle."

Still, Brandon Cole believes current progress in accessibility is encouraging. "I am pleased with where we are right now in terms of accessibility," he says. "I see the progress we've made. Large, fully-accessible releases are becoming more common, and that is a great thing."

Looking forward, as more studios begin to implement accessibility in earnest, it's important to remember that this is a journey and, like every journey, it has to start somewhere. Not every game will be perfect. Accessibility efforts, even if imperfect, still inform the future.

"I believe any addition of accessibility is a good thing," Pavlin says. "Even if it could be better, we will learn from the community, and every game made after will have the benefit of player feedback."

"Everyone I speak to about Fortune is Blind understands how exciting it is," Elliot Dodsworth tells WIRED. "I think a lot of people see it as different and new, but also as something that should really already exist."

And that's the rub: For all our progress, we are still playing catch-up after decades of inaccessibility, fighting a constant uphill battle to make and keep accessibility in gaming as mainstream as possible.

Nevertheless, the past few years have represented huge leaps forward. Not only has the games industry taken accessibility seriously, but with developers like Dodsworth, and more centralized efforts at Microsoft and Sony, they're only going to keep moving forward. "The future for blind accessibility," Cole believes, "is bright indeed."