Over the past couple of years, the video game industry has seen a drastic increase in game developers considering accessibility support when developing games. From the increasing prevalence of dedicated accessibility menus, to assistive modes, more and more games are taking steps to making themselves more accessible to disabled players.
While many of these developers are implementing accessibility standards which have existed for years, some developers are attempting to innovate, and create accessibility support that’s brand new. Sometimes this comes from small indie developers, but sometimes very large companies are involved, and often, big companies like to hold ownership over concepts they create.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about Electronic Arts, and their recent decision to make several accessibility related software patents they own freely available for other developers to use. We’re going to talk about the ethics of holding patents on accessibility settings, which patents are now free for the wider industry to use, and why accessibility patents generally should be freely shared within the industry.
To kick things off, let’s talk about the accessibility patents that EA previously held ownership of, and has recently made available for wider use.
The first patent, and likely the one many of you will be most familiar with, is the patent for “contextually aware communications system in video games”. Basically, the Apex Legends Ping system.
If you’ve not played Apex Legends before, here’s the details. If you’re playing without using voice chat, are a non verbal gamer, or are a deaf / hard of hearing user who can’t use voice chat, players can use a context based in game system to communicate. Players can tell their teammates where they are going, tell them to do certain actions, tell your team mates that you want to call dibs on certain items, and highlight the location of enemies.
All of these pings are organised by the type of thing you want to say, but contextually filled in by where you’re looking, to ensure quick communication in the heart of gameplay. Your messages are given as both a verbal shout by your character, but also as a text based in game message.
The system got a lot of praise when Apex Legends released as a highly effective way of letting players communicate with each other and coordinate gameplay without using voice chat.
Of all the patents we are going to talk about today, this is perhaps the patent I am most surprised to see being made publicly available to other developers. It was highly praised at release by disabled and non disabled players alike, and it’s really nice to see this opened up for more developers to make use of.
Next up, we have a pair of patents relating to making games more easily visible for users with colour deficiencies. These patents overlap considerably, but at their core they cover automated image processing systems which can help detect colours used which may be difficult for colour blind players to differentiate, and apply post processing to make those colours more effectively stand out from each other.
Automated processes will never be a full replacement for hand crafted colourblind support in games, but automated image processing provides a solution for developers quickly getting a long way along the road to being accessible, and anything that makes getting most of the way to accessible easier is something I am glad to see made more widely available.
On a similar note, the next patent to discuss is EA’s contrast Ratio Detection and Rendering System. Put simply, this is a patent for a software layer that detects low contrast in an image, and updates the image to improve that contrast. This may be useful for players with monochromatic colour blindness, who see entirely in shades of white, grey, and black, allowing them to more easily differentiate different in game elements.
Lastly, we have a patent for a technology that does not yet exist, but that could exist in the future, and EA has preemptively patented, and made available for other devs. In a similar vein, this patent would allow users to customise music they hear based on hearing based disabilities they may suffer from. The patent explains the concept in terms of its application to music streaming services like spotify, the idea being you could let the software know you have tinnitus and find certain sounds painful, or have difficulty hearing certain frequency ranges or complexity levels of sound, and only recommend you new music that you will be able to properly hear, or that will not cause you pain and discomfort.
The patent however covers video game applications too, and it’s not hard to imagine a similar system being used to adjust the audio balance of a video game based on certain disabilities, such as reducing audio complexity for autistic users, or pitching up mission critical voice lines to be more audible for someone who struggles to hear low frequencies.
Now, there is certainly a conversation to be had about EA’s ownership of accessibility related patents, and in general about ownership of patents designed to help disabled people engage with the world. Nobody should have ownership of concepts and ideas that could broadly help disabled people engage with an entire artistic media, keeping them away from others who could use them to help more people. However, I think there are some specific details about how and when EA made some of these patents available to other developers that lead me to feel like there was some genuine good will in the way they handled this.
If we go back to that first patent, the one for the Apex Legends Ping system, the patent was issued to EA on August 24th 2021, the exact same day they announced they were making these five patents available for others to use. It seems very plausible that EA patented the ping system, explicitly for the purposes of making the patent publicly available to others as soon as it was available. Perhaps that’s a positive reading, but it does suggest an interesting potential future.
By patenting the Apex Legends Ping system, then announcing the patent was free for others to use, EA established a very clear legal framework by which others could make use of their accessibility tech. Rather than developers being afraid to copy the system and risk a lawsuit, EA laid out “We did patent this concept, but you have the legal right to use it”.
While I actively object to the idea of a single company owning the right to implement certain accessibility concepts, in practice I can see how EA patenting this system, then making it available for others to implement, has made the legal situation around using their concept a lot more clear.
There are some issues we should remain cautiously aware of here. While EA has made a promise that the right to use these patents is irrevocable, there is an exception built in that EA can terminate the right to use these patents if another game developer files a patent lawsuit against EA for any reason, which could potentially hamstring developers who use these patents into not putting up a legal fight if EA steals something of theirs, which seems a little sketchy. It’s an edge case, but the idea of removing access to accessibility tech as a punishment for potentially unrelated legal action rubs me up the wrong way.
While I’m always going to be a little cautious of private companies owning patents on accessibility concepts, I generally don’t object to the way EA has acted here, and hope that this is the start of a positive movement within the games industry. By creating a patent for proprietary accessibility tech, then making that patent irrevocably free to use for everyone, that opens up the door for others to use that tech free of fear of lawsuits, and in a perfect world that could lead to interesting tech getting more widely used.
I am constantly cautious of huge corporations, I struggle to trust them not to have ulterior motives, but this genuinely does seem like a positive move born out of a desire to make accessibility tech more widely accessible. I hope we see EA continue to add more patents to this pledge, and other developers follow a similar tact with accessibility patents they might hold.