When most of us play video games, one of the most fundamental things we take for granted is our ability to read on screen text. If you’re an adult, without any disabilities, playing a video game released in the country you live in, the chances are high that if a video game includes story, gameplay instructions, menus, or directions written as on screen text, you’ll be able to navigate that game effectively.
However, there are a lot of groups of people who want to play video games, but are not able to read on screen text, and I want to take some time today to talk about their needs as gamers, and what we can do to help make games more playable for them.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk about gaming and literacy. We’re going to talk about some of the groups of gamers who may struggle with games that require reading on screen text, examples of games that largely avoid written text, and ways games can make themselves more accessible to players who cannot read.
When it comes to groups of gamers who struggle with reading on screen text, one of the most commonly overlooked groups is young children. If you’ve ever had a young child ask to play a video game, and tried to leave them unattended to play, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. From not being able to read which menu option will start the game, to not being able to read story text or instructions about where to go, even very child focused games like Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu can be tricky for young children to engage with.
Young Children often lack a starting level of video game literacy, that learned muscle memory of what means what in a video game. Without learning that the top menu option means start, that B lets you exit a menu, and that talkative NPCs are probably trying to help and not hinder you, video games with a lot of written text can be frustrating for young children, or lead to a lot of needing to get a grownup to explain to them what’s happening.
Moving on past children, there’s a few other groups for whom text heavy games can be a challenge.
For partially sighted or sightless blind players, on screen text can obviously be a barrier to play. If your game doesn’t feature customisable options to make it more easily readable, or doesn’t support any form of screen reader support, text heavy games can be difficult or impossible to play without assistance.
Then, there’s disabilities that make reading more difficult or time consuming. For Players with Dyslexia, or players with ADHD, reading small amounts of text may not be an issue, but big walls of vitally important text can be a barrier to progression through games.
Lastly, reading in video games can be a challenge when the languages supported by a video game are not languages the player is fluent in. Obviously, if a game features a lot of writing comprehension, it’s not going to be accessible to someone who cannot read the text presented to them.
So, we’ve gone over the major groups of players who are impacted when a game features a lot of on screen only text. But, What solutions can we offer to help those players? Well, a lot of the solutions we can offer one group end up helping multiple the groups we mentioned. So, let’s get into making games more accessible to players struggling to read.
When it comes to making games more accessible to young children, one of the most simple solutions available is to ensure that your game has voice acting available for in game text, which extends to on screen explanatory text rather than simply just character dialogue. A lot of young children can speak, and understand speech, a few years before they are comfortable reading, and using voice lines to explain to them what the story is, and how they can play the game, can help them to engage with a game without needing parental help.
Additionally, any non text instructions you can provide young players that show them how to play rather than telling them can be really beneficial. This is one thing Pokémon Let’s Go does do well, it demonstrates with images and animations how the player is expected to swing the Joy-Con to throw a Pokéball, and more illustrative examples of how to play like this could really help younger players struggling in text heavy games.
Additionally, consider implementing a mode in your games designed for players of low gaming literacy. Consider a setting where the game explains a little more in depth what buttons mean, for players who have not yet internalised that knowledge.
For partially sighted or sightless blind players, there’s some overlap in the methods that would make games with lots of text more playable. Full voice acting for in game dialogue and explanatory text boxes would help a lot, but more importantly full screen reader support is vital as an option. Screen Reader support should really be a standard in games at this point. In a perfect world, I’d like to see the three major console manufacturers all implement screen reader support on a system level, and ensure that software supports it properly to pass certification, as it’s such a simple but important accessibility feature.
In addition, make sure you have options that allow players to make text larger, place a background behind it for contrast, and alter the font to something easier to see. Customisable text is important, not just for subtitles but for in game and menu text too.
For gamers with Dyslexia, offering a variety of font options can also be helpful. While Open Dyslexic is a font designed by and for dyslexic users, it’s not helpful for all users, so it’s good to offer other font options to those players.
Additionally, both Dyslexic players and those with ADHD benefit from voice acting and narration, as well as big blocks of text being broken up into smaller chunks, and visual practical demonstrations of how gameplay mechanics work. Don’t force players who find reading difficult to read a huge block of text at once. Break it up into manageable chunks, offer the ability to scroll back and reread that text, and allow the player to listen to that text being read where possible.
Lastly, I want to talk about supporting gamers who may not speak any of the supported languages your game has been published in. While some of the above solutions, such as featuring in game visual explanations of how to play, will be effective here, one of the most useful things you can do as a game developer is offer mod support for the PC versions of your game. Make it possible for the community to add in language support that you have not provided yourself, because there is a good chance there will be someone out there who wants to play your game, but doesn’t speak a language you were prepared for.
There are some third party tools out there which may be able to help players looking to play games when they do not read the language of the game’s text, such as BlueStacks Real Time In Game Translation, which are still limited to the selection of languages and the automatic translation quality of their software, but these sorts of third party solutions do suggest a positive future for gamers in this regard.
But, and I want to take some time at the end of this video to acknowledge this, one of the best solutions for making games accessible to players who cannot read on screen text for any of the above reasons, is to simply design your game in such a way that it can be played without needing to understand any text.
Journey is obviously the best known example of this. It’s a game that tells its story through pictures, explains its controls through visuals, and can be played start to finish with minimal language understanding. Journey is a masterpiece for a great many reasons, but one of them is certainly that it is accessible regardless of a player’s language skills.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting every video game needs to be Journey, or even should be, but there is something to be learned looking at games that require minimal text to play. If you look at a lot of classic retro video games developed when limited memory was a constraint on game design, or soulful wordless indie games released today, there is a lot game developers can learn.
Games where the player can understand their full moveset through experimentation and no explanation. Games that drop you right into the action without huge text based lore dumps first. Games where the plot can be understood through visuals rather than text. There are so many games out there that are accessible to gamers who struggle to read on screen text, and it would be wonderful if we could learn lessons from them to apply to more games.
Game developers, if you want your games to be more accessible to gamers who cannot read, the solutions are pretty simple. Read on screen text to those who cannot read it, Show people who cannot read how to play, make it easier to see and read through for players who struggle to read, break text into smaller chunks for those gamers who struggle to focus, and offer support for fan translation of your work. But, most of all, consider if there are any ways to reduce the amount of reading the player even needs to do in the first place.