When it comes to discussions of accessibility in the video game industry, most discussions taking place are about specific games, and how their implementation of accessibility features varies on a game by game basis. The video game industry has very few standards for accessibility, even when it comes to basic things like in game subtitles, and as a result no matter how common a feature is, there is no guarantee a given game will implement it, or implement it well.
While the overall industry has been making positive strides forward in terms of more games becoming more accessible, as an industry we can’t so much as guarantee a game will definitely feature accurate subtitling for deaf and hard of hearing players, let alone any consistent application of more intensive accessibility support.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about the concept of accessibility standardisation. We’re going to talk about some attempts already happening to standardise accessibility support, some examples of settings which should really be standardised going forward, and things we can learn from standardisation in other forms of media which could teach lessons to the video game industry.
A big thank you to Ian Hamilton’s tweet’s about the CVAA, which were very helpful when putting together this episode. Link to his Twitter in the video description, as well as information about the discussed legislation.
Let’s start off this episode by talking a little about some things that really feel like they should be accessibility standards in video games at this point, but are not yet.
When it comes to video game subtitles, there is no obligation for video games to include subtitles of any kind, and those that do are not obligated to implement them in any specific kinds of ways. There is no requirement that subtitles in games include speaker tags to denote who is speaking, or that they include an option for description of non speech audio that is important to the plot. There is no requirement that they be of a given minimum size, or presented against a background to increase their legibility.
When we look at movies or TV for example, many of these are standards enforced by bodies such as classification boards, or Ofcom in the case of UK broadcast TV. For example, in the UK, if you play a licensed song during a TV show, and it is not in the background behind speech, you are required to include any lyrics being sung as part of your subtitles. If we compare that to the recently released Life is Strange: True Colours as a video game example, at times where the main character was singing covers of licensed songs, the subtitles simply did not reflect the lyrics being sung.
Beyond that, colourblind support feels like something that we should really look into enforcing as a standard. Colourblind support is really easy to work on if you think about it during your development process. The colours that cause common issues are well known, there are programs that will help you quickly see a representation of how your design might look to a colourblind players, and EA recently released a patent for other developers to use that will automatically generate filters designed to help create colourblind friendly modes for games, which can help get your game on the right track.
Remappable controls should wherever possible be a standard, and dyslexia friendly font additions are relatively easy to implement. There are a whole bunch of other accessibility support options I would like to see become standards eventually, but for now let’s focus on these as a starting selection due to their ubiquity.
When it comes to video game accessibility standardisation, one commonly held up argument against standardisation is impact on smaller developers. While it’s reasonable to require multimillion dollar corporations to put time and money into accessibility, some accessibility support options may be prohibitively expensive for smaller scale projects to implement, some have argued.
We do actually have a few real world examples of how this can be avoided as an issue when implementing accessibility standardisation, as some attempts at this kind of thing have been done in the past.
Back in early 2019, The CVAA (21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act 2010), which covers standards for enforcing communication accessibility in the United States, dropped a series of long standing exceptions afforded to the video game industry under their legislation. Basically, video games released in the US after January 1st 2019 that feature their own internal chat systems became obligated to make a reasonable effort to make those systems accessible to disabled players with a wide range of conditions. Players with no sight, no colour vision, no or limited speech, or no hearing need to be considered, and if reasonable, accommodated for. It has to be considered early on in development, and with some form of design or testing involvement by disabled users.
In the case of this legislation, the protection for smaller developers is the wording of “reasonable effort” as a standard, meaning that if you can demonstrate you looked into it, but it was out of budget or not technically feasible to complete, that is okay. Additionally, most small games on small budgets do not have their own dedicated voice chat systems in the first place that this would apply to.
An alternative standard used sometimes in the US worth considering is having standardisation requirements come into effect if your company has over a certain level of profit, or a certain number of staff employed. These standards ensure that those companies large enough to invest in accessibility are pressured to do so, while not enforcing those same requirements on a solo developer on a shoestring budget making an experimental Twine text adventure for example.
Also, as a side note, EA’s recent release of their patent on the Apex Legends Ping System goes a long way to helping other developers who want to make their games accessible under the CVAA do so. It allows for non verbal communication with other players, where non verbal context messages are delivered as both audio and on screen text. Any developer can use that tech, and as such that’s something that ideally should be standardised too.
While all the accessibility standards I have suggested in this video will take time, and effort, and money to implement if made standards, that is something which should be considered a cost factored into what games cost to make. You don’t get to make a building and not consider accessibility disabled visitors because installing a lift or ramp would take time or money and reduce profit. We recognise as a society that it’s important we make the effort, because disabled people should be included when we design systems.
While for the time being I am glad to see individual games trying to be more accessible, I truly think that the next true leap in accessibility is going to come when we start standardising some of the support we expect from game developers. Getting all of the biggest players in the video game space to agree to standards together is not going to be easy, this is an industry that hates the idea of external oversight, but I think it’s honestly going to be needed to see a true improvement in making our medium welcoming to more disabled players.
There is no reason our industry can’t make sure subtitles are always available, legible, and accurate to the information given to hearing users. There’s no reason game developers can’t take a little time to look at their choices of colours and how they might be difficult for some to differentiate. There’s no reason that we can’t require developers to include legible alternative fonts for the sake of disabled users. There is no reason we can’t enforce reasonable accessibility standards in an industry where profits are skyrocketing at the biggest companies.
Video games are becoming more and more often accessible, but until that support becomes consistent and reliable, we’re not where we need to be as an industry that wants to be accessible.