Around the time that Access-Ability became a weekly series, back in the summer of 2020, one of the first games discussed in depth on the show was The Last of Us: Part 2, a game that made headlines not just for its level of accessibility for disabled players, but also, specifically, for its number of on paper accessibility settings.

From PlayStation’s own marketing materials, to gaming website news coverage, to my own review of the game, the title’s inclusion of more than sixty accessibility features, detailed in depth before launch, was a focal point in many discussions of the game’s status as an accessible title. It had a large of accessibility features, many of which were new and eye-catching, and this was undoubtedly a positive to see in an industry that rarely seemed to consider accessibility a priority, and even less frequently seemed interested in pushing the bar forward to bring more disabled players into the fold in new ways.

But, accessibility settings are only one part of the discussion around accessibility in video games, and all too often they are discussed at the expense of other aspects of accessible design.

Accessibility settings are great, more customisability available to players allows for more customisation of experiences and, in many cases, brings more players into the fold, but it’s not the entire discussion.

So, today, let’s talk about the difference between Accessibility Settings, and Accessible Design.

A really simple example of differentiating between accessibility settings, and accessible design, is in approaches to making games more accessible to coloublind players. Many video games will offer filters which can be applied as optional settings, changing colours in a game to make them more visible to players with specific types of coloublindness. This is an example of an accessibility setting, offered to fix a problem created by a game whose core design was inaccessible.

An Accessible Design approach to game development on the other hand might make use of colourblindness simulation filters, so that the developer can see what their game looks like to colourblind players, as well as bringing in colourblind playtesters from early on in a game’s development, in order to make sure that the important game elements are, by default, able to be distinguished from each other due to having differing brightness, saturation, or other contrasting elements that are distinguishable to players who cannot differentiate between specific colours.

While both of these approaches seek to ensure that a game is more playable by colourblind players, one approach designs a game initially without consideration for accessibility as a baseline, and tries to address inaccessibility down the line, where as the other approach attempts to make the core experience accessible in ways that might avoid needing to offer an accessibility setting at all.

This isn’t to suggest that an approach focused on Accessible Design is an easy route for a game developer to take. Using the colourblindess example that we just talked about, a game developer seeking to be accessible at a design level without offering screen filters as a setting may need to, throughout development, balance the conflicts between their artistic vision for how they want the game to look for the vast majority of players, and the level of colourblindness accessibility that they’re aiming to achieve.

Do you focus on making primarily the key UI elements colourblind accessible? Are there points in your game that you want to have minimal visual contrast for narrative reasons that may make this kind of approach challenging? Is a series of filters a better approach for you to take, because it achieves better results than trying to tweak your existing art choices, and being reluctant to change colours in the ways that you would need to? These sorts of questions lack easy answers in many cases, and require a lot of consideration and thought to navigate.

The existence of Accessible Design in video games is one reason why the number of accessibility settings offered by a game like The Last Of Us: Part 2, while indicative of a probably very useful amount of customisation, isn’t inherently a reliable indicator of any particular game’s level of accessibility, and is likely to become less of a useful indicator over time as more game developers start moving toward an accessible design first approach to how they develop their games, and make them accessible for disabled players.

As a rule of thumb, a game that can advertise dozens of accessibility settings is going to have a better chance at being accessible than a game that has no accessibility settings at launch, but a game not having an accessibility setting aimed at supporting a specific group of disabled players doesn’t preclude that game from having been designed in a way that, deliberately or accidentally, is accessible to those disabled players.

Accessibility settings, on paper, do not tell the whole story of a game’s level of accessibility.

Take, for example, the Street Fighter series. While the recently released Street Fighter 6 does contain specific accessibility settings aimed at helping provide additional audio cues for sightless blind players who navigate combat using audio, there have been numerous blind players who enjoyed playing Street fighter 5, a game with no explicit accessibility settings for blind players, that happened to be playable via audio due to the design choices made around positional stereo audio, and the way that sound effects for things like footsteps communicated aspects of combat.

Street Fighter 5 lacked accessibility settings for blind players, but it did feature Accessible Design choices that supported those players.

I know that accessibility in video games is about more than a list of settings offerings, but I know that I’m not immune to at times using the phrase Accessibility Settings as shorthand when I’m talking broadly about accessibility. Sometimes I do so for expediency, sometimes because I’m talking to an audience who might not engage with some of the nuances of accessibility discourse, and sometimes just because settings are something easy to quantify, and be objective when discussing.

I’ve had a lot of discussions with game developers behind closed doors over the past few years talking about gaming accessibility, and more often than not, those conversations are starting to revolve around how to focus less on accessibility settings, and more on how to provide inherently accessible design. This isn’t to say there’s no place for accessibility settings in video games, far from it, but they are not the solution to every problem in game design.

Subtitles in video games need to be a setting. Some players find them distracting and need to turn them off, some need larger text, some want them offered in Open Dyslexic, and other prefer a generic sans serif font option. High Contrast Mode isn’t right for every player, and whether a player finds aim assist helpful or insulting is a matter of personal preference. Some aspects of game design however could simply be accessible as a baseline expectation, and in those cases it is actively great if we see a game offer one less accessibility settings option, even if that lowers the overall number of settings they get to proudly proclaim in a press release.

From games like Among Us adding shapes to wire matching tasks so that they don’t have to be solved via colour, to including a way to reread missed dialogue in games, to titles like Vampire survivors being playable by one handed players due to never needing multiple simultaneous inputs at once, to text in menus that is large in some games by default, to designing your game from day one not to include intense full screen flashing effects, or even something as simple as your first person game not including camera head bob for motion sickness prone players, increasingly often the things that make a game accessible are being baked into that game’s core design, rather than presented for the player to optionally turn on and solve later if they chose.

The fact that the video game industry is trending toward accessible design conversations, rather than exclusively accessibility settings, is a sign of growth for our industry, and one that needs to become a more front and centre part of how we discuss accessibility in games.

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