Last week I spent three days in Cologne, Germany, covering Gamescom for work as a freelancer, writing hands-on opinion pieces for the Epic Games Store news section, and having my own appointments checking out upcoming games and speaking with developers.
While most of my visit was spent in appointments in Gamescom’s business area, a separate quieter set of appointment only halls accessible to developers and press, I did spend some time on the Gamescom main show floor, as certain titles were either only present in those public areas, or seeing them there was my only option without having pre-booked an appointment.
Gamescom, outside of the business halls, is honestly a hellish event. An estimated 300,000 people attended this year’s event over five days, with queues for some titles spanning more than six hours to play a single game demo for more in demand titles if you’re a member of the public. Often people in attendance move around the venue as somewhat of a flowing river of people, where your options are to go with the current or be swept under.
Gamescom isn’t an event that I could personally attend as an autistic gamer if I wasn’t attending for work and able to largely keep to the venue’s quieter backroom meeting spaces.
Accessibility is hard to find in many convention spaces, and the same is generally true of Gamescom, but I want to take some time today to talk about Xbox’s presence at Europe’s biggest gaming convention, and the ways that the company stood out from the crowd at this year’s event.
Much of what I’m going to talk about today regarding Xbox at Gamescom isn’t new to 2023’s event, but as someone who hasn’t attended the event in several years, this year’s Gamescom was my first opportunity to see in practice steps that I’d heard about previously in press releases.
Xbox’s Gamescom 2023 booth was, first and foremost, one of the only booths at the show fully wheelchair accessible in all areas. There were small gentle ramps available for wheelchair users to get up to any raised area, with most if not all game demo areas having options to play demos at adjustable height desks, allowing for more comfortable play for those not at expected standing desk heights. Wheelchair users might on occasion have to take a slight detour to reach a ramp, but generally speaking faced very little inconvenience when traversing the space.
The booth was also set up such that, on request, any disabled gamer could have an Xbox Adaptive Controller setup provided and customised, to ensure that they were able to play game demos with whatever physical setup needs they might personally have.
In terms of general visibility of accessibility support, there were members of staff wearing shirts with accessibility iconography on the back, making it clear that those staff could be confidently approached for help with accessibility support. I was told that, in theory, every member of staff on the booths should be trained up on accessibility information and disability awareness, but having specific labelled staff took some of the anxiety out of approaching someone to ask for help.
For deaf gamers in attendance, there were American and German sign language interpreters available at the booth, as well as subtitles on screen for presentations such as the hands off preview for Starfield. Of note, apparently British Sign Language interpreters were brought along to the event in 2022, but not one single request for their services was made that year, and as such Xbox decided not to bring them this year, though they are open to changing that stance in future should demand change.
For autistic attendees overwhelmed by the event, there were a few options available including the distribution of foam earplugs and fidget objects, as well as a quiet room on the Gamescom show floor, hidden away from general visibility, where it would be possible for someone to sit in silence and regulate their senses away from the show’s crowds.
I do really appreciate a lot of the support that Xbox made available at the show this year, but I do have a few things that might be worth discussing in terms of potential considerations for future years.
Firstly, I only really knew about a lot of the accommodations available because I follow gaming accessibility news religiously online. As an autistic person at Gamescom, if I had not read a press release in advance, I wouldn’t have known there were any accommodations available to me, and likely would not have assumed that accessibility staff specifically had accommodations for my support needs.
When feeling overwhelmed at an event like Gamescom, even knowing that accessibility accommodations exist, I struggle to ask for that support. Without clear signposting of exactly what support is available, and who is appropriate to reach out to for that help, I struggle to overcome the social barrier between me and accessing support for my disability. If I had not known that support existed, that barrier would have been even harder to overcome.
As someone who starts to massively overthink social interactions when overwhelmed, a sign somewhere that clearly laid out that earplugs, fidgets, and a quiet room were available, and that either the main desk or any accessibility staff could help, would have been really beneficial. I knew that information in theory, but as soon as I was overwhelmed, in an unfamiliar space, I very much began to doubt myself, and started looking for something to clarify the acceptable series of steps for this situation that I hadn’t rehearsed.
I understand having a degree of discretion in some regards, hiding the quiet room away from view is sensible to ensure that it’s not abused by people not needing it who just want to sit down and chat somewhere less busy, but I do feel like there could have been better signposting on the show floor of what accessibility support was available, and somewhere specific you could go to access that support.
Additionally, for an event like Gamescom, I would love to see implementation of something like a virtual queuing system, where someone who is autistic could, for example, get an estimated current queue time for a game on the show floor, and receive a ticket allowing them to return after that wait time to play a game demo. Something allowing a person to not skip past a queue and not have to wait to play the game, but spend their wait time somewhere less crowded with people such as that quiet room, could be a really positive future inclusion to consider.
However, beyond just the accessibility accommodations present at the Xbox show floor booth itself, I want to credit Xbox for being incredibly open to accessibility feedback during Gamescom as an event.
While I won’t go into too many details here today, while at Gamescom I saw a social media post from a member of the Xbox hardware development team, open to meeting with people to talk about physical hardware accessibility with Xbox devices and consoles. I took some time to chat with them at the show, and was honestly incredibly pleased not only that they were willing to sit and chat, but also to how open they were to hearing feedback, and engaging in a dialogue about big picture topics.
While much of what we discussed was big picture long term ideas and topics, I can say that I made an effort to bring forward a lot of other people’s perspectives on topics impacting them today on Xbox, from hand pain caused by asymmetrical analogue layouts to the conflicting needs of gamers who benefit from gyro aiming and those who benefit from the Xbox Adaptive Controller’s ability to emulate all controller functions on Xbox without exception. It was a hugely productive discussion, and one where I felt very much that my feedback was being taken seriously.
I’ve been hearing for a few years now about Xbox’s attempts to make their physical booth space at gaming conventions more accessible to disabled players, and seeing it in person really hammered home that they’re on the right track.
Xbox not only made serious efforts to ensure their Gamescom 2023 showfloor booth was accessible, but also to take on board feedback about their hardware accessibility during the show. I can’t think of another major publisher at Gamescom this year who went to those same kind of efforts, and I want to applaud Xbox for that. There are maybe small improvements they could make to better signpost what accessibility support is available to those who haven’t read up in advance, but I generally find it hard to fault how they handled accessibility at this otherwise very overwhelming event.