The latest edition of the Games Accessibility Conference took place in Redmond, Washington over the 24th and 25th October. In-person and remote viewing options (hosted primarily on Zoom and YouTube) were available for the conference devoted entirely to accessibility in video games. These also included live captioning and ASL interpreters throughout.
As is tradition with GAconf, this iteration kicked off with an update on accessibility news from the last six months by accessibility specialist, Ian Hamilton. First he focused on spotlighting new accessible hardware and how rapidly it’s becoming affordable where, in the past, there had been a disconnect between accessible solutions and the means of much of its target market.
There was more praise for Xbox’s continuing commitment to disabled gamers, plus a note on how remakes have shaped the benchmark of accessibility in 2022. There was special mention for The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe Edition and The Last of Us Part I. These are remakes which demonstrate, Hamilton said, that “while it is never too early to consider accessibility, it is also never too late to begin.”
After his introduction, Hamilton handed off to co-director, and Xbox accessibility lead, Tara Voelker, who presented the rest of the conference – at one point, in a Kirby costume.
Talks commenced with Enid Brown, head of product accessibility at Riot Games, laying out the “seven pillars of strategic accessibility” and pushing the idea of taking accessibility away from standards and checklists and proposing a more holistic approach. Next, indie developer Brian Fairbanks demonstrated how his game, Lost and Hound, weaves accessibility into the fundamentals of its design. This was followed by a panel discussion led by Kyle Abatte about experiences of accessibility in mobile gaming and how to better implement accessibility in the mobile space.
Especially interesting on the first morning was Kelli Dunlap, PsyD and Rachel Kowert, PhD’s talk on the representation of mental health and mental illness in video games. Though a common subject in gaming narratives, it is often handled poorly, doing more harm than good. This is at odds, according to Dunlap and Kowert, with the value of positive representations of mental illness in media, which have the potential to change perceptions of mental illness and lead towards the idea of seeking help with our mental health.
Later in the day, we heard about the importance of captions in games to growing community, the accessibility journey of Rocksmith+, and impostor syndrome in the industry, before Ben Bayliss, editor-in-chief of Can I Play That, and freelance journalist, Grant Stoner, highlighted the dos and don’ts of gaming accessibility journalism, also giving their impressions of the state of accessibility journalism.
Though the subject is by no means niche – an estimated 400 million gamers live with some form of disability – this has yet to be reflected in coverage. Instead, drama and trending topics drive much of accessibility coverage in gaming. This is something Stoner suggests can change if publications begin hiring disabled writers and creating gaming accessibility verticals, much as they may have a technology section or TV editors.
It felt like a summation of much of the first day, which often considered the future. In 2022, it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable for studios not to consider accessibility and, as such, we’re moving towards an obsolescence of retrofitted accessibility and more from-the-ground-up thinking. While talks were still critical of the amount of catching up still needed across gaming industries, there was also plenty of hope for 2023 and beyond.
The final talk of the day revolved around making in-person events more accessible.
Schell Games led day two with a discussion about their accessibility policies and implementing accessibility goals on a lower budget. Before Ryana Adnerson and Kasper Hartman of Eidos Montreal walked us through the process of implementing captions in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. As with the previous day’s talk on the subject, it highlighted just how valuable captions are at conveying more information that just repeating spoken audio.
Next up, Riley Cran of type foundry Lettermatic spoke about the company’s work on Psychonauts 2. Not just designing typefaces for the game’s aesthetic, but working with Double Fine to create more accessible alternate fonts players could toggle on for a more rational reading experience. (This feels especially pertinent so soon after the re-release of Persona 5 Royal, a game crying out for an option to make its admittedly beautiful UI more readable.)
Maybe I’m geeking out as a former type designer, but it was especially interesting to hear about Lettermatic’s revival of multiplex fonts – a way to make type occupy the same space across a range of weights. This makes it easier for different fonts to occupy the same space in the often limited real estate of gaming UI.
Another panel followed, this time from producers at Arkane, Blizzard, ProbablyMonsters, and Ubisoft, discussing how to include accessibility at various stages of development before Britt Dye told us how Whitehorn Games supports accessibility in the titles it publishes.
Heading into the final session, Dr. Kaitlyn Jones detailed developing Xbox’s accessibility fundamentals training course. before Ian Hamilton returned to walk us through the history of blind accessibility in gaming.
Matthew Gallant, game director of The Last of Us Part 1, then gave a short talk on how Naughty Dog moved from aiming for accessibility parity with Part 2 to expanding accessibility in the remake to unprecedented levels. After which, David Tisserand, Ubisoft’s director of accessibility, offered advice on setting up accessibility teams in development studios based on lessons he learned building Ubisoft’s global accessibility program.
The conference was rounded out with Caleb Kraft talking about his charity, The Controller Project, An initiative devoted to building controllers for disabled gamers with limb difference. Examining how technology, particularly 3D-printing, is making production both cheaper and easier for independent ventures like The Controller Project, therefore making it easier to get hardware to those who need it.
It was a short, sharp conference with a lot of information to take in, so I was glad for the opportunity to catch up on YouTube (both to better grasp some of what I’d heard and because some of the talks were past my bedtime). It offers a great opportunity for everyone to see how others have built accessibility into their companies, games, and design ethos.
The conference moves back to Europe in April, with information available closer to the time on GAconf’s website.
The Games Accessibility Conference US 2022 is available in full on the IGDA-GASIG YouTube channel along with individual talks, which are also linked throughout this article.