March 23, 2023

In recent years, interest in the accessibility of video games has grown. Developers of all sizes have incorporated accessibility features into their games, whether in indie darlings like Tunic or big AAA releases like God of War Ragnorok. On the hardware side, Xbox released its Adaptive Controller in 2018, and PlayStation recently announced Project Leonardo, which will be the company’s attempt to bring more accessible controllers to the PlayStation 5. The conversation about who gets included in video games and how people play video games has never been more relevant.

Behind these smash releases is the work of accessibility advocates who consult and advise on these games, paving the way for games that are more disability-friendly and available to a wider audience. Sometimes companies also hire certain organizations to serve as one consultant during hardware development, and or to talk about problems that arise. And now an awards show recognizes this work when it happens, celebrating accessibility in video games.

Enter the Game accessibility conference awards.

The awards were created by the Game Accessibility Conference, a conference dedicated to video game developers interested in broadening their understanding of accessibility in games. The awards – which recognize the work of those who “raise the bar for accessibility” – span 18 categories and celebrate work in a variety of fields such as academic research, publishers leading the way in accessibility and representation.

This year, God of War Ragnarok won awards in the AAA Excellence and Best Deaf/HoH Accessibility categories. The nominations are shortlisted by a panel and the final choices are chosen through a combination of an audience and jury vote. To learn more about the awards and what the future of game accessibility looks like, Polygon interviewed Tara Voelker, co-director of The Game Accessibility Conference Awards and senior accessibility lead at Xbox Game Studios. The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

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Polygon: How do you judge what makes a game accessible? (I imagine it’s difficult and complicated.)

Tara: Assessing what makes a game accessible is both simple and complicated. At its core, a game is accessible when disabled gamers can play it. However, different gamers have different needs and different barriers that prevent them from playing. A title can be incredibly accessible to deaf/hard of hearing gamers, but completely inaccessible to the blind. That’s the complicated part.

To properly assess whether something is accessible to a group of gamers, you need to understand their needs and verify that those needs are being met. For example, to make a game accessible to people with color blindness, make sure that no important information is represented only by color and supported by shapes, patterns or text. Frankly, it is still very rare that a game is really accessible to everyone at the same time.

Image: Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

What makes an “accessible game” accessible?

An accessible game is one that has thought about the unintended barriers that may prevent gamers with disabilities from playing, and avoids them completely or offers the option to remove them. As a game developer, you know what experience you want to give players, and the goal is to make sure people can get that experience.

For example, the challenge of a racing game is to get your car across the track as quickly as possible. The challenge isn’t supposed to be struggling to hit the throttle on the right trigger button on a controller, because you have limited dexterity in your hands. This extra challenge can be removed by allowing the player to reassign the gas to the A button. No more struggling with the trigger button and you can start racing.

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I understand that’s a vague idea, and how it manifests can vary by title.

How have you seen game accessibility change over the years?

The field of accessibility in games has grown tremendously over time. When I first got into gaming, there were no full-time accessibility jobs in gaming. Not at all. And now there are several at both the studio and publisher levels. When accessibility first started to accelerate, developers were rewarded and praised for things like colorblind filters, but now they’re expected and you get a lot of complaints if you don’t have them.

Accessibility in games is growing exponentially and the increase in accessible titles we’ve seen in recent years is truly astounding. Most excitingly, the idea of ​​accessibility is shifting to earlier in the game’s development process. For many years the accessibility was retrofitted. A game would be built and then the developers would see how many accessibility gaps they could close. Some of these holes could not be patched for reasons decided much earlier in development. Now we avoid making these holes altogether.

Image: Devolver Digital

Why is it important to celebrate the work in this area?

While accessibility is growing, it’s still a largely advocate-driven space. In many situations, it can still take a lot of emotional work to make sure accessibility is a concern during development. It’s real work. We want everyone who is committed to accessibility to know that they are valued and that they have a moment to see the impact they’ve had on players. Not only will it lift their spirits and recharge them for the next fight, it will be easier to win next time if they can point and say, “Look at this award and recognition…”

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Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?

Gaming has so many benefits and is truly part of pop culture. Disabled gamers deserve to be part of the gaming space, and our games only get better when we take their needs into account when developing. Accessibility features aren’t just used by those who identify as disabled, they’re used by gamers everywhere.

The easiest way to ensure a game is accessible is to get feedback from gamers with disabilities. There are plenty out there who want to play your games and will tell you why they can’t. Speak to them!