From Celeste to The Last of Us Part II: Designing and Playing with Accessibility in Mind
Video games are among the primary entertainment forms of our time. This doesn’t just apply to gaming itself, either; the state of gaming has developed. There are successful streamers, and the e-sports sector has brought an intense sense of competition to stadiums across the world. Indeed, during the pandemic, the revenue generated by gaming was predicted to surpass that of movies and sports combined.
Yet, among the growth of such a popular and important cultural form, it’s important to consider another statistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 61 million Americans live with a disability. Despite such a huge proportion of the population represented here, accessibility in gaming is still a significant issue.
There’s no question that we must take steps to make the video gaming industry more accessible. So let’s review a few of the approaches that the industry and consumers alike should be utilizing.
Understand the Benefits
Part of the problem inherent in video game accessibility is there isn’t enough information about why it needs to be a priority. When industry leaders, creators, influencers, and consumers don’t understand the imperative to keep the sector inclusive, it is difficult to maintain the momentum for change. We all have a place in affecting change, so it’s worth taking some time to outline some of the motivations here.
Throughout their history, video games have benefitted from innovative thinking. Whether from the perspective of game mechanics or the development of virtual reality (VR) protocols, creative thought keeps games both in line with current technology and engaging. We know that diversity is key to drive innovation, that the contributors who offer varied perspectives and insights into other challenges are instrumental in exploring new avenues. Therefore it is in the best interests of studios and consumers alike to make careers accessible to people experiencing disability, those with neurodivergent traits, and contributors from other marginalized backgrounds.
Most of us know that video games are more than simply another form of entertainment. They engage us differently, making us intimately involved with the stories being told. Aside from also building problem-solving skills that can help in our careers, video games can be actively beneficial for our mental health. Particularly when it comes to fantasy and adventure games and puzzle games among others, studies have shown that the parts of the brain used for executive functioning are more engaged. Some titles also build socialization skills. As such, making these games more accessible can open up vital cognitive and therapeutic tools to more of the population. This is in respect to people living with mental health issues, but also older players who are maintaining cognition, and those with social anxiety.
Further Reading: Apex Legends as a Platform for LGBTQ+ Representation
Open Up the Dialogue
One of the hurdles to improving accessibility in the video game industry is the lack of tendency to talk openly about it. Yes, some improvements can be made in the background by performing research and making small adjustments. But when the community and industry work together to have an ongoing and meaningful conversation about the problems surrounding accessibility, there are opportunities to make appropriate improvements.
This openness can begin on social media. It gets a bad rap — often with good reason — but it’s also a public forum that almost everyone has access to. Major studios and indies alike should reach out to their followers to invite their thoughts on the current state of accessibility in the industry. This should be from both a career and consumer perspective. Importantly, they have to be open to criticism and accountability. When studios accept that there are problems and that those experiencing them are the best judge of the issues, this discussion is a tool to enact positive change.
An open dialogue is not a one-and-done situation, either. It has to be maintained across the industry. This should include making it a part of industry events and conventions. Gaming press must also frequently address it in features, blog posts, and leadership interviews — we always have to be cognizant of where we are, and what still needs to be achieved.
Address the Challenges
While it’s important to take time to understand the benefits of an inclusive gaming industry, and keeping the dialogue open, all that is meaningless without action. Yet, it is important to approach this in a way that is not simply a knee-jerk reaction. When addressing the challenges of accessibility, companies have to take time to make sure that the changes are sustainable.
One route into this is making sure that those who face accessibility challenges are involved with designing, testing, and implementing changes. For studios, this might involve building teams that are composed of diverse staff from various departments. These groups are then tasked with the responsibility to assess the environment and enact change. It can also be wise to include a budget that allows them to hire consultants for assistance in areas in which they have no experience or expertise.
However, on a wider level, information can be one of the best resources to help address accessibility challenges. We live at a time where the industry is informed by independent business owners — small studios, streamers, communicators. Communities must share and signal-boost information about how those living with disabilities can practically engage in gaming entrepreneurialism. Starting a business with a disability may be fraught with complications, this can be especially the case if they’re transitioning from Social Security benefits to building their enterprise. There are vital forms of support available, though. The Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) program in particular is aimed at helping people obtain the items and services they need in the early days of operations. The more the gaming community shares information about resources and strategies, the greater accessibility can be achieved.
Gaming is a vibrant, dynamic industry — and it’s growing. However, it is still falling behind in inclusivity. The industry and community need to make concerted efforts to recognize how beneficial accessibility is to both workers and consumers. With a commitment to communication and a plan for meaningful change, there are opportunities for gaming to keep rising in positivity and innovation.