Why Now is the Time to Create Accessible Video Games

Tanya Chopp | September 14, 2017

A gamer with headphones on plays intensely in the dark with the tv screen glowing

Smash Clay Audio’s Adriane Kuzminski Shares How and Why Videogames Should Be Accessible

It’s normal to think that a new game’s success or failure hinges on spreading awareness of the product to the right people: People who are not only interested in your characters and storyline, but are willing to pay for the chance to become immersed into your world.

In this article

  1. Smash Clay Audio’s Adriane Kuzminski Shares How and Why Videogames Should Be Accessible
  2. Physical and Mental Health Barriers to Video Game Accessibility Are More Widespread than You May Think
  3. How You Can Use Sound Design to Make Video Games More Accessible
  4. Creating Accessible Video Games Also Poses a Huge Market Opportunity
  5. Why Videogames Have Not Been Accessible
  6. Are You Considering Adding Accessible Audio into Your Next Gaming Experience?
  7. Follow Adriane Kuzminski
  8. Learn More About Accessible Gaming, Including Grant Opportunities Through AbleGamers

But what happens if your target customer, the one who is most excited to enjoy the fruits of your labor, can’t play, simply because the way the video game is formatted makes it inaccessible?

Physical and Mental Health Barriers to Video Game Accessibility Are More Widespread than You May Think

As a Sound Designer and founder of Smash Clay Audio, Adriane Kuzminski is especially passionate about accessibility in the video game world. Specifically, she’s encouraging designers and developers to reconsider how they regard the role of audio elements.

“It’s an area that needs a lot of improvement and awareness—and sound designers can play a big role its development along with game designers, UX designers, educators, and especially gamers with disabilities.”  Adriane’s statement says on the Smash Clay website.

What is game audio?

While game audio is typically defined as the sound effects, music, ambiance and dialogue – when it comes to accessibility, the audio elements can be  thought of more in terms of how they relay instructional, locational and emotional information.

“Most info that you get from a game that tells you how to play it, is given visually,” explains Adriane. “The menu screens, the instructions, the locational information – all of that is given visually, and then the audio is focused on the aesthetics.”

According to Adriane, if you think that it’s only the blind population that is affected by video game accessibility, think again. In fact, anyone who is affected by the visual elements of a game can benefit from accessible audio. This group includes those who:

  • Have impaired vision (e.g. blind, low-vision, to include gamers losing their sight with age)
  • Are affected by text (dyslexic, new language learners)
  • Are affected by certain sounds, such as those with autism and/or sensory processing disorder (SPD)

How You Can Use Sound Design to Make Video Games More Accessible

According to Adriane, there are numerous measures that can make the gaming experience accessible to those with impairments, as well as a richer experience for all gamers.

“One of the first things is to use UI sounds as a means to teach the gamer to memorize how the game works The way to do this is by making ‘iconic’ UI sounds, which just means that they are consistently tied to  an action or outcome. When a sound means the same thing every time, you create an audible user interface.”

If you’re trying to imagine what this might mean in gameplay, Adriane suggests to picture a card game. If each card being put down had a different sound, you could learn which card you’re using just by the sound. Even better if you have the option to access a description of what the card can do.

Sound can also be applied to movement.

“When your ‘hit’ makes the same sound every time in a game, then you can memorize what that sound means. For instance, ‘hit and made it,’ ‘hit and missed,’ or even a ‘special movement,’” says Adriane. “You can memorize those complex actions just through sound.”

Adriane also specifies that the emotional effect of sounds can also become a useful tool.

“Sounds that connect with our emotions in the right way are much easier to memorize,” she says, adding, “If we hear a sound with a melodic  element to it, that sounds positive, but if it’s dissonant we know it’s something bad.”

Additionally, sound can become even more powerful when combined with a gameplay platform that’s oriented in a more accessible way.

“Having a two dimensional  platform, combined with the left and right audio channels, allows you to know where your character is,” offers Adriane. “But audio isn’t just necessarily about the sounds that are given by the game, it can go the other way too – where, hopefully, with the proliferation of more talk devices like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, you’ll be able to use voice control without having to use certain settings or having to memorize a specific command. You could just tell it what you want and it’ll do it. This would not just be a feature to make it blind accessible, it’s also something that sighted people will really enjoy. Unfortunately, it’s not in games yet but we’re on our way.”

Creating Accessible Video Games Also Poses a Huge Market Opportunity

Despite the obvious benefits of creating a product that is inclusive to people of all of abilities, there is also the fact that creating accessible games could pose an incredibly lucrative opportunity.

Consider the following stats from Adriane’s presentation, which she gave at the #GAConf 2017 (a one-day conference focused on accessibility in video games), hosted by the Game Accessibility Special Interest Group of the International Game Developers Association.

  • 39 million people are considered to be blind (WHO, 2014).
  • 246 million people have low-vision, 50 million of which are in the U.S. (WHO, 2012)
  • 27% of gamers fall within the category of ‘aging gamers’
  • 6-17% of the world’s population is dyslexic
  • 500 million people are learning English and/or Spanish as a second language
  • 1% of the world’s population is classified as Autistic
  • 5-16% of children have Sensory Processing Disorder

Why Videogames Have Not Been Accessible

“It’s funny, when I start to talk about accessibility, it’s a common reaction that who I’m speaking to becomes a little embarrassed at having never thought of this huge group of people before,” Adriane says. “However, if you don’t have a family member or friend with a disability, it’s unlikely that you would have thought about it.”

Although awareness of the issue is one area of improvement, according to Adriane, another of the reasons why accessibility has been a missing element for so long has been because the technology wasn’t there yet. For instance, either the tech solution, such as a screen reader, didn’t exist, or, the video game consoles weren’t powerful enough to integrate it into gameplay without crashing.

However, advances in technology are now enabling developers to transcend those issues. Not only are technological solutions in existence now, such as the text-to-speech API that now works in-game on Xbox One, but systems are more robust, able to process more, faster. Truly, now is the time to open the door for those of all abilities to experience and enjoy gaming.

“It was rare, until about the ‘90s, that you had any dialogue in games. We didn’t even have consistent subtitles in games until recently because it was just more information the game would have to portray that would take up its resources, but now that we have more powerful consoles and PCs, we have more leeway,” Adriane explains. “Finally, we’re at the point where we can add these other features without it being too taxing, and we have best practices to rely on.”

Considering that other forms of media, such as books and television, have already made strides towards accessibility becoming standard, it’s only logical that video games would follow suit. After all, videogames offer more than just entertainment – they offer a cultural experience as well.

“We have too much technology and too many people working on this to say that the gaming experience is not meant for certain groups of people,” Adriane says.

Are You Considering Adding Accessible Audio into Your Next Gaming Experience?

What challenges have you faced – or do you anticipate will come up in the future? Is this the first time you’ve considered accessible audio in video games?

Add your thoughts in the comments below! We’d love to get a discussion going.

Follow Adriane Kuzminski

Follow Adriane on Twitter @smashclayaudio

Learn More About Accessible Gaming, Including Grant Opportunities Through AbleGamers

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can help create games for everyone, visit the AbleGamers website.

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  • Avatar for Suzanne Taylor
    Suzanne Taylor
    December 4, 2017, 3:14 pm

    So far, adding accessibility has only helped with creativity/depth in our game design overall. We have several games in development now, including an AR game for iOS. (All of our games, though designed for a general audience, are also designed to have audio/tactile mixed with screen reader support to provide accessibility)

    One thing that has made our iOS development easier is that Apple allows app developers considerable control of the screen reader on iOS. It’s important not to stray too far from how users expect the screen reader to work, but that control lets developers pretty easily fill in any gaps/detail left out by other audio. We use it especially for info about what different portions of the UI are for and how to operate them, with audio effects used for the game experience / game play itself.

    • Avatar for Tanya
      December 5, 2017, 8:12 am

      Hi Suzanne!
      Thank you so much for sharing. It sounds like you have some pretty amazing games, including that AR game for iOS that you mentioned (which is in development). VERY cool. What made you consider accessibility? Has the design proved to be more or less challenging? How have you adjusted your process?

      • Avatar for Suzanne Taylor
        Suzanne Taylor
        December 8, 2017, 12:06 pm

        So far, solving the accessibility challenges has helped design better solutions for all players in the AR game. This might be because user interface best practices for different types of AR are not entirely established yet. While for the average user certain actions could have been left a bit awkward, those actions wouldn’t work for blind players. Once the design for the blind players was figured out, all of a sudden it was clear, that that should be default for all players! If AR is going to something you play for a while, rather than just a little demo-type app, actions need to be as easy as in non-AR games. The jury is out, though, on the overall amount of effort, I’ll check back in once we’ve checked off all the boxes!

      • Avatar for Tanya
        December 11, 2017, 7:45 am

        Hi Suzanne,
        What an awesome finding!
        Please do let us know what else you discover as you go along the development journey. It’s really interesting.
        Wishing you the best as you continue to build!