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What is accessibility?

What is accessibility?

Alec Menard
by AlecMenard on 11 Apr 2024

In this short article, I present a quick popularization of the concept of accessibility as well as my perspective on it and why it matters. TL;DR at the bottom of the article.

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What is accessibility?

Accessibility might sound scary at times, but it’s a pretty simple concept. Accessibility is the practice of making information, activities and environments sensible, meaningful, and usable for as many people as possible, no matter their abilities, limitations or experience.

“OK, but how does that translate in games?” you might ask. Well, in video games, accessibility is about making games that can be understood and played by as many people as possible, no matter their abilities, limitations or experience.

“So, accessibility is making games for everyone?” Well, not exactly.

Popular Misconceptions

When we hear that accessibility is the concept of making games that can be played by as many people as possible, we often think that it means “making games that everyone likes.” You and I both know that making a game that everyone likes is impossible, and if it was, it would make a pretty boring game. What makes gaming so fun is all the genres and the different types of games that exist on the market and the fact that you can play games that match your preferences. If we aimed at making games that please everyone, we would kill the richness and the diversity of our ecosystem. So, accessibility IS NOT making games that everyone likes.

Another common misconception is that accessibility is “making sure that LITERALLY EVERYONE can play my game.” While that would be super cool, it’s not the case either. As we speak (or as you’re reading this), the different spectrums of abilities and limitations in humans are way too wide to design games (or anything, frankly) that can be understood and usable by everyone. Unfortunately, right now, there will always be someone somewhere that cannot access your game. So, accessibility IS NOT making games that literally everyone can play.

One last misconception is that we often associate accessibility with disability. While it’s true that people with some kind of disabilities might need accessibility, accessibility is useful for everyone. When you think about it, every human has its own set of abilities and limitations. No matter if we consider ourselves to have some kind of disability or not, each and every one of us is located somewhere on the different ability’s spectrum (visual, motor skill, auditory and cognitive). So, accessibility IS NOT exclusively useful for people with disabilities, limitations or impairments. 

Great, so WHAT exactly is accessibility?

I found that the easiest way to explain how I see accessibility in games is with a metaphor. Let’s compare a video game with archery. If the game is to shoot the bow and hit the target, accessibility is letting players choose their bow and set the target themselves. Most people will come, take the bow you provide them and shoot the target where you initially placed it. They do it the “default way”. For some people, the string might be too hard to pull, or the bow too heavy to hold, so you allow them to tweak it so it’s more manageable for them. Other people will find it way too easy and hit the target every time, so they set the target twice as far as you initially did and add a lot of tension to the string. They miss the target a lot, but when they hit, they’re very proud of themselves for achieving this feat. I could go on and on about all the different ways people can adjust the bow and the target, but at the end of the day, they all come to aim, shoot arrows and hit the target. Accessibility in games is the same thing. The goal is not to change the game or to make it easier, it’s about giving players agency on how they want to achieve the core experience you design for them. Most people won’t adjust anything, some might adjust it a lot and tweak everything, but in the end, all they want to do is play your game.

So, for me, accessibility in video games is giving players options that let them adjust the game so that they can reach the core experience, no matter their abilities, limitations, experiences and preferences. 

Why does it matter?

Accessibility matters for many reasons. Some are objective, while others are more subjective. For a start, the World Health Organisation estimates that 16% of the world’s population experience significant disability. Objectively, these people are human, and like you and I, they deserve to be included and to fully participate in society. This means that they have a right to be entertained and to be integrated into entertainment communities. As game developers, it’s our job to try to include at least some of them when we design our games. Also, if the trend continues (CVAA), accessibility might become mandatory in games in the years to come.

Why should it matter to you?

If you’re reading this, I’d assume you work in the video game industry. If you do, I’ll also assume you play games yourself (if not, we’ll just pretend you do for this example to make sense). Now, I really don’t wish anything bad on anyone, but sometimes, life just happens. Imagine you break a wrist, or worse, you lose part of an arm. Now, not only can’t you do most things like you used to (which already sucks), but one of those things is playing video games. Because of your new reality, you can’t hold the controller properly, or maybe not at all. If something like this were to happen, I imagine you’d be grateful that your favourite game has accessibility options that lets you adapt the gameplay to your new reality and play one-handed!

Now, I hear you saying, “Alec, I’m pretty confident that this kind of thing won’t happen to me.” That’s great! And to be fair, you might be right. My example was a little extreme. But you know what isn’t? Getting older. Yes, we humans have the fatal flaw of having an expiration date. We age by the second, and someday, we will all be older, slower and we will have a ton of time on our hands. In that moment, I know I’ll want to play games a lot and if you’re like me, I imagine you will too. If that’s the case, I’m sure you’ll be grateful to have the options to adjust certain mechanics like slowing down the game speed, make the texts bigger, the colours more contrasting and lower that annoying noise that you can’t stand.

Finally, for the couple of you who are sure this won’t be a problem either (for reasons I do not want to know), I have one last reason. Remember that time you wanted to play Mario Kart with your parents, but you Dad lost any knowledge whatsoever on how driving and steering works, you Mom couldn’t press more than one button at once and your brother couldn’t stop crying because every shell he threw at you missed? Well, accessibility can help with levelling the playing field in all these situations. Dad can have a road assist; Mom can toggle the gas on and off and only concentrate on the steering and your brother can use an aim assist for his items. Now, everyone can enjoy the same game, no matter their experiences or abilities. Isn’t it great? I think it is.

All that being said, I did not forget about you, reader who works in the game industry and (somehow) does not play games, or generally does not care for the examples above. Believe it or not, accessibility has many ways to matter to you too! First off, remember when I said that the WHO estimates that 16% of the world's population is severely disabled? Well, some of them have a lot of time on their hands and are waiting to fill it with entertainment. If we design games with some of these people in mind, we can reach a larger audience, have more players playing the game and possibly tap into a market that our competitors cannot. Also, in this day and age, accessibility and inclusivity has really good press. Making accessible games with genuine intentions can help build a positive image for your studio, brand or game, which in return, can help boost its visibility.  

Closing Words

As I tried to argue in this short article, accessibility is an important matter that concerns everyone. As game developers, we must not fear it. Accessibility is not about changing our games or making them so they please everyone, it’s about giving the means to the people to experience it. I think we must at least try to incorporate it in our games, as best as we can, because imperfect accessibility will always be better than no accessibility at all.

Don’t want to read all of that? That’s all right, I’ve got you. Here’s a quick TL; DR.

Accessibility is NOT about making games that everyone wants to play, everyone likes, or everyone can play. It’s about giving the players who want to play your game a chance to adjust it to their abilities, limitations, experiences and preferences.

Accessibility is NOT only for people with disabilities. While yes, they might seem to benefit more from it, accessibility is useful for everyone, since we all have our own sets of abilities and limitations.

While accessibility in games matter because everyone has a right to be entertained and be a part of entertainment communities, it’s also something that none of us can escape. Life happens and we are all getting older. At some point in our life, we will all need some kind of accessibility.

Lastly, accessibility also has economic advantages. An accessible game can help you reach a larger player base or tap into a market that your competitors might not be able to. It can also help build a positive image of your studio, your brand and your game.   

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