Accessibility is a hot button topic, tying directly into issues of diversity and inclusivity — but how does it play into gaming? Steve Andrews CITP MBCS reflects on the progress and pitfalls of accessible gaming features and their future in the industry.

In recent years, the hospitality and banking industries have released low quality web applications that offer poor utility to disabled users. In a recent research article, Ranjit Singh described how hotels frequently use high resolution, glossy images to depict their properties with little to no alternative text for screen readers. Indeed, several well known brands (such as Netflix and eBay) have initiated court proceedings seeking to avoid compliance with accessibility regulations, which thankfully failed. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted a societal need for more accessible and inclusive digital services and products that undeniably exist.

ITNOW’s recent examination of neurodiversity in IT touched briefly on the social model of disability. The social model, developed over the last quarter of a century, is an interdisciplinary field of study that examines the interplay between culture, disability and media. The model also purports that disability is caused by three specific barriers (attitudinal, physical and informational) that society should mitigate where possible.

In the gaming industry, these barriers manifest themselves in different ways. Academic lines of enquiry into disability and gaming pivot towards the medical model of disability in exploring the medium as a form of therapy. Additionally, even though gaming is well established in mainstream culture, accessibility considerations are lagging. Comparatively, many other forms of media have arrived at a stable level of accessibility expectations (as demonstrated by WCAG for web content), but accessible gaming has yet to normalise.

Accessible game design advocacy and prioritised feature development

Entering 2024, several prominent gaming orientated websites have established themselves both in how they champion accessible game development and subsequently review products that take up the gauntlet. The foremost of these sites are and AbleGamers.Org. An analysis of accessibility related articles published in 2023 surfaces four overall design trends:

  1. Subtitles and text accessibility
  2. Difficulty options and assist features
  3. Control options and control design
  4. Colour, UI clarity, game visual clarity and visual cues for audio

Text accessibility and subtitles are so common in games that they are expected to be present. The utility of the more accessible and inclusive games extends beyond deciding to turn subtitles on or off. A gamer can alter fonts and font properties, such as size and colour. Secondly, difficulty and assistive features speak to reducing demands on player skills. Studios that develop games primarily with difficulty levels in mind run the risk of discriminating against gamers with a range of impairments (motor, cognitive, visual). The third trend focuses on gaming control options and control design, which are different. Control design focuses on how accessible a game's default controls are when a product ships. Control options, or the customisation of gaming controls (button mapping, HUD resizing and more) varies across products and is less frequently offered than text customisation. The last trend, focusing on colour and the clarity of a game's UI, retains importance to those who suffer from visual impairments such as low vision or blindness and colour blindness.

Accessibility Measures in Consoles (wide lens)

Professor Anderson contends that the four trends he has identified, when present, offer the bare minimum for accessible gaming. He continues by stating that any game developer, regardless of headcount, should minimally provide all of these accessibility features.  

For Microsoft’s Xbox console, the software giant offers developers the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGS). XAGS has been established in partnership with accessibility experts and the disabled gaming community. As of June 2023, Microsoft has authored 23 XAGS with identical anatomy, including (but not limited to) goals, scoping questions, implementation guides and example content.

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Twenty-three XAGS might sound insufficient compared to WCAG 2.2 and its 86 success criteria, but they are relatively comprehensive. XAGS 101-120 align very well with Anderson's accessibility trends, whilst XAGS 121-123 discuss documentation for accessible features, accessible customer support and mental health best practices. Microsoft also caters for accessibility on the Xbox level (X series), with a dedicated accessibility configuration screen that provides a narrator, captioning, controller customisation, contrast and audio options and a night mode.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 console also has a dedicated accessibility configuration screen, which offers display and sound, screen reader, controllers, closed captions and chat transcription. Display and sound offer a higher level of customisation than other sections, permitting fonts, text sizing, and scroll options to be altered as required. The additional sections also cater to Anderson's trends, including the chat transcription, which converts voice chat from fellow gamers into text. The reverse journey of text to speech is also possible. Sony's literature for development studios appears ringfenced in their partner network and not readily available to the public.

Studios and games of note (narrow lens)

So, having established a baseline set of accessibility features and querying how console manufacturers accommodate them, one question remains. What are game developers doing to make their games accessible?

To answer this, it's appropriate to return to one of the social model's barriers: attitudinal. An impressive set of accessibility options was included in Dust: An Elysian Tale by Dean Dodrill, who singularly designed and developed the game over four years. Dust offered a range of possibilities far more advanced than other games of its time (2012). These options include HUD adjustment and the ability to alter the field of vision (FOV) to prevent headaches and eye strain.

It has taken the more prominent, oft-called AAA games products some time to catch up. Of the significant games development studies, Ubisoft is particularly well-placed, offering a commitment to accessibility reaching back to 2018, when Assassin’s Creed Origins won an award for its subtitles and text options (which can be read in Ubisoft’s news centre under accessibility). The studio also comments on each new game's accessibility measures upon its launch. Other developers, such as Insomnia Games, who are behind games like Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man, are also leading the charge with accessible gaming.

One last item of note is that some developers are now catering for phobias. Sony’s Horizon Forbidden West features a thalassophobia mode, providing unlimited oxygen for players with fears of deep water. Several games also feature an arachnophobia mode inspired by Obsidian’s game Grounded.

Closing thoughts

Both as a social activity and an industry, gaming has established a central place in mainstream culture. Regardless, a normalisation of accessible gaming features has yet to emerge fully, although recent developments are encouraging. At the same time, the entire gaming community benefits from greater accessibility tools; a more prominent measure of success is the inclusion of disabled gamers through accessibly designed games. 

About the author

Steve Andrews BA(Hons) CITP MBCS is a collaboration Engineer with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and is an expert in collaboration platforms including SharePoint, M365 and the Power Platform. He’s also an avid gamer and technologist.