4 Web Accessibility Lessons from Video Game Developers
Video games seem like an obvious exception to the widely accepted rules of digital accessibility. After all, most games require certain levels of sensory perception — if you have low vision or limited mobility, you can’t expect to compete when playing games like Street Fighter, a one-on-one fighting game that requires exceptional reaction times.
Except, of course, you can: Sven Van de Wege, who is blind, is a successful professional gamer who plays Street Fighter V by listening to audio cues (and usually wins). Mike Wassel, who has low vision, goes by the handle BlindNDangerous and competes against fully sighted opponents in games like Mortal Kombat X and Killer Instinct.
And given the size of the $220 billion video game market, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that many gamers have conditions that change the way they play. About 26% of U.S. adults live with some form of disability — and a growing number of developers have recognized the importance of this audience .
When video games prioritize accessibility, they can reach a wider audience. Over the past several years, many developers have taken an accessibility-first approach, introducing extensive accessibility features in mainstream games like God of War: Ragnarok and The Last of Us Part 1.
Below, we’ll look at the steps that developers have taken to make their games more inclusive — and how web developers can incorporate the concepts of inclusive design into their work.
1. Providing people with options benefits everyone
Just before the release of The Last of Us Part 1, developer Naughty Dog shared an overview of the game’s accessibility options, which included audio descriptions for cinematics, subtitles, combat vibration cues, high-contrast modes, expanded game difficulty options, and dozens of other features.
“We’re expecting this to be an accessible experience for blind players, for deaf players, for players with motor accessibility needs,” explained game director Matthew Gallant in a Playstation Blog post.
Overall, the features earned a strong reception from gaming accessibility advocates, including a largely positive review from Ben Bayliss of Can I Play That?, a popular game accessibility blog.
But the features also brought gamers without disabilities into the fold. By providing people with more ways to play the game — and options for tweaking virtually every part of the gameplay experience — Naughty Dog created a product that most consumers can enjoy, regardless of their abilities or preferences.
Put simply, people like options. When digital products avoid restricting their audiences, consumers respond.
2. Accessibility can help with marketing and branding
In the world of gaming, accessibility features are no longer an afterthought. Games like God of War: Ragnarok aggressively marketed their accessibility options, to great effect: The game quickly became the fastest seller in PlayStation history after its launch, and many reviews cited the suite of 70+ accessibility options as a major selling point.
Of course, great word of mouth is essential in consumer marketing. Digital accessibility helps marketers create stronger organic campaigns — people are much more likely to support brands that make a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
3. Accessibility doesn’t limit your ability to tell a story
Some video game accessibility options change the way that gameplay works or provide people with different options for interactions — but that doesn’t prevent game designers from presenting complex, nuanced stories. While some accessibility options can affect gameplay, developers have found ways to incorporate those features while delivering cinematic experiences.
God of War: Ragnarok, for instance, includes motion sensor aiming, which can improve accuracy for some gamers with motor control disabilities. High contrast options can highlight important items, and a traversal assist feature enables gamers to move through levels more easily.
These features may simplify gameplay for some people — but they certainly don’t break the game.
That’s not a surprise for people in the digital accessibility space: Contrary to popular belief, the best practices of accessibility don’t force designers to make plain, boring websites or restrict developers from including features in mobile applications. Accessibility supports the experience of the end user, which often means lower development costs and faster development timelines.
4. Digital accessibility always requires a dedicated, consistent approach
Video game accessibility features cannot be an afterthought. For Last of Us Part 1, Naughty Dog made a commitment to its users during the planning stage, reaching out to third-party accessibility firms to incorporate new features in ways that made sense for real players.
And while Naughty Dog is a major developer, accessibility doesn’t always require an enormous investment. Indie developer Greg Lobanov prioritized the experiences of people with color vision deficiencies (also called color blindness) when creating Chicory: A Colorful Tale.
The game requires players to use color, but as Lobanov told GameRant, the choice of colors is purely aesthetic. Players have the freedom to choose any colors they want to use.
"Half of our QA [Quality Assurance] testers are color blind as well," Lobanov said.
Ultimately, digital accessibility can be a priority for any project — as long as it’s prioritized early on. Implementing accessibility features is much easier during the first stages of development, and there’s a growing awareness among video game creators that full access is an important goal.
To learn more about the best practices of digital accessibility, download our free eBook: Developing the Accessibility Mindset.