Accessibility: Video Games

16 July 2012

Anyone who follows the rest of my passions knows that I spend quite a bit of time advocating for accessibility on websites. I've given talks, done posters, and I'm even working on a book about it for O'Reilly. Recently, however, I've been thinking more and more about accessibility in video games.

Within the past year, two games made a special effort make their games more accessible. Dungeons of Dredmor added a mode especially for colorblind people. Legend of Grimrock added an on-screen movement pad for a disabled gamer who used a mouth stick to use his computer. I admit it: I still get a bit choked up when I read those stories. I just wish there were more of them.

Without a doubt, video games have made some strides in accessibility in the past few years. Audio is now almost always captioned, and inversely, dialog is almost nearly spoken. Controls are customizable. Controllers specifically for the disabled are being marketed more. But as long as we're making games, it's something that developers and designers will have to keep thinking about. It's not a problem that can be 'solved'. That would be like saying we solved the 'usability' problem, or the 'fun' problem. It's something that's going to keep growing and changing as technology and the way we interact with it keeps changing.

Why bother?

This is the first question I get from people. Why add to your development time and overhead, when you could be putting that money towards another level, or slightly better art? Many people see the time and effort put towards accessibility as wasted.

First, the number of people that need accessibility is not as small as most people think. Seven percent of all males are colorblind, to some extent. Twenty-one million people in the US suffer from arthritic issues that can affect how well they can hold a controller, or how quickly they can use a keyboard. This year, a million people will break their arm in the US, while 300,000 more will be treated for repetitive stress injuries. Approximately 10% of the world's population is left-handed.

Second, a side benefit of designing for accessibility is that the usability for everyone often goes up. The things that made a game impossible for one person are often still annoying for someone with no issues. No one likes a bad font choice, or all caps, and most people want a choice when it comes to subtitles, or listening to the voice acting.

Guiding principle

There's one rule for accessibility:

For every player, all the data, and all the functionality

It's up to you how many groups you want to cover, but for everyone you've decided to include, they should be able to not only do everything that everyone else can do in your game, but they should be able to access all the information you're exposing. If a player has to mouse over something figure out what its stats are, but they can't use their mouse, your game isn't really accessible. If you force users to use their arrow keys to move, but a player needs to use WASD, once again, your game isn't accessible. All the stuffs for everyone.

It's not just blind people

I've already alluded to this, but accessibility isn't just about blind people. There's generally four groups:

  • Visually disabled
  • Hearing disabled
  • Physically disabled
  • Cognitively disabled

Unlike a website, you aren't going to be able to make your game accessible for all the people in all of those groups. By knowing what annoys them, however, you can start considering what you can add to your game to make it more accessible.

Visually disabled

Being visually disabled is more than being blind. If someone is color blind, or needs glasses, they fit into this category as well. Yes, most games cannot be tweaked for someone who's completely blind (though they may surprise you), but that's no reason not to consider the other sub-categories.


This is the group that should never be ignored. One, it's a huge group, no matter what your age range (7% of males). Two, it's one of the easiest groups to test and make adjustments for.

Your goal, when adjusting for color blindness, should be making sure that your interface doesn't get muddled or ambiguous if someone can't differentiate certain colors. If you're developing on a Mac, Color Oracle makes this dead simple. Start up Color Oracle, start up your game, then select the type of color blindness you want to emulate.

Things you should look for:

  • If you change color schemes on your models, can you still tell the difference between them? Do your mana potions look like your health potions?
  • Do things that are important still stand out? That red book on the bookshelf that's vital to moving the plot along: does it still look different?
  • Is your text still readable? Would you want to look at that color combination for several hours, or would you rage quit after fifteen minutes?
  • Is something that should be subtle now really obvious? Some colors are actually more intense for certain types of color blindness.

If you find you have an issue, you don't need to choose a drastically different color: usually, a minor tweak is enough. Normally, I nudge the colors around the color wheel until I find two that seem different. Adjusting the darkness or lightness of the colors usually has the most impact, and has the least impact on the feel of the game.

And if it's really impossible? Steal Dredmor's solution, and have a theme just for the color blind.

Corrected vision

As someone with a rather strong astigmatism can tell you, suffering through bad interface choices can be painful. Sure, I can see pretty well (my vision is close to perfect, otherwise), but after a while, I'll start to get headaches and teary eyes, even with my glasses on.

This happened to me a few years back with a game called Eternal Sonata. I downloaded the demo... and discovered that the font / color / text size combo made it impossible to play. Sure, there was voice acting for most of the dialog... but not for the menus! The crazy fancy font plus the brilliant blue background and teeny size were just too much. I didn't buy the game.

Unlike the color-blind group, this group doesn't have any nifty tools to use for testing. Instead, it's better to follow some guidelines:

  • Dark text on a light background is easier to read. Period. If you must, for aesthetic reasons, have a dark background with light text, at least offer an option for the user to change it.
  • Some people prefer dark backgrounds with light text (migraine sufferers often ask for this). If you have a light background and dark text, give them the option to swap.
  • Use a sans-serif font for screens. No mono-space. No serifs. No cursive. No... whatever the hell Eternal Sonata was using. Don't be afraid to be bland, and choose a common font that is well-known for being highly legible. No one ever played a game, logged forty hours, beat the big bad, and said "Dude! Did you SEE that awesome font they picked?!"
  • Make the font size big. On a computer screen, this would be around 12px. On a TV, it might be bigger. Some people play with their noses pressed against the screen, while others are on a couch across the room. If you want to cover all your bases, you make this customizable as well.

And there's more!

In the next article, I'll discuss the hearing disabled, which ranges from the completely deaf to those who have to wear hearing aids, and people who forgot their headphones.


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