The current state of game accessibility guidelines

The economic crisis doesn’t seem to bother game designers trying to make their games accessible to more people (it might even do the opposite). Neither does it slow down the incredible volunteer work of game accessibility advocates. At the moment I count eight “competing” sets of guidelines that tell you what to do when you want to create an accessible game and therefore I feel little incentive to create a set of them myself. (http://xkcd.com/927/)

The focus will be on the differences between the standards and hopefully gives an overview to game designers so they can better choose which one to follow during their creation process, and maybe give a glimpse to the game accessibility community on where to go next.

Beginner and quick lists

The beginner and quick lists are good starting points to get into game accessibility with your current project. But for truly low hanging fruit within your current project I would also recommend taking the level-1/basic guidelines of the more extensive lists and seeing whether or not you can implement those.

A beginners guide to video game accessibility

http://www.brannonz.com/accessibility/disabilities.html

Written by Brannon Zahand, this easy to grasp guide gives 11 guidelines that are surprisingly extensive for it’s size. This makes it the perfect starting point for game designers who are just starting with game accessibility. The guidelines are put into four categories, and include a surprising category of “vocal” which focuses on mute or temporarily mute players. The only thing I find missing is cognitive impairments. The accessibility and approachability of the guide itself is also commendable.

The 11 guidelines aren’t the heart of this guide; in fact they feel like an afterthought after Brannon explains in examples and statistics the far reaching need of accessibility in games. Especially the “temporarily impaired” (for example; the gamer that is in a public space and therefore can’t turn on the sound.) argument is well put in this guide. This is a great starting point.

IGDA top 10

http://igda-gasig.org/about-game-accessibility/game-accessibility-top-ten/

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) runs a Special Interest Group (SIG) focused on game accessibility. This group together with “Special effect” put together this short list of top 10 guidelines. For a quick check or when low on budget this is brilliant, but it’s not meant to be extensive.

Specialized lists

These specialized lists are made for specific purposes and might be ideal for your project, but most game designers will want to take a look at the more extensive lists.

Guidelines for the development of entertaining software for people with multiple learning disabilities.

http://www.medialt.no/rapport/entertainment_guidelines/index.htm

The UPS project created these guidelines to adjust existing games to become more accessible to a larger audience.

Where some sets categorize their guidelines by target audience, these are categorized by subject; possible making them easier to distribute to the relevant members of the game development team. The five subjects are:

  • Level/progression
  • Input
  • Graphics
  • Sound
  • Installation and settings

The target audience for games created with these guidelines are people with several learning disabilities, instead of people with disabilities in general. This makes these guidelines very specific and focused but it also results in obvious omissions. These are quite good guidelines, but most game designers don’t design for this one specific target audience and will want to look further.

UA-Games (“Game over” list)

http://www.ua-games.gr/game-over/game_levels.html

The game “Game over” introduces a new game accessibility problem in every level to raise awareness about these problems. These problems and their solutions are detailed in this list. These guidelines, when followed to the letter, especially 17 and 19, might even enable completely blind players access to the game.

The list features no categories and the order of the guidelines seems arbitrary, which makes browsing trough the guidelines somewhat of a challenge and the wording of the guidelines is rather subjective at times.

BBC Accessibility Games Standard V1.0

http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/futuremedia/accessibility/games.shtml

Build specifically for web-based browser games on the BBC website, this list is neither extensive nor universally applicable. However, especially the guidelines in the “moter” section are very specifically engineered to provide accessibility to webgames, leaning heavily towards the keyboard accessibility guidelines in WCAG (the web content accessibility guidelines). It can be used as a springboard for any web-based browser game.

It is very commendable that the BBC has this standard for games on their website and even more commendable that they posted it openly.

Wish list for accessible game design

http://www.gamebase.info/magazine/read/wish-list-for-accessible-game-design_531.html

This list was written by “Special effect” as part of their project to create an objective rating system for games. Although the project seems to still be in BETA since 2011, the wish list is already relevant and thorough.

The list is categorized into the four main categories most commonly used among these lists and every first “wish” among the four categories starts with “Openly describe accessibility features”, asking for freely accessible documentation about the accessibility of the game. Some of the wishes have links to examples although I would have liked to see more of them.

After the five wishes per category there is a list of recommend further research pages. Which lists some helpful links. This list makes a good intermediate in between the very extensive guidelines and the beginner guidelines or the quicklists.

Extensive lists

These two lists are the one stop places for most projects and what most people in the game accessibility community would eventually like to see as industry standards.

Includification guidelines

http://www.includification.com/

Ablegamers created these guidelines separating them into the four categories that represent the four areas of disabilities that hamper gameplay:

  • Mobility
  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Cognitive

This is a common way to categorize game accessibility guidelines making it easier to concentrate on a specific target audience with your game. All these categories are in turn split up into three levels. Level 1 being the bare minimum, Level 2 giving the easy to implement guidelines and Level 3 providing guidelines that might be hard to implement but would bring about the ideal in game accessibility if used. The only category missing is “speech” or “vocal”, which is included in two later lists in this category.

When compared to the other extensive general target group list in this article “Game accessibility guidelines”, this list might be a bit smaller and might miss some things that the Game accessibility guidelines do capture. Some of the guidelines have more information and background than the equivalents of the game accessibility guidelines have so it might still be wise to harvest these guidelines for extra information even if you don’t use them as a checklist. An additional advantage of these guidelines is the fact that every single guideline has examples from well known titles. But it mostly comes down to which of the two sets is the most appropriate for your project; and personal preference. Also a fair point to consider is the fact that the Includification guidelines are probably also the points reviewers keep in mind while reviewing games for www.ablegamers.com.

Game accessibility guidelines

http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/

Probably the most extensive of the lists it is the only other list of guidelines which has the “speech” or “vocal” category. The Game accessibility guidelines are in my eyes the pinnacle of game accessibility when used. Some come with best practice examples; all are easily categorized and filtered (Basic, intermediate, advanced). Each guideline has a whole page of it’s own with extra information and links to resources and extra information.

When compared to the “Includification guidelines” these are definitely more extensive; including a lot more guidelines in the “hearing” category and catering more the completely blind gamers for example.

I am especially exited about this set because it seems to have the most traction amongst the community. It is a truly living document and even has started gathering open source code solutions based on the guidelines:

http://gameaccessibilitycode.com/

Conclusion

There are good guidelines out there. I personally think the Game accessibility guidelines are the best choice to go with in general but all have merit and use and obviously it’s only my single opinion. I think community driven creation and improvement of these guidelines is the key to successful implementation. The game industry is older(!) and larger than the web design industry, but the web content accessibility guidelines are well ahead when compared to the game accessibility guidelines. In part this is because the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) as an authority figure has endorsed WCAG and nothing else, but also because the W3C has a workflow that integrates the target audience and stakeholders into the development of their standards in the form of working groups, public reviews and iterations.

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