Remember those old movies with the long conga line in them? Well, imagine that the line is a line of gamers. But some of the gamers can’t dance. So, no conga for them. They’re just watching their friends have fun while dealing with a frustrated desire to dance themselves. That is what it is like for an estimated 20-25% of the population over the age of 17. This is because these potential gamers have one or more physical or cognitive disabilities. And the games most of us make do not provide a means for these folks to access them.
Awareness is Job #1
I was asked to participate in the IGDA’s “Game Not Over: Expanding the Market through Accessible Games” full-day tutorial at GDC. And I guess, like most of those reading this article, it was not something I had thought much about at all. And to a great extent, that is the first problem - awareness.
Certainly, no developer would intentionally decrease their potential user base by 20%. And I doubt anyone who makes games, even the most callous among us, would intentionally exclude anyone from getting enjoyment out of the fruits of their labor. Most likely it is simply a lack of awareness or an understanding of the issues involved and how to address them. And, of course, that damned “allocation of resources” issue that impacts every proposed gameplay feature.
Disabilities Come in Several Flavors
Rather than speaking of games for the disabled, it is better to think of it in terms of making games that are “universally accessible.” Disabilities can generally be divided into four basic types; visual; auditory; mobility and cognitive. And the extent of the disability in each type varies. For example, visual disabilities range from total blindness (where all game information needs to be conveyed through sound and touch) to color blindness.
This is similar with all the different types of disabilities. And the result is not just a single solution. But in many cases, a different solution is required for each variant. Now, instead of a single gameplay feature to factor into the cost-benefit analysis, it becomes a bunch of gameplay features. Some very difficult and expensive to implement. Fortunately, others are fairly simple to set up.
Some Simple Examples
Some of the more basic features that can help make your game “universally accessible” include closed captioning for the hearing impaired. This means be more than just dialog. It also needs to include all game cues, including gameplay hints that might be being delivered through sounds effects or even music. (Valve did this with Half Life 2 and there is a Doom 3 closed-captioned mod as well). Many mobility issues can be addressed with a single switch system like the one in Strange Attractors, one of the IGF Innovation Award nominees, or by a modified one-handed controller set up. Cognitive disabilities might require a slower pace or much lower difficulty level.
Hey, wait a minute! Difficulty levels are already in most games. Talk about your “low-hanging fruit.” Just make a special difficulty that is a lot easier! The odd this is that studies show that people who are not disabled also access and use these features when present in games.
Where’s the Game Law?
This is all interesting…but I am sure by now someone is wondering, “Where’s the Game Law?” Well, my part of the tutorial was about applicable US law. And there are a few things to be considered. Although US discrimination laws do not extend to products sold to individuals, they do apply to government sales.
So, if there is any potential government sale of your game or technology in your business model, you had better pay attention to making it universally accessible. Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 requires accessibility on all electronic media sold to the government. So, it may be something you need to consider. For more information, see: http://www.section508.gov/.
That’s the “stick” side of the equation. On the “carrot” side we have the 8826 Tax Credit to small businesses that implement accessibility into their games. Small businesses are defined as businesses with 50 or fewer employees or whose annual revenue is less that $1M US. You can recover up to 50% of the expense of the implementation of accessibility up to $10,000.00. That is a total tax credit of up to $5,000.00. And a tax credit is deducted from your taxes, not merely expensed out.
I’m no tax lawyer, but $5K tax credit to closed caption your game, especially for small casual game studios, could be well worth the effort. Here’s the link to the form - http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8826.pdf. Pass it on to your accountant!
Here are a few more links to additional information on these issues:
IGDA Accessibility SIG - http://www.igda.org/accessibility/
The Bartiméus Accessibility Foundation - http://www.accessibility.nl/games/
UK Accessibility Site Article on Games - http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/closeup/gaming.shtml
So, there is an untapped market here, financial incentives, government pressure…and most important, it’s the right thing to do. Let’s all start thinking seriously about making games universally accessible to everyone.
Till next time… Good luck, have fun, and I’ll see you at E3!