“Game accessibility” is one of those buzz word phrases that has been thrown around a lot in gaming communities, but the term “accessibility” as it applies to gaming has multiple meanings. We often hear about how large scale MMOs (like World of Warcraft) are increasing the accessibility of their games by catering to a larger and larger casual player base. That is not the kind of game accessibility that I want to talk about here today. I want to talk about “accessibility” in the more common, real world sense of the word: removing the barriers preventing disabled gamers from taking part in games.
How Many Players Are Disabled?
How many disabled video game players are out there? This is a field of research has been largely passed by. Even finding basic statistics about disabled gamers proves disheartening. How many World of Warcraft players are disabled? How many MMO players? How many serious gamers? How many PC gamers? No one really knows.
Estimates I’ve seen about disabled gamers range from 5% to 20%; they vary greatly due to differences in definitions of what makes a gamer disabled, and what makes a person a gamer. Does playing simple flash games make you a gamer? Internet Scrabble? Are you a disabled player if you have a learning disorder? Corrective lenses? Carpal tunnel?
The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) estimates 9% of the gaming population is disabled (1 in every 11 people).
A separate market research study commissioned by Pop Cap Games put the estimates of disabled game players at 20% of the casual gaming market, and of that 20%…
“Only 26% of disabled casual gamers said they also play traditional, “hardcore” video games; among those respondents with physical disabilities specifically, that figure dropped to 18%.”
So, provided their research surveyed the gaming community fairly and with significant enough sample, 5.2% of the player base of “traditional” games has a disability of some sort (about 1 in 20 people) by their numbers. This is a little over half of what the IGDA estimated.
Michelle Hinn on Terra Nova (May 2, 2007) cited a major hurdle in accurately measuring the population of disabled gamers:
“The trouble that is added into the equation is that how many disabled people WOULD be gamers if they COULD be — we might find that there is a higher percentage compared to the non-disabled population because it affords opportunity for leisure, which in other areas is denied.”
It’s really difficult to measure the actual size of a community when a segment of it is denied entrance. However, the figures above give us a general idea of the number of people we are talking about here. Thinking in terms of World of Warcraft, if we go by the IDGA figure of 9%, that is a population of people equal in number to those who play a shaman as their main character. If we go with the 5% figure, then we could be talking about a population the size of those who play holy priests as their mains. The point is that this is a sizable amount of people. Five percent of 10.5 million World of Warcraft subscribers would be 525,000 people, and that was just the low end of our estimates.
What Types of Disabilities?
There are many types of disabilities that could affect gaming. Here are a few examples:
- Physical motor disabilities – Carpel tunnel, multiple sclerosis.
- Visual impairment – Color blindness, low vision.
- Hearing impairment – Partial or total deafness.
- Learning disorders – Dyslexia, AD/HD.
- Other medical disorders – Chronic fatigue, autism, etc.
Given the breadth of types of disabilities and how they could affect one’s ability to game, inclusive game design is no simple task. Obviously, you cannot cater to everyone. However, small things go a long way toward making a given game inclusive. For example: closed-captioning and avoiding purely auditory cues are of great benefit to the hearing impaired. Allowing for the change of font color and size helps those with low vision or color blindness.
An exercise I have frequently heard citied it to try to enjoy your favorite games while simulating having limited visual, auditory, or motor ability. For example, you could:
- Close one eye and with the other look at your game through a drinking straw.
- Turn off all game sound.
- Try playing one handed.
- Think about how many game details are lost if the colors red and green appeared the same.
Go. Try it. What types of barriers do you encounter and what is their effect on your success within the game? How much of the game remains playable to you? What if you tried a different type of game? How does your success vary?
Removing game barriers would allow disabled players to experience many of the same benefits of gaming that other players do, including: stress relief, improved concentration, sharpened mental dexterity, better fine motor skills, expanded visual-spatial capabilities, and more.
Blizzard’s Words to the Disabled Community
Three years. It took AbleGamers, one of the largest communities of gamers with disabilities, three years to get Blizzard to talk to them. How did they do it?
“We thought about how we could get Blizzard to notice us, so we devised a plan. The details were simple; we made t-shirts that were critical of Blizzard’s inability to return emails to AbleGamers. The second part of the plan was to get word to Blizzard that these shirts would be worn… [at the 2008 Game Developers Conference].”
– Mark Barlet, founder of AbleGamers.com
This smart scheme got them in contact with J. Allen Brack, Lead Producer of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions to World of Warcraft. Mr. Brack has been on quite the media blitz as of late, granting interviews to many gaming news sites around the web and drumming up anticipation of the upcoming expansion. A huge thanks and kudos to AbleGamers for scoring the interview! Nice work!
From the interview, according to Mr. Brack:
“Accessibility is definitely important to us and is one of the hallmarks of our approach to game design. We put a lot of hard work into making great games, and we want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy them.”
The interview continues on to highlight the struggle of balancing game accessibility with over-automation of the game (or in Blizzard’s words: “cheating”)…:
…and the struggle against third-party botting software that automates any aspect of game play:
“We can never permit third-party programs that completely automate the gameplay mechanics within World of Warcraft. We fully support the use of authorized third-party add-ons, macros, programmable keyboards, gamepads, and so on, but we definitely do not allow software that could exploit the player base or fully automate gameplay without user intervention.”
I’ll admit it: when I first read the interview, I became angry. I don’t know what outraged me more: is it how not a single news source, media outlet, or blog cared about what Blizzard said to the disabled gaming community, or the facts stated in the interview? How can Blizzard claim that accessibility is a high priority when the people who actually make the game accessible are not paid Blizzard employees, but third-party programmers who volunteer hours upon hours of their time to develop assistive add-ons to the game?
I spent a few days mulling over the things said in the interview. I talked about it with people. I read up on assistive gaming needs. I played Warcraft while thinking about interface enhancements and the challenges disabled players face. And you know what? The more I thought about things, the more I felt okay.
I realized just how much of the game I was taking for granted. Yes, Warcraft’s customizable user interface is what is being touted as their commitment to accessibility, but there are so many simple, little things Blizzard itself has programmed into the game that could make a huge difference to a player with a disability. You can move your character across the screen with a single mouse click (click-to-move). Many character emotes have auditory, visual, and textual cues. Mobs become a lot easier to identify visually when you have nameplates enabled. Chat font size, color, and background are completely customizable. And the list goes on…
Blizzard has created one of the most accessible “traditional” video games out there. Many games will not even relinquish basic creative rights of their user interface to their player base. World of Warcraft developers provide continued support of the UI customization and add-on development community. Programming a game so open in that regard was surely no simple task, and its continued support is no trivial endeavor.
The Ethics of Accessibility
There is no law or even legal recommendation that video games should have any accessible features. There does not exist any legally-based guidelines or criteria outlining a base level of accessibility a game must adhere to in order to be properly labeled as “accessible.”
Should the ownership be on the player base or on Blizzard to create user interface modifications aiding disabled players of WoW? Is it reasonable to tell disabled gamers to learn the LUA programming language to create macros and add-ons, or to depend on the goodwill of other gamers to do so for them?
Over time, Blizzard has taken steps in increase the accessibility of World of Warcraft. Examples of things implemented after the launch of the game:
- Large text displays over a character’s head alerting of combat events (inspired by an add-on)
- Large, colorful icons that can be placed over the heads of enemy NPCs
- A highlighted display on things that can be toggled or picked up from the ground (which was actually implemented after being suggested by a visually-impaired player)
However, it would be nice to see a commitment from Blizzard about its further pursuit of inclusiveness in games. The prime question on my mind: Why hasn’t Blizzard ever solicited feedback from the disabled community? They would definitely get it. Some of it could even come from in-house; in the aforementioned interview, Mr. Brack stated that some of the Blizzard developers themselves are colorblind.
The International Game Developers Association has a special interest group on game accessibility. This group’s mission is to: “help the game community strive towards creating mainstream games that are universally accessible to all, regardless of age, experience and disability. ” It has membership from leading game developers (LucasArts, Ubisoft, Microsoft), a number of smaller game development shops, and a handful of research universities. However, neither Blizzard nor Activision has ever had a member in this group.
Should Blizzard be held to higher standards for being the frontrunner of the MMO gaming community? Given the size of their player base, and the fact that this is an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of their players, perhaps.
In a recent GameTrailers interview, Tom Chilton, Lead Game Designer of World of Warcraft, cited that Blizzard aims to “outdo ourselves in every respect” in its upcoming expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.
If that is truly the case, the where is Blizzard’s continued commitment to accessibility?
Warcraft vs. Warhammer
Warhammer Online may prove to be World of Warcraft’s largest MMO contender. I’m sure it is no coincidence that Blizzard’s Mr. Brack is giving interviews left and right, drumming up the popularity and publicity of Warcraft hot on the release of Warhammer Online. Whether or not Warhammer Online proves to be the “Warcraft killer” in the MMO market will remain to be seen.
Straight out of the box, Warhammer appears to have more attention to accessibility than Warcraft did. Every UI element that displays information can be resized or moved through a simple “edit interface” feature. Important information will pop right up in the middle of your screen right above your character’s head. Auditory cues are available for many in game events.
Steve Spohn, a senior contributor to AbleGamers, said about Warhammer Online:
“AbleGamers can officially tell you that no matter what your general disability is, this game may have the ability to accommodate you. We have found that game pads work extremely well, the game can be fully moused, and alternatively (sic) third party programs such as voice commands, sip and puff, and other input devices work with 100% proficiency.”
That is a pretty powerful statement. I have never tried Warhammer Online for myself, so I cannot personally speak for any of it. However, I have never heard anyone say anything like that about World of Warcraft.
An Indecent Bedfellow
One of the largest challenges the game accessibility movement encounters is how unpublicized it is. It is not something many people ever consider.
When trying to read up on the issue, I kept stumbling upon random forum posts and YouTube videos about how Blizzard is discriminating against disabled players by not letting them make use of third-party software allowing for automation of certain aspects of game play.
Yes, the same botting software creators being sued by Blizzard for its use within World of Warcraft are making a stand by claiming it increases the playability of the game for disabled gamers. I suppose they will eventually be making an argument under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that equal access is not being provided to disabled gamers if Blizzard’s lawsuit and injunction stand against their software. Of course this brings about complex legal issues and concerns, none of which I could even begin to speak to.
I personally find it a little sad that the creators of illegal third-party software happen to the be some of the largest and most vocal supporters of accessibility in Warcraft. They are certainly an unexpected, and potentially dangerous, ally to the cause.
Why Do You Rarely Hear About Accessibility?
Aside from the recent interview, there hasn’t been a peep from Blizzard about game accessibility. And why would there be? It’s not on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Let’s face it: game accessibility is not a sexy topic. Many people choose not to think about the players behind the avatars, and would rather not know how many people playing the game are disabled.
Why don’t more disabled gamers speak up? Gaming in an MMO like Warcraft has a hidden subtext of gaining superiority over others. You quest for higher levels, better gear, more kills. You are always competing. You are always striving to be better than someone else. Players will look for and latch onto any sign of “weakness” exhibited by their opponents or even peers, using it as a means of justifying their own sense of superiority. To some people, admitting a disability would be like owning up to a weakness or to having an inherent sub-par gaming ability. You would be admitting that you cannot play the same way others do. You would be opening yourself up to ridicule and criticism.
A shining example of how derisive the Warcraft community can be towards players who demonstrate sub-optimal gameplay is the level of ridicule players experience for piloting their avatar with the keyboard instead of the mouse. Such “keyboard turners” are considered weak because turning with the keyboard results in slower movement speeds, and hence delayed reactions.
Why would a player choose to broadcast their disability when doing so is counter to the culture of the game?
Game accessibility, with particular respect to World of Warcraft, was a topic I always had a curiosity about. After discussing it with a friend of mine one day, she pointed me to an article on GamaSutra on increasing game accessibility that really opened my eyes to how far-reaching the subject really is. Since then, I have become quite passionate about the issue. The more information I discovered, the more I wanted to know. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information out there. I was always left thirsting for more.
Being enthused about this topic, I wanted to share the information which I found so interesting and inspirational with others. If I have caused even one person to think about the game differently now, then I am satisfied. Awareness is the largest hurdle for the issue of game accessibility. Getting the information out there and spreading the word could do a lot for the cause. Disabled or not, this is an interesting topic for discussion. By sharing this information, my aim is simply to raise awareness of game accessibility.
Let me leave you with an inspirational footnote to this very lengthy post.
The very short movie below is called “One Thumb to Rule Them All.” It is about Michael Phillips, a journalist and avid gamer, who has spinal muscular atrophy. In this video, you can watch him play World of Warcraft and Unreal Tournament 2004 with a single finger.
- “What do we MEAN by “game accessibility?” by Michelle Hinn
- International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Gaming Accessibility Special Interest Group:
- TiM Computer Games for Visaully Impaired Children – Computer games that help visually impaired children improve their sight.
- Massively Article: “Player vs. Everything” on gaming with a disability and AbleGamers
- AbleGamers – Community for disabled gamers
- Bartiméus Accessibility Foundation – Game accessibility research
- Guidelines for Developing Accessible Games by Roland Ossmann
- WoW for Disabled Players – “Legendary thread”” on the WoW forums about gaming with a disability, with 24 pages of responses.
- WoW Blind – Testimonial of a visually impaired Warcraft player