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Thinking Out of the Box

Game fun for all – What Game Accessibility is all about

Anna Kizina

Computer games are designed to spread fun and entertainment and motivate players to play long term. So it makes sense to use these added values not only in the entertainment industry, but also in other areas, for example in therapy or rehabilitation (see our blog article Little big heroes – supporting children’s patients in therapy with virtual reality). Games have great motivational potential, which could be used particularly well there. But not all people with motor or cognitive impairments can participate in this experience if the so-called “Game Accessibility” is too low. Let me illustrate this with an example.

Who doesn’t like to be transported into lively and exciting game worlds where a new adventure hides behind every fork in the road? Who doesn’t love to travel the world as a hero with special abilities, to fulfill important missions and to stand in the way of villains? As a showdown, there is often a dramatic battle scene between hero and antagonist. Shortly before everything seems to be lost, our hero can summon up the last strength and defeat the villain in a last Quick Time Event (as in the example picture). But wait – what if that doesn’t work and the hero fails exactly at this point? In such a situation, in which the mentioned Game Accessibilty is not sufficiently given, the Gameplay can represent an impossible barrier for humans with motor restrictions.

Uncharted quick time event

Figure 1 – Gameplay scene from the popular video game series Uncharted. Here a Quick Time Event is required to free the hero Nathan Drake from the dicey situation (the displayed controller button is to be pressed as fast as possible one after the other).

Such an interaction as pressing a certain key several times quickly is very difficult or even impossible for people with different limitations due to a lack of game accessibility – although they may be able to master the “normal” gameplay with control of the character at moderate speed and interactions that can be executed independently of time. Such quick time events are problematic for people with arthritis, Parkinson’s or injuries caused by repeated stress (e.g. the widespread “mouse arm”). These handicaps serve only as an example, in fact there is a multitude of other handicaps which in one way or another can lead to limited motor skills in interaction with video games and have an influence on game access sensitivity.

Most popular video games are strongly based on speed, require good hand-eye coordination and are therefore a challenge for people with motor impairments who find it difficult to move their fingers or hands in a targeted manner. Especially titles that attach great importance to the right timing and the precise execution of actions have a bad game accessibility and can become a real challenge for such players. A large number of today’s players suffer from various limitations. In 2018, around 7.8 million severely disabled people were recorded in Germany. Unfortunately there are no exact numbers of how many players there are – or would like to be.

Research project MightyU

Also in our current research project “MightyU” (blog article), the goal is to develop an easily accessible, adaptive and playful training environment for children with motor disabilities in terms of game accessibility. The focus is on children with infantile cerebral palsy (ICP) who have to struggle with motor impairments due to early childhood damage to the central neural system. (see also our official MightyU Blog).

The challenge here is to make the training game equally accessible for all children and to offer good game accessibility, because the characteristics of ICP are often very different. For example, only the arms or legs but also one arm and one leg or all four extremities can be affected. Other motor skills and cognitive resilience also vary greatly in ICP patients.

For this reason, we spoke with many young patients early on in the project, in the requirements analysis phase, in order to find out which individual abilities they had, but also which games they could play and which they would like to play. Here we learned that the children are up to date as far as current titles are concerned, but that they are often unable to use them themselves due to their motor limitations and poor game accessibility in the games. They find it difficult to control the usual controllers. Also, the required interactions in the game are often too fast and an own speed is not possible with every title.

The children interviewed are therefore dependent on workarounds in order to be able to participate in the gaming experience and have a say with their age group. One of the children interviewed told us that he often looks over his best friend’s shoulder while playing Batman Arkham Knight. By watching gameplay videos on Youtube, he can even give his friend tips on where something secret is hidden or where the next opponent is waiting.

Another boy who took part in our interview is playing with his big brother. Each of them operates one half of the Playstation controller.

Taken together, these are creative approaches to still be able to participate in playing well-known titles. Nevertheless, this is of course not optimal and it would be desirable if the children could operate the game completely independently through a good game accessibility.

New Developments in the Games Market

The fact that people with disabilities are also part of the community is also beginning to be understood more and more by the major players in the international games industry, who are increasingly investing in the development of strategies to increase the game accessibility of their games and platforms. 2019 seems to be a key year for this project, as many innovations on Game Accessibility have already been presented or announced during the course of the year.

One example is Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller. It was presented during this year’s Superbowl with a stirring trailer.

The Adaptive Controller offers a variety of personalization options for extra high game accessibility such as extra large buttons and joysticks that can be freely configured and assigned to the controls of the classic XBOX controller. In addition to XBOX One games, the controller can also be used on a PC.

In the MightyU research project we are also testing a new type of control – the game will be controllable by muscle activity and (arm) position. With the help of EMG sensors attached to the arm muscles, the muscle potential is recorded and translated into the gameplay mechanics. By tensioning and relaxing the muscles in combination with a targeted movement, it will be possible to interact with an interactive character and steer it through a game world as well as overcome obstacles. This innovative implementation of a game control has another purpose – namely to enable the children to train organically while playing, without having the exercise to be performed permanently in mind. The use of biofeedback to support training is not new – we have found inspiration in German biofeedback centres such as the Astrid Lindgren School in Kempten and the Schön Klinik in Munich. However, the use of this method as an independent game control is innovative.

Game Design for more Game Accessibility

Making games accessible through hardware is a good start, but it’s usually not enough to support people with limitations. Many problems can already be addressed during game design through appropriate options and design decisions. Below are a few examples that can be used to achieve better game accessibility.

The control of the game should be personalizable, i.e. key assignments should be individually adjustable for the player. In PC games this is often the case. On a console, however, controls can only be changed to a very limited extent. An important question is also whether a game can be played with only one analog stick, in case the player has only one hand available. Often a camera assistant mode can be switched on for this, which then takes over the camera control in the game and makes the use of the corresponding analog stick unnecessary.

Individual interaction patterns such as Quick Time Events or the fast multiple pressing of a button or controller button should be switchable. In fact, Uncharted 4 from the initial example also offers this possibility, as the following screenshot shows.

Uncharted game accessibilty options

Figure 2 – Gameplay options for more game accessibility using Uncharted 4 as an example.

Especially in VR games, but also immersive 3D games like 1st person shooters, simulation sickness often occurs. This occurs when the eyes “see” movement in fixed situations. The brain is then convinced that real movement prevails and passes this information on to the body, while the body itself has not registered any movement. The consequences are dizziness and nausea. In addition, people with cognitive disabilities may be overwhelmed by the visual complexity of the events on the screen. Visual elements such as bright lights, flashes or simply the fact that many things can be seen at the same time are problematic. These features should also be able to be turned off in a game.

Subtitles are just as often a problem for players with restrictions when they disappear quickly and are difficult to understand visually or in terms of content. It is important to make the text as clear and legible as possible. Only short sentences should be used, and it is also important to choose a clear font without serifs and with larger line spacing. For better contrast, the text should be placed on a solid background or have a black outline to give a good contrast to the game world. There are even fonts that are particularly easy to read and specially designed for people with cognitive impairments, such as the OpenDyslexic font (originally designed for people with dyslexia).

Also important are stress-free training environments in the game such as a practice mode where players can try everything without pressure and familiarize themselves with the game mechanics.

http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/ provides a detailed set of rules describing measures to increase accessibility in games.

And in practice?

Enough about the theory. But despite careful consideration of the diverse and complex Game Accessibility Guidelines, there can be unpredictable problems when playing. Therefore, it is of great importance to test with handicapped people during development in order to obtain valuable feedback. Only in this way can aspects of motivational nature or wishes be revealed and taken into account in the further phases of the design process. In the MightyU research project, we therefore pursue the goal of continuously evaluating the various development steps with ICP patients and then creating a product that is precisely tailored to the needs of the target group. In the first phase of the project – the requirements analysis – we already identified a large number of children’s interests. These findings flowed into the character design of the play figure and helped us to develop a character that the children like and with which they can identify (see Figure 4).  In the discussions with the children we found out that the children would like to be someone else in the game. Someone who is particularly strong and doesn’t make them think about the limitations they are constantly confronted with in everyday life. So we chose a fantasy setting as the genre for the character. The characters we created in the project should also express a “superpower”, e.g. special strength, to motivate the children not to feel weak despite their limitations.

Concept Art MightyU

Figure 4 – Concept Art of a target-group oriented game character in the project MightyU.

Game Accessibility – a current issue

The fact is that the awareness for people with disabilities is finally arriving in the industry and we as designers and developers will be able to deal with it more and more in the coming years. So now is a good time to get to work on the topic of game accessibility.

Even the furniture giant IKEA is expected to release a series of game controllers next year, which will be custom-made with 3D printing (http://unyq.com/unyq-launches-3d-printed-product-line-for-gamers-with-ikea/). IKEA hopes that this will also provide insights into the special needs of people with disabilities.

If you are looking for support in questions about Game Accessibility, please feel free to contact us.

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