Includification and Beer Drinking Mode: Accessibility in Gaming at PAX East

Fire Hose Games’ video game Slam Bolt Scrappers has a lot of moving pieces—literally. In the game, players control avatars that float over a cityscape, fighting each other over colored Tetris blocks used to construct towers that further attack the opponent. While one set of controls enables players to rotate and place the game’s blocks, another set of controls are reserved for flying around the level, collecting blocks while beating the opponent senseless. As complicated as Slam Bolt Scrappers is, the game is created in “beverage mode,” a control configuration that allows players to play the game with one hand while cradling a nice cold beer in the other.

At least, that’s how Fire Hose Games sold the feature to players with full use of both hands. For gamers with limited mobility in one hand, “beverage mode” was about more than the convenience of drunk gaming: it was about making the game playable. According to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, 59% of Americans now play video games. And while physical and mental illness and disabilities may hamper gaming, players and developers are increasingly finding ways to adapt.

Earlier this month I attended PAX East, one of the largest gaming conventions in North America. In between watching Cards Against Humanity staffers respond to customer service emails live on stage and watching a surprisingly heated match of four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale, the conference found a number of ways to address issues facing a broad range of gamers. Mental health professionals from the Geek and Gamer Counseling Alliance set up a booth near the entrance to the convention hall, and roving bands of volunteers called the “Cookie Brigade” sold cookies over the conference’s three days, raising over $20k for Child’s Play, a charity that raises money to buy toys and games for hospitals so that children can play even if they’re in treatment.

One of the sessions on anxiety and depression in gamers featured a trio of game developers running a remarkably frank session on their personal challenges dealing with mental illness. The panel has been a part of the PAX East experience for the past four years. The panelists and attendees discussed their personal struggles dealing with a wide range of mental disorders, with the session serving as group therapy for a community that formed around gaming. Many of the attendees mentioned attending the same session in previous years.

For AbleGamers, a non-profit focused on spreading the gospel of “includification”  in game design, the focus was on lowering the barriers for all players by embracing core design principles.

At its most basic level, includification could be as simple as allowing for remappable keys like Slam Bolt Scrappers‘ “beverage mode,” or confirming that game visuals are viewable by colorblind players using free tools like Color Oracle, allowing developers to check whether an experience is broken by the same visual limitations that transformed a casual question about the color of a dress into a global debate earlier this year. Johnny Richardson, one of the games and software engineers on the panel, expressed incredulity at the number of game developers who tell him about their inability to play their own games because of their own colorblindness.

The conversation about addressing inclusivity in gaming continued on from PAX and into SXSW, which featured a panel highlighting The Survivor Games, a non-profit focusing on people who turn to games while battling cancer. The panelists noted that the realities of chemotherapy often lead to a shift away from twitch gaming (where success is driven by quick response times) to modes of gaming that are less taxing and more forgiving of slower mobility or cognition.

Many of the considerations that come into play for making inclusive games extend across communications, particularly online. As part of its commitment to developing open standards for the Web, the W3C provides a number of resources to help make online content accessible to people with auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual disabilities. And while basic steps toward inclusivity can mean the world to affected site visitors, they also serve to enrich the experiences of all visitors.

There are quite a few opportunities to create “beverage mode” moments outside of the gaming arena by reframing projects’ accessibility features as benefits to the audience as a whole. Video transcripts, closed captioning, and subtitles provide as much of a service for people swiping through websites on the train as they do for people with hearing impairments. Supporting portrait and landscape modes on mobile sites gives all visitors the ability to experience the most convenient version of the site for their needs, while enabling people who regularly mount their mobile devices in fixed orientations to experience the site as well. As AbleGamers COO Steven Spohn explains, “Accessibility is not an accident—it’s just good design.”

– Michael Andersen, Director, Strategy & Analysis


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