Video games are not known for accessibility. While there are groups like Able Gamers, which works to help people with disabilities (usually physical) to be able to play games, the industry has a history of ignoring people who aren’t able-bodied and male.
The problems that the industry has with gender and its representation are getting better, but people who have vision or hearing disabilities are still largely left out.
There have been efforts throughout the history of gaming to address these issues, but they have not been very well marketed. Audio games, for example, which are played entirely through audio, have never been hits. Sometimes even those are hard for vision challenged people to play, as the menu screens sometimes don’t have audio support. They weren’t designed for blind people, their playability for the blind simply came as a side effect.
These are issues that the industry has largely ignored, because making accessible games can never be as lucrative as making another Call of Duty game.
However, the Developer Resources section of Microsoft’s website lists some compelling reasons for game developers to bring accessibility to the forefront.
First and foremost, for people with disabilities, video games can offer many benefits. Playing sports or fighting games, for example, can help distract individuals suffering from chronic pain. Games are being used to help children recover from chemotherapy for cancer, and even increase fitness levels by encouraging people to exercise in a fun way. Dance Dance Revolution, for example, is an entertaining way to get kids moving. Accessible games also can help disabled kids feel like less of an outsider.
Social reasons aside, there are distinct financial advantages to creating accessible video games. Accessibility features can increase sales by encouraging disabled people to buy accessible games, and non-disabled people might want to support companies that produce accessible video games and buy accessible titles. There’s also the aspect of good PR from the media and advocacy groups for disabled people, which basically results in free advertising.
Microsoft commissioned a study to measure the current and potential market for accessible technology. They found that even non-disabled users used accessibility features. In the study, 32 percent of accessibility feature users had no disability or impairment. They could be compensating for a temporary disability or environmental issues like background noise. Whatever the case, it’s clear that it’s not just disabled gamers using those features.
Many game companies are looking to expand beyond the typically male and typically young demographic of video game users, and incorporating accessibility features could be an important way to do that.
Probably the first companies that will design specifically accessible games are indie companies, as the larger companies are busy developing sequels of popular games. However, a couple of wildly accessible, yet accessible, indie games may pave the way for traditional companies to jump on the accessible video game bandwagon.