Interview with Nick Heywood about Accessible Gaming
Nick Heywood contacted Everyone Can a while back to get some input on game accessibility for a university project about accessible gaming he worked on. Today’s blog post is a chat with him about game accessibility and the work he’s been doing.
What got you into gaming?
I started playing on my father’s old Sega Megadrive when I was 4, starting with Sonic the Hedgehog. Gaming gradually grew from an occasional pastime to a devoted hobby of mine. I had trouble integrating with society due to having Asperger’s Syndrome, so having these experiences provided an environment I could feel included in, since it couldn’t progress without my input and transitioned at my own pace, so I couldn’t be excluded from the experience.
What got you into accessibility?
I spent my high school years in specialist schools for students with disabilities, so most of my friends had their own barriers and challenges to overcome, so it was here that I started to understand how people’s needs vary. Most of us played games in our spare time and discussed them at school, so I learned how inaccessible games can potentially exclude players.
For example: action games that encourage button-mashing to overcome a challenge may help players feel the tension, but they’re not accessible to people with impaired motor skills/hand-eye coordination. Unless an alternative method is offered like holding down the button, which is finally becoming more common in games; particularly Sony PlayStation exclusives such as Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War.
A few years ago, I was researching accessibility in games for my Bachelor’s project at Staffordshire University and discovered how Naughty Dog were adding accessibility options to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End during development to be more inclusive to players who struggled with previous titles.
After the game’s release, I was inspired by their hard work to add alternative options like Auto-Aim and toggling pressing/holding down buttons, these features along with their excellent game design proved that quality doesn’t need to be compromised to create an accessible game. It can be difficult to find that balance between providing the challenge most players crave and keeping the game accessible, and they proved that it’s feasible.
Tell us more about your project.
The key goal behind my project was to develop a deeper understanding of a range of common (and in some cases rare) disabilities that a player may have and how it impacted their gaming experience. Besides researching through journals/literature, I reached out to students and charities such as Everyone Can to participate in surveys and provide supporting data.
The most valuable information came from the survey feedback from participants, since they were able to specify what they struggled with and even introduced me to conditions I had never initially heard of such as achromatopsia (complete colour blindness and sensitivity to light), whereas investigating these conditions online individually does not always provide information a designer or developer could use.
This research not only helped me complete my project but also provided opportunity to create a small tech demo in Unreal Engine 4 with a small range of accessibility features. Including dyslexia-friendly fonts and customisable text/background colours to improve readability, and colour filters to help colour-blind players differentiate colours.
What do you think game developers should do to make their games more accessible?
I think the common issue with accessibility in games currently is that not all designers and developers fully understand the concept of accessibility because not many institutions teach it, so they need the input of someone who does.
Smaller groups like students or independent developers would benefit from at least using Sans Serif style fonts like Open Sans and a variety of light/dark colours and sizes for text and user interface elements. The type of game you’re making will determine what other accessibility you should consider, so I recommend you look at the game accessibility guidelines to make sure your game is meeting those needs and being inclusive. But it can’t hurt to ask for second opinions like I did for my project.
As for larger, well-renowned companies, it can be more complex because they have larger teams to manage and not all include a UX/UI (User Experience/User Interface/Interaction) Designer, who take accessibility into consideration as part of their design process. Working in large teams can sometimes lead to accessibility issues not being foreseen because designs change all the time throughout the project to accommodate other requirements and as the project progresses, the pressure to finish it in time for the deadline increases.
It may be beneficial to open more quality assurance positions, for individuals with disabilities/learning difficulties, since they can also look into testing the accessibility of the project alpha/beta builds for anything that may have been missed, but also because their feedback would be valuable to the industry. And it can sometimes be difficult for people with disabilities to gain employment in their desired field, so providing this extra level of diversity would help both parties.
What did you learn from your research? What advice would you give to other people who want to do research into improving accessibility for disabled people?
I learned that the UK alone has 13.7 million people with declared disabilities (approximately 1 in 5 of us) and that accessibility is quite a wide scope and although more AAA game developers are progressing with making their games more accessible, there’s still a lot to be done. I’m interested in working in the games industry as a UX Designer so that I can use the skills I developed to contribute to this progression.
I’d advise people interested in pursuing similar goals to research different conditions to understand how they impact a player’s experience. The best ones to start with are colour-blindness and conditions that impact cognitive behaviour or motor skills, since these are the areas often overlooked. Places to find this information are online, distributing surveys, and contacting charities like GamesAid, Everyone Can, SpecialEffect and Lifelites. They were happy to share a few documents or place me in contact with people who could answer my questions.
Researching conditions online can provide you with a lot of information but communicating with people that have the conditions can provide you with much more valuable feedback. The easier it is to understand what they struggle with in games, the easier it is to tailor the gameplay experience to be more accessible.
I also distributed my survey to connections I made within the games industry, you can make these by attending conferences hosted by groups such as UKIE at EGX and a few universities each year. I learned a lot from Fey Vercuiel of (formerly) Creative Assembly/Ubisoft at an EGX talk in 2017 about UX (User Experience) Design, which reviews accessibility during the design process. Contacting game industry staff through social media such as Twitter or LinkedIn is also a possibility, however, I only took this approach with people I had already met in person.
If this is not possible for some people, I have been told that Reddit is a good place to query accessibility by gaining input from people with relevant conditions.
In summary, getting feedback from others is the best way to gain knowledge in how to make your games more accessible, whether it’s through games industry connections, or from people with relevant conditions. I must stress that gathering feedback from people with relevant conditions is the best practical approach to tackling potential accessibility issues in your work.
What do you intend to do now you’ve finished your project and where can people find you online?
Since finishing the project I’ve been working on a few other projects while studying a Master’s degree in Digital Marketing Management. The course has been helping me understand consumer/user experience and different areas of business and marketing, which I hope to combine with the skills I picked up from my previous course to become a UX Designer/Researcher. One project which may interest you is my blog Inclusive Experiences; we create content relevant to accessibility between university deadlines from consumer retail experiences to game reviews.
I also hope to revisit the tech demo I created for my former project and develop it into a small game with expanded accessibility settings, but my current priority is creating more content for Inclusive Experiences and completing my Master’s.
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