Accessible gaming: Creating an inclusive product

19 July 2021
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
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A gaming controller

Philip, Business Development Assistant at Inclusion Scotland, uses his gaming hobby to reflect on how one organisation in the gaming industry is listening to disabled people’s direct experiences of gaming to create a more accessible, inclusive and successful product.

The definition of Accessibility: Accessibility can be viewed as the “ability to access” and benefit from a system or entity. This is about making things accessible to all people (whether they are disabled or not).

From a business perspective, it stands to reason that all businesses should want their products or services to be as accessible to as many people as possible as this increases customer satisfaction, broadens your consumer base and generates positive press for your organisation. It is also, the right thing to do morally.

However, the mistake many businesses make in trying to make their products and services more accessible is not listening to the lived experience of those who live with inaccessibility every day. By lived experience, I mean direct experience of a world that is inaccessible to you.

In listening to and incorporating the insights and learning from disabled people’s lived experience you can create truly accessible products and services, which can bring benefits to all customers. In short, to make something accessible to disabled people ask them how. We know what we need to find a product or service accessible better than anyone else does.

Here I want to look at the recently released Last of Us Part II video game and how its developer Naughty Dog used the lived experience of disabled gamers to create one of the most accessible and inclusive video games ever.

Accessibility in video games and the difference it makes

Playing video games has been a popular leisure activity since the 1980’s and has only continued to grow as an industry and a mainstay of popular culture in modern times. There are now more than 2.5 billion gamers across the world. Combined, they spent around $152.1 billion on games in 2019, representing an increase of +9.6% year on year.

Clearly more people than ever before are playing video games for entertainment, relaxation and just for fun.

But what if you couldn’t enjoy videos games the same way other people do? Imagine playing a video game with no sound, instead relying on captions. You’re running around a room looking for an item, or way out. Then a caption indicates that a character in the game has said “over here”. Over where? That’s not a helpful hint when you can’t hear where the character is.

There are many examples of big name video games treating accessibility as an afterthought, such as 2018’s God of War and 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, both released with tiny text that was difficult to read, but were thankfully updated to allow you to enlarge the size. However, this was only done after the games had been released, illustrating how accessibility was treated as an afterthought when it should have been an obvious essential.

These are some of the barriers that many disabled gamers face. People who are passionate about the medium but can’t enjoy it to the fullest extent because our access needs aren’t considered. That stops many disabled people from buying video games to play themselves or makes them more reliant on accessibility review sites such as Can I Play That?

Over the years, the video games industry has seen a few pioneering game developers add accessibility features here and there but these have often been based on the assumption of what disabled gamers need and want and are regularly added after release in response to negative feedback from the gaming community.

The heart of the problem is that accessibility has not been led by those who have become experts of inaccessibly through living it every day and it has not been considered from the beginning.

The last of us part II and naughty dog

The Last of Us Part II is the recently released sequel to the acclaimed 2013 video game The Last of Us, developed by games developer Naughty Dog. It’s a survival horror and resource management game set in a post-apocalyptic USA. The game is very story driven and follows the protagonists Ellie and Joel as they try to survive and makea life for themselves in the aftermath of the first game. In the world of gaming the Last of Us Part II was set to be one of the biggest release of the year. What wasn’t expected was the range of in built accessibility features Naughty Dog presented players with on release.

Something which has been widely welcomed and praised within the gaming community. Never before has such a high profile video game been so accessible to so many players. Not only that but non-disabled gamers are getting greater enjoyment out of the game because of these accessibility features. Naughty Dog have managed to not only include the broadest range of accessibility features many have ever seen but they have used this to enhance their product for everyone.

So what have Naughty Dog done differently to create a more accessible game? Answer, they listened to the voices of disabled gamers, learned from their lived experience and implemented this from the start of the game’s development. This wasn’t a box ticking exercise to them; it was a key foundation of the game they wanted to make.

The BBC article: The Last of Us Part II: Is this the most accessible game ever? helps to illustrate not only the impact that the voices of disabled gamers have had on this game but also the significant difference this has made to the gaming experience of all players, disabled or not.

Surely, this is part of why The Last of Us Part II is the fastest selling PlayStation exclusive video game of all time. It sold over 4 million copies in its first weekend of release and currently stands as the 10th highest selling PlayStation 4 game of all time having only been released less than two months ago at the time of writing.

Levelling up the industry

With The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog have shown us what accessibility in video games can be when the lived experience of disabled gamers is incorporated from the start of development. On top of that, by sharing their learning through The Last of Us Part II: Accessibility Features Detailed by Naughty Dog on their website they’re raising the profile and importance of accessibility in the industry, they’re encouraging other developers to match their standards and they’re letting the world know that they want everyone to enjoy their game, disabled or not.

From a business perspective, by taking the time to listen to disabled gamers and implement their recommendations properly the Last of Us Part II has received a rise in customer satisfaction. It has been able to offer its product to a much broader consumer base and it has received positive press both within its own industry and more generally. More importantly, it has done the right thing morally by addressing a longstanding inequality and it’s reaping the rewards.

To summarise, it’s pretty clear that by investing in getting accessibility right, Naughty Dog have elevated their product, broadened their fan base and shown themselves to be innovators in their industry; and they’ve done this all by including disabled people and recognising the value of their lived experience from the start.

It may have been small steps until now but the Last of Us Part II is helping the video games industry take its first big stride to creating fully accessible products and services. That’s how you improve accessibility and inclusion in my book.

Business Development Assistant at Inclusion Scotland,
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