Whether you’re an experienced gamer or play Candy Crush on the subway, chances are, video games fit somewhere in your weekly routine. In fact, 2023 research by the Entertainment Software Association found that 65% of people in the U.S. play video games. But when game creators don’t consider the needs of all people, including the roughly one in four U.S. adults with a disability, they exclude a large community of potential players—limiting revenue and inviting legal risk.
In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the importance of game accessibility and outline three practical considerations for designing gaming experiences everyone can enjoy.
Why video game accessibility matters
People play video games for countless reasons, from socializing with friends to unwinding after a long day. By prioritizing game accessibility, studios ensure all people have an equal opportunity to experience the connection, adventure, and pure joy that gaming can bring.
There’s also a business case for making video games accessible. In the U.S., working-aged adults with disabilities control roughly $490 billion in disposable income—and this figure doesn’t account for the countless gaming enthusiasts under the age of 18. To maximize their market share, and maintain an inclusive brand, game creators need to account for the diversity of consumers’ needs.
Finally, neglecting accessibility in gaming can have legal repercussions. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) mandates that two-way communication in video games (like voice or text chat with other players), as well as the paths users take to reach two-way communication features, be accessible. Non-compliance can result in hefty fines of up to $100,000 for each violation.
Additionally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that public accommodations be accessible to people with disabilities. Legal decisions and settlements have found that public accommodations covered by the ADA include e-commerce experiences associated with digital purchases across platforms—from computers and smartphones to virtual reality gaming consoles. The ADA could apply to web or in-app purchases of full games, as well as purchases made to obtain in-game items or unlock new features.
Best practices for accessibility in gaming
It’s clear that prioritizing accessibility is a must for any game creator eager to maximize revenue and mitigate risk. But what does accessible game design mean in practice? In this section, we’ll explore a few considerations for building inclusive video games.
1. Empower users to personalize the gaming experience
Video games today come in a wide variety of formats—from first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, to massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft—and on an array of platforms and devices. The range and spectrum of players’ accessibility needs is just as broad. So when it comes to inclusive video game design, customization is key.
Game creators should provide users with options for configuring displays, controls, and other settings to make experiences work for them. These options must be available to users from the launch of a game, not just during game play. And designers shouldn’t label accessibility options as being “for” specific types of disabilities. Instead, game creators can empower players to select the best options for their unique needs and offer a “playground” or tutorial mode in which they can try out various settings.
Settings that support video game accessibility include, but aren’t limited to:
- Closed captions and / or visual indicators for audio: Any auditory instructions or dialogue must be available in closed captions, and auditory cues (for example, a “bang” when an opponent attacks) should come with corresponding visual indicators.
- Audio descriptions: Audio equivalents need to be available for all information that is conveyed visually.
- Options to limit disruptive sensory stimuli: Players need the option to turn off or dial down the intensity of potentially harmful stimuli, such as loud noises, sudden motion, flashing, and haptic feedback.
- Multiple forms of visual indication and enhanced color contrast: Instead of solely relying on color to convey meaning, use a second visual indicator like patterns, symbols, or markings. In addition, individuals who need sufficient contrast will find it easier to play when the color contrast between important on-screen elements (such as playing characters, enemy characters, and interactive items) and background elements is increased.
- Customization for game controls: Users should have the flexibility to re-map keys so that all actions can be performed with a single hand. They also need to be able to complete all tasks that can be performed with an on-screen pointer with the controller alone, or through dictation.
- Automated navigation and controls: Some users may want the option to automatically navigate a game’s world, as well as to automatically take actions such as shooting or jumping.
2. Reference industry standards for game accessibility
Video game design and development can be complex—and teams will likely benefit from more comprehensive and specific guidance than the personalization tips we’ve outlined above. Thankfully, experts have published a number of standards for ensuring the functional and technical accessibility of video games. These include:
- Accessible Player Experience Patterns: Developed by AbleGamers, a non-profit organization devoted to video game accessibility, these guidelines focus on the needs of players with different types of disabilities and how to meet them.
- Xbox Accessibility Guidelines: Xbox provides a comprehensive set of technical accessibility specifications for games played on its consoles.
- Game Accessibility Guidelines: The Game Accessibility Guidelines were produced by a group of studios, accessibility specialists, and academics. They list best practices for making games accessible to people with motor, cognitive, vision, hearing, and speech disabilities, along with general accessibility considerations.
- XR Accessibility User Requirements: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)’s first accessibility documentation surrounding extended reality (XR) experiences introduces functional standards for XR accessibility.
Additionally, the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) can be broadly applied to the content in video games. However, because WCAG was created primarily for HTML web content, it doesn’t account for all the scenarios in which video game creators need to consider accessibility—so gaming-specific standards can help fill in these gaps.
3. Include people with disabilities in video game creation
Lastly, but certainly not least, while industry standards equip teams with a general framework for designing accessible video games, every game is unique. The most reliable approach to ensuring game accessibility is to involve people with disabilities in the process of game creation. To understand the needs of players with disabilities, game developers should take care to include members of the disability community in focus groups for user research. And teams should consult with people with disabilities during design, development, and/or testing, as part of existing product development processes, to ensure that all players’ needs are met.
The joy of gaming is for everyone
The world of gaming continues to expand, and prioritizing accessibility is essential to ensuring that all players can participate. As the market-leading provider of digital accessibility solutions, Level Access empowers innovative organizations across industries—including gaming, media, and entertainment—to create inclusive, compliant digital experiences. Engage with our team today and learn how we’ll help you achieve your accessibility goals.
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