Playability Initiative Year in Review – 2020

December 30, 2020 By Amy Green

Playabiliity Initaitive - Year in Review

 

It’s safe to say that no one will feel a sense of nostalgia as they say goodbye to this rough year that has brought everyone so many unexpected challenges. However, here at Numinous Games, we can’t ever be totally negative about 2020, because it’s the year that we launched the Playability Initiative and we’re so grateful for this opportunity to serve the disabled community as we learn and grow as developers. We wanted to take a moment and look back on the Playability Initiative year in review and highlight some of our favorite moments from this past year.

This spring, we learned that we would get to bring the Playability Initiative to life with the support of Novartis Gene Therapies. This had been a dream of ours for almost a year when we first learned about children within the SMA community. We had spent time prototyping games for them and thinking about how we could really serve the community well and let our work creating a game for the SMA community serve the broader disabled gaming community as well. We wanted to do more than make a game, we wanted to launch a movement that would inspire more accessible game design for years to come.

Image of Hayden from Numinous Games

“I loved reading all the blogs written on SMA News Today, and learning more about the ways that technology brings people together. There were so many innovative ways that people used apps, software and hardware. It was especially heart warming to see the community sharing their experiences and supporting one another.” – Hayden Scott-Baron

 

In the early summer, we built partnerships with AbleGamers, Games for Change and the Family Video Game Database. We firmly believe that we can all accomplish more together than we can separately. The AbleGamers Foundation has agreed to help us build an assessment level into Painted Waters so people who play the game will learn what other games they can play and what adaptive technology might suit them. We are sponsoring an accessibility modifier in this year’s student design challenge for Games for Change and they’re helping us design curriculum to prompt students to think more inclusively in their game design. Finally, we’ve sponsored the addition of new accessibility tags in the Family Video Game Database, so they can help everyone find the video games with the specific accessibility features they are looking for.

In July, we announced the Playability Initiative in a talk at Games for Change. Although, it’s possible that Ryan and Mike’s glorious beards pulled focus from the design practices we shared. We launched the Facebook group which has grown all year and now has more than 160 members. It’s a great place to ask all your accessibility questions and have conversations about design that considers the players. We feel like we learn so much from the incredible community surrounding us. 

Josh from Numinous Games

“I didn’t have a singular moment that was a highlight for 2020, but it was always the same type of moment: we’d try to create  something with sensitivity, and then share it with our community. But once we shared it,  we realized we had made some mistake, that there was something we didn’t consider. And from that, we’d grow and learn. All my favorite parts of working on this in 2020 were those moments of growth. And I can’t wait to see how we’ll grow going into 2021.” -Josh Larson

 

In August, we began meeting with Jack, an adult gamer with SMA. We commissioned him to begin writing articles for the Playability Initiative blog and he taught us a lot about what it’s like to play games that don’t consider your needs. And over the course of the next several months we learned a lot more about adaptive tech as we tried to find a racing game he could play.

Ryan of Numinous Games

“My highlight has been working with Jack and Al Freedman this year. I think my favorite moment was when we were finally able to get Mindball Play working so that Jack could play it.  We had many disappointing sessions for Jack where we just couldn’t figure out a solution and he was so patient with us, and gave us so much trust by letting us reach into his computer and change settings. Sometimes it was an issue with zoom, or a misconfiguration on our part in the eye gaze control software, or the computer freezing up and we had to reboot it.  We even resorted to Al calling into zoom on his phone and pointing his camera to the screen to make sure teleconferencing wasn’t interfering with the computer’s speed.  But in the end, when Jack loaded up the game, pressed play, and was able to race down the track using his eyes, the result was magical. What a time we live in!” -Ryan Green

Mike from Numinous Games

“My favorite moment this year was watching someone be able to play a new game that they had never before felt they could.  The joy, sense of accomplishment, and feeling of inclusion was staggering.  It’s been an honor to partner, talk to, and work with such amazing people.” – Mike Perrotto

 

In September, Ryan and Mike spoke at the Gaming Accessibility Conference, where we (virtually) met lots of like-minded people working together to solve hard accessibility problems in video games. 

Katie from Numinous Games

“My favourite moments (there are two) are both during Ryan and Mike’s video presentation at G4C2020 and GAConf2020. When the people watching began to react and comment about how wonderful the Playability Initiative is, that warmed my heart. It was awesome to continue to chat with those people after the talks finished, invite them to the Playability Initiative Facebook group and hear how happy they are that we’re doing this!” – Katie Postma

 

In October we began playtesting early demos of Painted Waters with Jack, and a few of our children. 

Amy from Numinous Games

“I loved watching our kids play demo levels of Painted Waters. They have access to a ton of games, so we never know if something we’re building will hold their attention. And while we learned a lot about things we’d need to change, it was so exciting to see that a game focused on accessibility had the potential to be a game that everyone could play and enjoy. It is important to us that Painted Waters is a game for everyone, so children with disabilities are getting to play the exact same game, the exact same way as their peers.” – Amy Green

 

In November we began our monthly design challenges to help foster more creative accessible design in games. We are convinced that as we all practice considering the player, our design improves. We’ve seen that in our own game development, and we love the way this monthly design challenge gives all of us that opportunity on a regular basis. We were blown away by the creative design solutions that were submitted to the monthly design challenge our first two months, and we can’t wait to see how much our community continues to learn from one another.

Brock from Numinous Games

“My year has been filled with positive things that slowly grow and compound on each other. I have a growing empathy and understanding of playing games with disabilities and some of challenges disabled gamers face. I have been amazed watching how a blind gamer can play Call of Duty. I have been stretched creatively to explore new methods of input and locomotion. And have spent a considerable amount of time trying to create a system to support various input configurations. Accessibility challenges on both sides of the equation are hard. It has been a year of steady climbing, but I haven’t been able to stop and look out because of the other commitments and life changes.” – Brock Henderson

 

In December we completed our first demo for Painted Waters and began mapping out what the rest of the game will entail for early access players next year. We even posted the first art featuring our in-game characters in a holiday greeting post.

Bridgette from Numinous Games

“My highlight for the year was working on the character designs for the small world we created. Working on characters with diverse abilities while considering representation was a new challenge for me. It was hard but rewarding to challenge my own biases. The chronic stress injury I developed last year, despite how minor it is compared to other disabilities, really opened my eyes on how quickly games designed to be fun exclude players with unique needs.” – Bridgette Powell

 

We are so thankful for our first year working on the Playability Initiative. We love the community that has rallied around us, and we can’t wait to see what 2021 brings! Happy New Year!



Accessibility Begins With People, Not Features

December 23, 2020 By Amy Green

We’re Learning that Accessibility begins and ends with people, not features…

Jack wanted to play a racing game. But all the ones he’d tried on his PC required elaborate controls. We couldn’t call ourselves the Playability Initiative while letting our collaborator, Jack, be disappointed with his ability to play, and do nothing about it. So we set out on a path to find a racing game Jack could play. And what we learned along the way is that gaming accessibility is never a “one size fits all” solution.

Jack plays video games with his eyes using a system called Eyegaze. He told us that he could only reliably play games that used mouse-only input. We began looking for mouse-controlled racing games.

Mindball Play Logo with colorful marbles

Our first attempts were rocky. Someone on Twitter suggested Mindball Play. We’d heard it had fast-paced racing-style mechanics. (Even if you were racing a steel marble around a track rather than a shiny red race car.) Most importantly, it was designed with eye gaze users in mind, so it should be an easy win. Jack was excited to try it. However, he told us, 

“It was hard for me to learn because I couldn’t move the cursor fast enough for me to keep up with the ball on my laptop. I got stuck with trying to navigate the ball with my eyes on the laptop.” 

Jack couldn’t play it. So, he and his dad returned the game to Steam. (We had just told them about Steam’s policy that allows players to return any game played for less than 2 hours. This policy meant they could try out games without the fear that they’d be out money if the game wasn’t accessible enough.)

Now we were puzzled. Why couldn’t Jack play this game that so many people had praised for being a really good eye-tracking video game? We started a conversation with the creators of Eyegaze. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Maybe they already knew of some racing games Jack could play?

The creators of Eyegaze let us know that every user has a unique configuration set up that enables them to do the things they like to do most. Some systems are set up primarily for word processing, others are set up for gaming, some users even create special configurations for specific games. They let us know that Jack’s configuration was better suited for office work than playing games. Jack used a grid system on a secondary screen to move his mouse on a primary screen. Each micro-movement of the mouse required Jack to “click” (with his eyes) a section of the grid on the secondary monitor.

Jack's gaming setup as he plays the Painted Waters prototype. One monitor display his Eyegaze controls and the other monitor displays the game.

We realized that some of the problems that Jack had playing games had less to do with accessibility systems in the games themselves and more to do with his personal configuration setup on Eyegaze.

Jack’s dad, Al, explained to us that these systems are complicated and they can feel a little overwhelming to people who aren’t familiar with technology. Al surmised that most parents, like him, probably think to themselves, “If we change the settings, we might break something and not know how to change them back.” So, when an expert set up Jack’s system, Jack and his parents tried to leave it alone.

So even though software like Eyegaze is highly configurable, finding the right configuration for every type of activity on a computer is daunting. And for many people, making due with a less than ideal configuration is better than changing a setting and rendering their computer useless to them. Al also let us know that Jack is a creature of habit, trying to change his system could require relearning habits that have taken years to refine.

We realized that this was the perfect education for us. We couldn’t just make a game designed to be accessible and trust that everyone would be able to experience it. We had to consider each player, and make ourselves available to talk with them about their setups, one-on-one if necessary. So, “Help Jack play a racing game,” became our primary learning objective.

First, we had to ask Jack if he’d be willing to let us try changing some of the settings in his Eyegaze system and experiment with new ways of using his computer, if it meant he could try out different kinds of games. Jack loves games, so he was motivated.

In our conversations with Eyegaze we learned that the device running his eye tracking software was itself a Windows tablet capable of running games. 

So we tried running Mindball Play on his windows tablet. At first, this seemed to fail also, the game did not run very well on this tablet which also ran the Eyegaze control software. Eventually we realized that between the eye tracking technology, Zoom screen sharing, video conferencing, and trying to run the game all at once, we were bogging down the computer speed, and it couldn’t keep up. So we simplified. Instead of having Jack share his screen over Zoom, Jack’s dad Al, signed into Zoom on his phone, and pointed the camera at Jack’s screen.  Now we could see the game running smoothly and keep troubleshooting without bogging down the system.

Next, we focused on finding a way for Jack to control the mouse easily.  The default configuration for controlling the mouse was better suited for pointing and clicking. What we needed was a way to control the mouse pointer and *not* click.  This behavior would be essential for steering the marble in the direction he wanted it to go. 

Trying to find a configuration just right for a player is an exhausting and frustrating process.  Not only do things not always work, but we were constantly asking to take control of the computer away from Jack remotely. This is a very invasive process and it requires a great deal of trust from Jack. We knew that the stakes were high. If we made a change that we couldn’t fix, we would be cutting Jack off not only from his gaming pastime, but also his social and work life.

All the failed experimentation was frustrating and tiring to Jack.  And it wasn’t something we were able to solve in one session.  But thankfully, Jack was patient with our inexperience and after learning more about the existing Grid 3 software that was already on Jack’s machine, we discovered a setting that would allow Jack to switch between his default “point and click mode,” and our desired “move the cursor” mode we needed only while he was playing the game.

One of Jack's Grid3 Menus. We added two buttons in Jack's Grid3 setup: "Follow my Eyes" and "Stop Following".

We asked Jack about his experience with us changing the settings he typically uses to play games and here’s what he told us, 

“To play Mindball Play for the first time, I had to use Grid 3 on my Eyegaze to click or navigate my mouse. Now I have a new thing on my Eyegaze Grid 3 called Follow my Eyes for navigating or clicking with my Eyegaze. Following my Eyes helps me to navigate the ball more easily with my eyes.” 

He went on to tell us, 

“I was curious about how Follow my Eyes works. It took me some time to figure out the steps. It was easier for me because I can be more quick about following the ball in the game. I was glad I stuck with it.”

We loved watching Jack get to play a fast-paced game. And he, like most men in their twenties who enjoy playing video games, seemed to enjoy having an audience watching him play as he zipped around the course. Before this, he had stuck to mystery games which he could enjoy because they typically don’t rely on quick reaction times, although even these games occasionally had timer-based levels that presented problems. Fast-paced games had seemed out of reach for Jack, but after we helped him adjust his settings, he was cruising. 

“The stuff that I like the most about Mindball Play is that I’m able to move the ball down the path because I don’t keep falling off and the game is longer. I’m quick enough to navigate the ball with my eyes!”

Of course, no game is perfect, and Jack told us that if it were up to him, he “would try to adjust the speed of the ball to make it go slowly and not too fast.” But, even with that small criticism he could see himself recommending the game to others. 

“The player that I think would enjoy playing Mindball Play would be other Eyegaze users like my friend Amber from Vent Camp.”

We wanted to know if we had succeeded in our goal of helping Jack play a racing game. Did Mindball Play count as a racing game in his mind? He told us, 

“It does feel like a racing game to me.” But he also said, “There are other racing games that I would like them to make easier for playing by using the mouse and not the keyboard (Train Simulator and other car racing games).” 

So the push for more inclusive-thinking in game design marches on.

As we keep learning from Jack, we’re identifying new priorities for the Playability Initiative and our one-button game, Painted Waters. First, we want to make sure that we offer some fast-action areas of Painted Waters where kids can experience the thrill of speed with one-button controls that aren’t dependent on quick responses. And second, we want to prioritize one-on-one help for players who need guidance on adjusting their gaming setups. Accessible games aren’t enough, each player has unique personal needs that may have to be addressed. And that’s one reason we’re so excited about the work that AbleGamers does to analyze a player’s needs on an individual basis. We are honored to partner with them to help Painted Waters reach the widest audience possible.



November Design Challenge – Winner Announced!

November 30, 2020 By Amy Green

We are so excited about our monthly design challenges, because they give us all a chance to practice what we think is the core design principle in creating accessible games: consideration. This month, we asked participants to tell us how they would adjust the design of a popular game that’s been getting a lot of play around our houses lately, “Among Us.” We are excited to share with you the design solutions our participants came up with for changing “Among Us” into a game that could be played with a single button.

We were so impressed with the solutions that were offered, and we believe that we can all learn from the creative ideas that were shared with us. So, here’s the design suggestions that surfaced in the contest, and our Playability Initiative designers’ response.

Navigation and Player Movement

Blake Schreurs was the winner of this month’s challenge, and he began with ship navigation:

“For this game, navigating the space is a big deal, but navigating 2D spaces is something of a challenge with one button. In this case, I’ve implemented a predictive path algorithm: The user is focused on where they want to go, and the game will take them there. Each click will select a room after the room they’re going to.

Of course, the risk of getting stabbed is very real in this game, so back-tracking (if you see something that scares you) happens immediately.

The implementation code could use some polish, but this is to demonstrate a design, not be game-ready.

Oh, the color choice for the paths is on purpose: should still be distinct for those who are colorblind. Also, rooms with “chores” are a different shape (diamond) than intermediary nodes (hex). I was going to put in colored arrows “You’re going here”, but I found the “target room bubble” was extremely effective.

You’ll also notice that the game will select the next room for you when you reach a node. This is on purpose, as staying moving = staying alive, so I thought that was better than sitting still by default. You can sit still by going back to a previous node.”

 

Ryan Green had this to say about the navigation design:

“What I appreciate most about Blake’s design is that the immediacy of system response to player input is at the forefront of his thinking right from the get go. This is a game that requires users to be able to react. As Blake says, “moving = staying alive.”  His implementation of movement is very clever. Instead of selection occurring when the player is stopped at a point-of-interest, he uses the time between nodes to allow the player to anticipate their next move.  Allowing players to make decisions while they are moving frees the player from the tedium of movement, and gives them permission to think strategically.”

Player Customization

Next, Blake tackled cosmetic customizations in the game. Showing how much accessible game design requires a comprehensive approach, it’s not all about the mechanics.

“Do not underestimate the value of pets and clothes… These help give players individuality, or let them all participate in group activities (like all wearing party hats).

It is, in fact, so important, that cosmetics are one of the primary ways the game makes money… Personality matters, and we can’t overlook this. 

However, picking something from a large selection with one button is kinda awful. Given 1 second cycle time for choosing objects, and a reaction time of 0.5 seconds (and please forgive any math errors, it’s late)… With a fully linear format, choosing between 64 items can take anywhere between 0.5 (first item) and 63.5 seconds, with a mean time of 32.5 seconds. ICK! Oh, and if you MISS your item? Double ick.

With an X/Y input grid you have anywhere between 0.5 and 14.5 seconds, with a mean time of 8 seconds. Missing your selection depends entirely on implementation here, but may make you feel a little dead inside.

Hahaha! But wait! There is another way! A binary search!

With a binary hierarchical selection, a selection time is anywhere between 3 and 6.5 seconds, with a mean that’s really hard to calculate, but in the neighborhood of 5-ish seconds. Missing your selection means you go back up one step in the hierarchy.

It also doesn’t FEEL as long, because you’re invested in making intermediate steps along the way. You’re not waiting 6 seconds before you can act, there’s always an action just a moment away.

This demo uses very basic colors to show the concept. In a real-world design, we’ll want smooth animation, and to de-emphasize all non-selected items by greying them out, so the user can stay focused on the item they want.”

Ryan Green says, 

“Again, in menu selection situations, Blake rightly points out that cycling many options can be tedious, error prone, and take a very long time. The binary tree search is great because it narrows the decision space for the player down to two options. One additional accommodation I would have liked to have seen mapped out more clearly is either a “back,” “undo,” or a “confirm” option.  I like that Blake’s method reduces the cycling time for correcting mistakes, it is less clear to me how players would tell the system they do not want the current selection.”

J’accuse!!!

Here are Blake’s thoughts on Accusing others and voting. 

“There are up to 8 players. I’ve given each a distinct shape, and a color using the Paul Tol palette (again, to support folks with color vision challenges). If I actually had the skills/resources to do actual character design, these would be the silhouettes / primary colors of those designs… As is, you’re stuck with ugly block art.

Choosing the player you want to defend/accuse is another hierarchical selection. I refined it some, so it doesn’t have quite that “rough concept” feel. Once you select a character to defend/blame, a linear slider is used to pick how confident you are of their innocence / guilt.

At the discussion round-up, the display would show how each player voted for each other.

The voting would work very similarly: One option for each other player, and a skip button.”

When Ryan Green reviewed the accusations, he said, 

“My only note here is that it seems to me the player would be selecting a player to accuse, so I might reverse the order of the slider to read back → Imposter → Sus → Crew. This would speed up the process of accusing someone by moving the most likely selection to the beginning of the scanning process.”

When Blake looked at the tasks and chores, he elegantly boiled down this aspect of the game as, “things to make you stay in place so someone can stab you.” (And I’m going to use this as justification for why I refuse to do any chores around my house from here on out.)

“In this case, these are essentially mini-games. They need to be short, since the player won’t be able to exit the mini-game prematurely (since the mini-game will essentially be taking over the input).

There are a broad variety that you can do. Flappy-bird. Geometry dash. Stop the spinner on a desired color. Hit trajectory. Alto-like games. Frogger-oids.

It’s pretty much the same with ship events: Core meltdown? Have a few folks navigate to the engine room and inject coolant.

The main exception would be the Emergency Meeting button, which would cycle between pressing or not pressing. Pressing it calls a meeting, not pressing returns the player to ship navigation.

This is pretty high level. For a full game design you’d want to go into more detail. That is to say: There is more design work that can be done here, but none of it is terribly novel.”

Ryan Green seemed particularly impressed with mini-game design, saying, 

“Blake’s suggestions for mini-games are perfect. The more simple controls in these examples don’t diminish the challenge of the minigame, but they do make them equally accessible to all player input types.”

Killing and reporting bodies.

“Again, this is all VERY rough, and would need to be cleaned up considerably for a proof-of-concept.

This is a snippet of showing reporting a body. I’ve moved the map to a mini-map, and have created a lighting environment more like Among Us. The player icon has changed to that of the last example. The opaque shadowing makes it feel more like you “stumble across” the body, as opposed to trying to navigate to it to report it.

Ultimately, it adds another timing element so that players can’t rest too easy between navigation nodes.

If you’re the imposter, and the other character is alive, then it would be a nearly identical interaction to kill them.”

Overall, Ryan Green was really inspired by this winning design submission, saying,  

“Blake really went above and beyond with his entry this month. I was thoroughly impressed! I have fallen into the design trap of emphasizing the less important elements of gameplay and losing sight of the point of the game. As Hayden likes to say “what does the player want to do, and what is preventing them from doing it?” Blake’s solution keeps that question in mind and maintains what makes Among Us fundamentally fun to play.”

When Playability Initiative Designer, Hayden Scott-Baron, helped us select Blake as the winner, he had this to say about Blake’s entry:

“My favourite part of Blake’s design is the consideration of player movement, which can be one of the trickiest things to adapt to single button. Focusing on pathfinding is an excellent approach that greatly limits the number of items being cycled at any one time, and keeps players moving around the ship. It also shows the ways that different maps can be more accommodating to different input methods, with junction and hub layouts vastly altering what it means to head into certain rooms or choose a new location.  It could be interesting to see location goals overlaid with behaviour goals, with the player deciding how much they want to follow other players and perform tasks. The ideas about interface and voting are excellent too, and show how each activity needs unique consideration. Great work!”

Our next one-button design challenge goes live at the end of this week, on Friday December 4th. To participate, make sure you’ve joined our Playability Initiative Facebook group, and then send us your designs in the comments of the challenge post. (Also, we fully recognize that Blake went above and beyond in his response to our challenge and we want to reassure everyone that we will consider entries based on the merit of their ideas and not based on the length of the submission.)



Accessible Game Spotlight: Lost and Hound

November 23, 2020 By Andy Robertson

Building a database that lets you search video games by accessibility features and inclusive design means we get to talk to developers of some amazing games! Many of these games are already available but some are still in development.

Lost and Hound

Rating: PEGI 7+, ESRB TEEN

Release Date: Coming soon

Platforms: Nintendo Switch and PC

Genres: Adventure, Narrative and Puzzle

Developer: @DaisyAleSounds

Lost and Hound is a game in development. We had a chance to talk to the developer and get the low down for the database. It’s an adventure puzzle game where you play as scent tracking rescue dogs, Corgi and Biscuit. You use your sense of smell to find missing items and solve mysteries. Your heightened hearing and other senses enable you to progress in your goals, eventually becoming a professional tracker.

In the game, your attuned hearing allows you to access information that’s inaccessible to humans. This means you can solve puzzles and find items. But it extends to detecting if someone is lying by being able to hear their heart rate increase. You can even hear through walls to track people and match up items such as those left at a crime scene with their owners.

The game depicts these senses in different ways. At any time, you can call up your sense of smell to find the direction to go. In this way, you travel the world taking on the role of real-world working dogs. You might work in a hospital assisting with seizure or cancer detection. Or you could find yourself being an emotional support for zoo animals and more. Your work as a K9 tracker will take you to the Australian outback, Swiss Alps, the American wilderness, and many other locales. In between each mission, you’ll have the option to complete mini levels to earn extra money and travel to more exotic locations.

The game is designed to be fully playable to players without sight or without hearing. It does this by matching audio cues with visual representation. This is also a mode where the display changes to increase the contrast and the depiction of the world to make it much more visible. Stamina is depicted on screen but also with the panting sound of your dog. Although there isn’t a difficulty setting, selecting particular companion dogs can make the game easier to play as they have helpful abilities. The sniff function is always present and tells you where to go next.

Beyond its novel play style, this game also offers a unique and light-touch way to engage with themes of criminal activity and the importance of other people to make us feel safe. Your owner is present throughout the game and depicts strongly the power of being cared for while being offered protection and reassurance.

A selection of games from the Family Video Games Database

It’s an exciting game that can teach us a lot about how a game about our senses could be designed to be inclusive even to players with impairments in the same senses the game highlights. We can’t wait to play it. You can use this search in the database to find more Upcoming Games with Accessibility Features.



When Games Hurt

November 18, 2020 By Amy Green

We can all recount the injuries we’ve suffered from playing some of our favorite games. Even non-athletes have fantastic injury stories to share from games like red rover, dodgeball, or even the annual cast party favorite for high school theater kids like me, “kissing rugby.” (Yes it was every bit as violent and flirtatious as it sounds.) When you agree to play these games, or any number of contact sports, you know pain is part of the rules of engagement. The risk involved increases the enjoyment of the activity. But what happens when games that should require no physical discomfort inadvertently inflict pain?

When we talk about accessibility in video games, we are often discussing the consideration that is required to design a game for someone with a disability. A designer has to consider the player and their unique abilities in order to create a game that is enjoyable for them to play. But discomfort while gaming can be experienced by any player. And this reminds us that good game design considers all players. 

Hands holding a game controller

Comfort in game playing is different for each person. What is comfortable for one player, may not be comfortable for another. If a video game causes you physical pain, it is not accessible to you. And so, accessibility impacts all players, not just players with diagnosed disabilities.

I remember when Plants Vs. Zombies 2 first came out and I binge-played it for two weeks before I noticed a sharp pain in my wrist and some mild numbness in a couple of my fingers. It took me a day or two to recognize that my excessive playing had given me temporary tendinitis in my wrist.

In my case, the solution was simple enough, I quit playing the game for a few days. When I returned to it, I spent less time playing than I had before. But what if the solution for player discomfort wasn’t simply “play less?” Surely the goal for the game’s developers wasn’t to encourage me and other players to play less. What if instead they had considered me more and thought through the ergonomics of gameplay before their game had been released? 

In this case, the game’s design was probably not to blame. It’s possible that any mobile game I played for such long stretches would have caused me similar discomfort. However, some games are poorly designed in ways that, unknowingly, inflict pain.

Hayden Scott-Baron, a designer on the Playability Initiative told us a similar story of playing a video game every night with his partner. They both really enjoyed the game and looked forward to their time spent playing it, until they came to a specific level that required such a difficult configuration of their fingers that it actually caused them physical pain. The game required the player to quickly switch between pressing buttons and holding the right stick in different directions. They quit playing the game. It didn’t matter how much they had enjoyed the game up to that point, when the game stopped considering their needs and began to inflict physical pain, nothing else mattered.

A couple sits and plays a video game together.

I suspect a lot more games expose players to physical pain than game designer’s realize, and this is even more true for players who have pre-existing injuries, special needs, or chronic conditions. Hayden didn’t write an email, or issue a help ticket, he just quit playing. I didn’t contact the developers, I just stopped spending as much time with their game.

Accessibility work isn’t just for games that are being designed for people with disabilities, all games should be accessible to players. When we don’t intentionally consider accessibility and think about the comfort of our players, we may inadvertently create games that aren’t accessible to anyone at all. 



Is Awareness A Dirty Word?

October 31, 2020 By Amy Green

Awareness fatigue. Even if you’ve never heard the term before, I suspect you’ve felt it. Awareness fatigue is a crummy feeling because we usually acknowledge that the cause the awareness is rallying toward is a great cause, but we’ve just heard about it so much we find ourselves bristling. Because the Playability Initiative wants to help raise awareness about the need for more accessibility in video games, it’s important for us to understand the factors that make us resist the call to help raise awareness. Awareness fatigue works against all of us. So, I’ll give you an example of my personal  awareness fatigue, if you promise to remember that I’m not proud of it.

October can grate on my nerves. Everywhere I look, I see pink ribbons, fundraising campaigns, waiters in pink t-shirts, even professional football teams get in on the breast cancer awareness action. And why would that bother me? Am I an unfeeling monster? No, of course not. It’s just that before October each year, I live through September, childhood cancer awareness month. What’s that? You’ve never heard of it? You’ve never seen gold ribbons plastered all over your town? Exactly. And that’s why I can get a little salty in October, when the importance of “awareness” goes from 0-60 literally overnight. (It doesn’t help that I lost a son to cancer and that childhood cancer research receives only 4% of the total government funding for cancer research.) And that’s one tricky thing about awareness; it can feel like every good cause is competing for attention. Even when we know it’s not a competition, we each have our own special causes that we want to see acknowledged, and while we don’t begrudge any good cause that needs more attention, it’s hard not to wish the things that mattered most to us were acknowledged as quickly as the big causes people universally support.

Pink Ribbons

We all bring our own circumstances into our awareness encounters. My lived experience explains my catty response when a woman checking me out at a cash register asked me if I wanted to round up my purchase to fund breast cancer awareness?  “Oh, you’re raising money to increase the awareness of breast cancer? What a great idea. It needs more awareness. Not enough people have heard of breast cancer. We need to spend more money to really help people become aware of this very under-acknowledged issue.”  Thankfully the girl at the register laughed a little rather than publicly shaming me for my bad attitude. It had been a long October. The truth is, had she told me I could round up my purchase to fund research, I probably would have agreed. And that’s another component of awareness fatigue; we may feel like it simply isn’t enough. Awareness is the first step in advocacy, fundraising, or demanding change. But we can camp on awareness for too long because it’s the easiest step, never moving on to the harder work of making life better.

So today, I talk about advocacy and awareness, knowing that it can be a bit of a dirty word. We’re all sick of people posting a few sentences on their social media pages and acting like they’ve saved the world. Every day is a national awareness day on some important issue or another. And we’ve all changed our profile pics to add a border that raises awareness about important topics, and wondered if it makes any difference or if we’re just broadcasting our “enlightenment” to our friends and family.

Does advocacy really matter? Is raising awareness valuable? Is it enough? Even though we may all have awareness fatigue, the answer is still yes. The reason October keeps flooding our lives with pink is because it works! Six billion dollars is raised for breast cancer every year. And that’s fantastic! It’s a worthy cause, and the money is helping save lives. We may all get a little tired of “awareness” as a concept. It may never feel like anyone is doing enough. But the next time you feel awareness fatigue creeping in, think of those pink ribbons in October and remember that awareness works. It is the crucial first step. Awareness leads to understanding, and understanding leads to change.

And this is especially true when it comes to less well-known topics, like accessibility in video games. I see so many of you talking about accessibility, and I’m sure you wonder if it makes any difference. The answer is yes. Large game studios are beginning to add more and more accessibility positions to their teams. In the last year, full-time accessibility management jobs were added at Xbox, Ubisoft, SquareEnix, Riot Games, Twitch and Unity. Accessibility is moving from something game devs did in their spare time to something that large studios are actively paying attention to and recruiting for because suddenly they care. Why do they care? Because their players care. Advocacy has grown. When players insist on accessible features, companies begin to pay attention. Awareness has been shifting into advocacy, and we’re seeing the first hints of change.

Various Adaptive Video Game Controllers

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yes, awareness matters at the beginning, but what can my advocacy do at this stage in the game accessibility movement?” Most game developers already know what they need to do to make their games accessible, and they already know that they should be creating accessible games. But the sad truth is, there is a big gap between knowing what we should do and prioritizing that work under tight budgets and pressing deadlines.

A game designer for the Playability Initiative, Hayden Scott-Baron told us a story recently about a game he worked on. He had mapped out all the accessibility features for the game. The designs were ready to implement, but they were deprioritized before release. There was too much else to do. Here’s a perfect example of a game studio knowing they should include accessible features and knowing exactly how to accomplish it. The plan was to make the whole game playable using just a mouse, but additional modes were accessed via keyboard. Hayden designed an onscreen panel that let players change modes with the mouse, but the programmers weren’t able to implement every mode before launch. Players could still complete the game but couldn’t use every feature. A month later, a player emailed the studio saying they were enjoying the game but struggled with the controls.  That one advocate, reaching out accomplished in a single request what Hayden couldn’t do as a game designer inside the studio. The player created an immediate priority. The accessibility designs were implemented, and the game was updated.

I share this because you may think one voice won’t make a difference. Your awareness fatigue may have convinced you that you’re just being a nuisance and aren’t accomplishing anything. But remember, there are people inside all the game studios you love who care a great deal about accessibility. They are trying to make a case for a bigger portion of the time and money spent on developing a game to go toward accessibility. But they can’t make that case without the voice of advocates, regularly increasing awareness about specific games and specific needs.

Awareness is not a dirty word; awareness is a catalyst for change. And if you ever forget it, walk into any business any day in October, look around, and let the sea of pink remind how much impact awareness can have. Acknowledge your awareness fatigue, and then share the blog anyway. Tell your story anyway. Keep talking about accessibility anyway. It all matters. Awareness works, even when we’re tired of it.



Interview: Scott A Jacobson, One Button Game Jam

October 29, 2020 By Katie Postma

We recently told you about the One Button Game Jam created by Scott Jacobson, a teacher at Lake City High School. We asked Scott to share more about his motivations and inspirations for the game jam! 

Hello Scott, thank you for being our first interview here at the Playability Initiative!

For those out there who don’t know you yet, please tell us about yourself, what you do and what brings you to the Playability Initiative!

Wow. How far back should I go? My first 3D dungeon game I made on a TRS-80 in under 16 KB? That’s when I first fell in love with making computer games. Years later after graduating from university, I eventually ended up teaching science at one of our local high schools. I gradually added computers to my classroom and in 2002 I was asked to create some electives as we switched to a block schedule. I created 2 new offerings, a web design class and a game design class. As much as I loved coding, I decided to cater more to the writers and artists by using graphical and block coding software. That really paid off as I watched my sections quickly grow from one to four. And it turned out that about one in ten of my students would be developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum, responding well to the atmosphere in these classes. In 2002 my 12 year old son Tyler (a master of Unreal Tournament level design, Flash, RPG Maker and Clickteam products) would come to the high school and help with my after school Lake City Game Creator Club. He ran the club until 2008 when he graduated. The club was the birth of game jams for me.  Eventually itch.io became my choice for managing them. Over the last 12 years, as a bit of a hobby, I’ve found pleasure in helping people rapidly prototype their “worthy” game ideas in hopes of garnering funding to have it professionally produced; or just help them decide upon next steps. By “worthy” I mean games in the “serious games” and “games for change” realm. Ultimately all of these experiences converged to tee me up and respond eagerly to the Playability Initiatives call to action.

Scott Jacobson

Scott Jacobson

 

What was your inspiration for holding the game jam?

I have been a fan of Numinous Games and Ryan and Amy ever since I attended the CGDC Portland game developer conference back in 2017, attending their session “Beyond Choose Your Own Adventure: Crafting More Immersive Narratives”.  More recently, I assisted Matthew Colon with the CGDC 2020 Virtual conference where Ryan and Amy conducted the session “Designing For The One“ and introduced the Playability Initiative.  Both of these experiences, along with having many students and friends over the years with varying levels of disabilities,  fanned into flames my desire to do something to raise awareness and do something personally. I also teach introductory game design at the high school level and typically run a game jam on itch.io twice a year using themes I hope appeal to that age group.  Outside of class time I love to help others prototype worthy projects in the “serious games” genre as well.  All of this seemed to come together at the right time and materialize into the One Button Game Jam.

Is this something you want to make into a regular event? Would you use different #accessibility criteria?

It is indeed my intention to make this a yearly event.  I was even thinking of running it again before summer starts so that my new set of next semester students could give it a go as well.  It would also allow me some lead time with my intro students to teach to and supplement their curriculum and cover algorithms specific to this type of game, e.g. gui element cycling and timing calibration.  As far as changing the criteria, I am really content with the current state, especially “preventing the player from losing or causing detrimental outcomes if they step away”.  I’d like to see how far this can be taken without ruining the gameplay.

What rules and criteria were involved for the jam / games itself?

I started off thinking it would be very easy to explain the criteria but found out in short order that the target Spinal Muscular Atrophy Community had very specific needs that needed to be addressed and I was missing the mark in describing it.  Ryan Green, Matthew Colon, and Barry Ellis from oneswitch.org.uk came to my rescue and were very responsive in helping me craft the criteria clearly and precisely, i.e. using a mechanism for when a button is pressed down is required, not held, released, or mashed; not relying on reaction rates or precise timing or frequent button presses that can become tiring, to name a few.  I was a bit concerned that with so many restrictions it might limit participation, but once again my “rescue crew” provided game mechanic suggestions and examples to motivate the entrants. 

How did the students’ respond to the challenge?  

Sadly, thanks to Covid, my school schedule changed so much these past few months that the contact time I had with my students was cut drastically, meaning most of my beginner kids wouldn’t have the required software experience to participate.  This put the onus on my advanced students which are a much smaller group and with them it couldn’t be compulsory.  To compound the problem, I had to adapt all my lessons to be Chromebook compatible.  This really limited the software options. As a result only a handful of the entries were from my students but those who didn’t enter are playing, rating and commenting on the games. 

My only regret is that I feel a little disappointed Jack didn’t get his driving game at the end of this jam.  Next time around I’ll add a special driving game category award and provide some attractive incentives for the One Button Game Jam 2 entrants in hopes of making that dream come true.

 

Huge thanks to Scott for speaking with us! You can find the results of the One Button Game Jam 2020, by clicking here.



One Button Game Jam – 2020!

October 22, 2020 By Katie Postma

As we welcome people into the Playability Initiative, we’re thrilled and awed by how much meaningful work is being done in the accessibility community by our members.

Friend of the Initiative, Scott A Jacobson has created a One Button Game Jam for his web and game design students this year. The judging round is happening now!

One Button Game Jam

One of our goals in the playability initiative is to help inspire philosophies of inclusive design principles and consideration in future game designers. We believe that when young people participate in accessible game design challenges, they will consider the world around them in new ways, noticing who the spaces in our world have been designed for and who hasn’t been considered in the design process. Whether these students go on to have careers in game design, customer service, engineering, HR, education, or almost any other field, the consideration they’ve learned in a one-button game jam will help them make the world a little more accessible for anyone they encounter.

You can help encourage these students by voting for winners in their game jam. We’ve been very impressed with the entries we’ve tried out and think you’ll enjoy your time seeing what these budding game developer’s have come up with.

You can see the entries and vote, here:
https://itch.io/jam/one-button-game-jam-2020

We’ll follow up with a blog post about the inspiration for the game jam, student reaction, and we’ll share the news of the game jam winners!



Games Designed To Be Easier To See

October 15, 2020 By Andy Robertson

Working on the accessibility database has made me look at games differently. The first thing I do when I test a new game is go to the options settings to see what you can change to make it more accessible.

Examples of games that are easier to see: Hue, Ear Hockey and A Good Snowman is Hard to Build

It’s also changed how I look at game design as a whole. Along with offering specific settings to make games accessible, some of my favourite games of late have been those that have been designed avoid the barriers that may prevent players from enjoying them.

This inspired me to put a list together of games that were designed to be easier to see. These titles either have settings or are are created from the ground up for low vision players. 

Many of these games include:

  • Fonts: Larger, scalable font sizes and bold fonts, like Moving Out.
  • Zoom: Ability to increase the size of all objects on the screen such as in Untitled Goose Game’s zoom feature.
  • Contrast: Settings to adjust contrast and brightness, as well as distinct colours with good lighting, like Splatoon.
  • Non-Visual Cues: Sounds and haptic feedback that help direct the player, like Lego games.
  • Colourblind: Modes that invert colours or change colours to accommodate different types of colour blindness, such as in Hue.
  • Screen Readers: Functions that read text and menus as they are highlighted and appear on the screen, such as in Eagle Island.

You can see the full list here: Games Designed to be Easier to See, that Christy Smith (thepuppiesNpink) helped me originally compile. Some of my favourites are:

  • Frequency Missing, a point and click adventure designed to be playable without any sight. You touch the screen to hear a sound of different items. My moving your finger on the screen you can home in on them to interact, pick them up, or start conversations. 

Gameplay from "Ord". Screen displays the word "Raccoon." and options to "Wrestle." or "Bribe." the Raccoon.Ord Gameplay

  • Ord, is another game that offers a visual design that focuses on super large fonts. This was in part the aesthetic style of the game, but also meant that the words were easier to see with a visual impairment.  
        
  • Krunker is less likely candidate. It’s a fast moving shooting game that you play in your browser. However, the settings it offers to adjust the screen mean that you can make the heads up display information very visible. These setting are likely included to make the game work on different size screens, but have a secondary accessible benefit because they are implemented in a flexible way.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of some games that are designed to be easier to see. It shows that inclusive game design is as important as accessibility settings.

There are more visual accessibility settings in the database for you to explore, including:

You can browse more of these settings on the Accessibility Data Page.



Ability is a Spectrum

October 7, 2020 By Amy Green

I can play the piano. 

How much does this statement tell you about me? Not much. It might mean that I am physically capable of pressing the keys down to produce a sound. Or, I might be trying to tell you that I am a concert pianist who has mastered all of Bach’s concertos. Or it could mean any number of things in between those two extremes. 

What it happens to mean, in my case, is that I took a few years of piano lessons as a child, and I can still hammer out Für Elise or the Pachelbel Canon in C. Muscle memory is a mysterious and powerful force, but I can’t play either song in a manner that anyone would enjoy listening to.

What I hope I’ve illustrated with my analysis of the statement, “I can play the piano,” is that ability is a spectrum.

Ability is not a binary. It is not a flip of a switch. So then, why do we label people as “disabled” as if the disability switch in their brain or body is permanently stuck in the on position?

Disability is a Spectrum

We all have strengths and weaknesses. No two people will ever have the same degree of ability in all circumstances. These differences in our abilities are what make games, sports, trivia, and other competitions fun. We can’t predict how our abilities may interact with and compare to other people’s abilities in differing circumstances. In many ways we appreciate this spectrum.

So, why have we developed this label of “disabled?”

It may be because people refuse to help one another and consider each other’s needs until they are compelled to do so. Having a term we can use to designate when accommodation are required has become necessary.

How disappointing. Especially because most people are so kind and helpful on an individual basis, but in groups we tend to become selfish.  How well do you think it would work if we removed all handicap parking designations and simply asked everyone to only park as close to a building as they actually needed to park given their personal abilities? 

And so, I’m glad the term “disability” can help everyone get the assistance they need. I wish it didn’t come with the baggage that somehow people who label themselves as disabled are fundamentally different from people who don’t use that term. We all have a range of abilities.

As we design a video game specifically for children with SMA, we are focused on making a game that everyone can play. We are convinced that fun can be shared across the ability spectrum. Choosing to consider everyone no matter where they fall on the ability spectrum for button pushing, or motor control, or response time is important to us. And we don’t think our consideration will mean the resulting play will be any less satisfying. 

That’s why we’re passionate about the Playability Initiative; it helps us love and consider each other in new ways and look beyond the labels that limit our appreciation for one another. So, we named this initiative “Playability.” We want to focus on everyone’s ability to play – not preconceived notions on what constitutes disability. We are committed to considering how people on a wide spectrum of ability can all play together and we’d love for you to join us in the conversation about how to consider each other well and participate in making play accessible to everybody.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/ThePlayabilityInitiative