Changing the Game – An Interview with Andy RobertsonJune 24, 2021 By Amy Green We are excited to present our next Game Changers Interview. In our Game Changers series, we interview people who are making a big difference in the video game accessibility landscape. Today, we’re excited to talk with Andy Robertson, author of Taming Gaming and the creator of the Family Videogame Database. His work helping people discover new, accessible games is making a huge difference in the industry, and we have been honored to sponsor his accessibility work through The Playability Initiative and to be able to shine a spotlight on his tremendous efforts through this interview. Here’s the conversation we had. Amy: You’ve poured a lot of time and energy into the Family Videogame Database. What made you realize that adding accessibility information to the games on the database would serve your users? Andy: I’d love to say it was part of a master plan, but the Family Video Game Database was something I stumbled into. I wanted to create a website to support the launch of my Taming Gaming book that was delayed because of printing during the pandemic. The appetite from parents and guardians to find out about video games their children were playing has turned it into the huge resource it is today, with close to 1200 games. The database grew out of a desire to stand with parents and guardians to provide them the information they need to find out about video games — and find amazing video games for their family to play. To make good on that mission, accessibility was clearly an important part of the puzzle. In fact, it wasn’t really a separate piece at all. Much of the information we already provided was useful from an accessibility perspective. Extending the accessibility data was simply a way to extend our passion to help everyone discover games they love to play. Amy: How long have you been working on adding accessibility data to your database? Andy: As you can see from the graph here, we started adding data on 14th August 2020 with our initial set of data-points. The work on accessibility had actually started a long time before that. As we realised this was an important area of data, I had a wide range of conversations to learn how best to cover this. I put together a rough plan for our approach to adding an accessibility search early in 2020. For a few months, I was a sponge, wanting to talk to anyone who would talk to me about accessibility. This included experts, those leading accessibility movements and charities, as well as loads of people from the accessibility community. This was really helpful. When I started, I thought it would be relatively simple and require us to record what settings games had. However, from all the research I did and conversations I had, I soon learned how complex and large this challenge was. It wasn’t just about settings, but about how each game applied them for the player. It was more about inclusive design in a holistic sense, rather than discrete settings. Amy: What has the response from the community been like? Andy: One of the main reasons that we have made such good progress with the data is from the positive and generous response from the community. We have worked with loads of people who have been keen to add data for the games they know about, as well as experts who have checked quality and accuracy. Each time we talk to someone about accessibility, we seem to learn something new. Sometimes that leads to us updating how we describe one of the data-points, or adding new data. Sometimes that leads to us separating a single datapoint into two separate flags. Sometimes it leads to us collecting together a specific list of games. Another part of the community response that I have loved is from game developers. When entering accessibility data we always aim to talk to the developer to check that we have them correct. This has led us to talking to more and more devs earlier in the process. These conversions have been fruitful for adding data about their game before release, so people can make an informed choice. These conversations have also precipitated many games to actually add new accessibility features they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Here are a couple of examples: “Had a wonderful #accessibility chat with @TamingGamingDB. All our confirmed settings are recorded in their page, and we’ve got some great ideas of a11y we could add to @Smalland.” https://twitter.com/MergeGamesLtd/status/1337368737293479936 “Yay, @GeekDadGamer added Get Together to the database @TamingGamingDB. His accessibility review uncovered some handy things we’ll be adding like making screenshake optional.” https://twitter.com/studiosterneck/status/1350097700117737475 As with family video games, our hope for the database is that it raises awareness about video games. For parents and guardians, this is about the breadth of positive experiences they can find for their families. For developers, this is a deeper understanding of the family audience. For both these audiences, accessibility is just another area of awareness we can contribute to. A recent example is a mother whose child broke their arm. We could provide them some game suggestions not only on the basis of the system they had and the age of their child, but also games they could play with one hand. Amy: What is your latest new addition to accessibility information for people searching video games on your database? Andy: We have a new landing page for accessibility where we can highlight the specialist accessibility sites to check out once you have discovered a game on the database. This leads on from our new Accessibility Report pages that offer more space to detail the accessibility features on a game. The report uses the similar games the database knows about to attempt to make suggestions when a game doesn’t offer very many accessibility features in a particular area. This isn’t perfect yet, but is a great step towards what’s possible as we get more of this data recorded on the database. It also highlights how useful it is to not segment accessibility data to other information about the game. Being able to search in a holistic way and combine game suggestions with the results is what makes it so powerful. We are also working on a feature where a developer can log onto the database and check or enter the accessibility data for their games. This saves us and them time, and is flagged for a follow up to confirm the data provided by the game devs with our accessibility editors. Amy: What is your biggest challenge going forward? Andy: The biggest challenge going forward is freeing up enough time to spend on the data. We have some amazing supporters on the site like the VSC Rating Board, Ukie, Gamewell and AskAboutGames. But the amount of data in this area is huge and really is a full time job. It’s the combination of volume and accuracy that is front and centre for us. We never want to have an accessibility flag on the database if we are not sure that the game offers it. Although we see the database as a first point of discovery before some more research, our data needs to be reliable. In this area we have recently made a couple of painful errors. On one game, we had flagged that it was playable for players without sight which led to a couple of people making purchases of a game they couldn’t play. That was a real low point, both in terms of the public perception of the database and personally. It was the exact opposite of what I wanted to contribute. We were contacted about the error and could fix the data immediately. We got in touch with those who made a purchase to rectify our mistake, and compensate them where we could. This actually led to a really positive conversation about what went wrong and how to improve this and other aspects of the database for these players. It’s a challenging thing we are trying to do. Being willing to get it wrong in spite of best efforts is a part of that. But we are around for the long haul. The database has made a good start, but I’m most excited about what the resource will look like five years from now. Amy: What has made the work rewarding for you? Andy: I have a background in information architecture. I have this strange love of organising large sets of data. I also love providing information to people that will make a difference and empower their choices. The database is a sweet spot of those two passions I have. The most rewarding thing are those moments when someone needs advice about a particular game and the database has done the legwork for them. Being able to be the resource ready to meet people’s needs is a big motivator. In accessibility in particular, it’s been really motivating to make some great friends who have taught me so much and made the database a better resource. Growing in understanding and putting the architecture in place today, to be ready to answer tomorrow’s questions has been a thrilling and all encompassing journey. Amy: How can people help you spread the word about the Family Videogame Database and the accessibility features it includes? Andy: At this stage, a big challenge is getting word out about the database. The parents and guardians who would most benefit from the database are those who are least likely to find it. So telling friends and family about it is great. Of course it’s also really helpful if you can link to the database. Another big help is people getting in touch who use the database. Tell us what works and what doesn’t. We’re in this hot-house innovation phase in this second year, so ideas are gold dust. Finally, we are looking for partners to stand with us and help cover costs of the database to give it that secure future we hope it will have.