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.