Interview: Ian Hamilton discusses how accessibility in gaming has progressed in recent years

Interview: Ian Hamilton discusses how accessibility in gaming has progressed in recent years

In recent years, game accessibility has become part of the mainstream discussion related to game development. Ian Hamilton is one of the dedicated, passionate advocates who has ushered in the current state of accessibility awareness. Ian works with a wide variety of game developers regarding the inclusion of game accessibility. He instructs developers on methods and techniques to improve overall accessibility. In addition, Ian advocates for gaming accessibility through interviews, speeches, and his efforts on the Game Accessibility Guidelines. Our interview will explore Ian’s thoughts on the current and future state of accessible gaming.

Where did your career in gaming begin?

From the start really, some basic game coding as a kid in the mid to late 80s through to some modding on the Atari ST, my first proper published game that I made money from was around a decade later on the ArmorGames Flash games portal. I did a bit of advergame work for a full-service creative agency around then too, and after that went to work for the BBC in 2006, working as a designer on the websites and games for their kids' TV shows.

What was the catalyst that led you to focus on accessible gaming?

Moving across into accessibility was a gradual thing. Starting back in 2006 it was part of the required responsibilities of my day job. From there I gradually started chipping out bits and pieces of time to work on it in dedicated ways, to the point where I eventually had it written into my roles and responsibilities with a certain amount allocated out of my week.

When going independent I essentially worked two full-time jobs; user experience for web & apps during the daytime to make sure that bills were paid, and accessibility advocacy in all my evenings and weekends. Eventually, it got to the point where amongst the advocacy there was just enough paid accessibility work to scrape by on and drop the UX work if I could cut my living costs... so, I moved out of London across the country to somewhere much cheaper. Now accessibility is all that I do.

It was a three-step process. First was seeing playtesting footage of preschool games that had been adapted to work with accessibility switches; simple on/off hardware for people who can't use traditional input devices, in this case usually a single button mounted on a wheelchair headrest. Thanks to a relatively small design tweak, I was watching these kids playing happily, doing the same things as all their classmates, equal participants in that small culture and society... it was pretty mind-blowing. It really opened my eyes to just how big games can be, and how important our day-to-day design choices can be to the world. So I started carving out bits of my time to work on my own side projects for that specific audience.

Then once my career had advanced a bit more I was acting as design sign-off for all the various games that other companies published through us. I kept seeing time and time again developers who put tons of polish into some small area of gameplay only to accidentally make it a miserable experience for big swathes of their players by messing up things like contrast and colour use. Not for any good reason at all, just through lack of awareness. That pushed me into working on internal guidelines and internal consulting, to try and fix some of this brokenness. That was the point at which I had accessibility assigned as an official part of my responsibilities.

The third step was when the company I was working for (BBC) relocated to the other side of the country, and I couldn't move with them. By this stage, accessibility was the aspect of my work that I was most passionate about, so I looked around for which other companies I could carry on in the same role, naively assuming that like other industries such as construction or web, game accessibility was a standard role. I was wrong, the number of other companies that had roles like that was zero (this was quite a long time ago, there still isn't much but there are now over 50 permanent in-house roles like that worldwide).

So that was like being hit by a lightning bolt really, I had no idea that the entire industry was in such dire need of fixing. So that's the point at which I went independent and started working in advocacy. Accessibility became a calling rather than an aspect of my job I was passionate about. So I took up speaking and writing and all the rest, joining the people already fighting to change the industry for the better.

Over the past decade, the focus on accessible gaming has notably increased. Are developers fully contemplating the accessibility needs of all gamers? Are there certain segments of game accessibility that are being overlooked?

There are some considerations that are becoming more common, like remapping, customisable subtitle presentation, QTE toggles, and some degree of colourblindness consideration. But beyond that, it's pretty scattergun. Most companies that are thinking about accessibility are still doing it for the first time, and often late in development, which puts limits on what can be done both technically and creatively, and those limits are quite specific to individual games.

There are a smaller number of companies who are getting a bit more experience, pushing accessibility earlier in development and so being able to do more, and do it better and more cost-effectively. I don't want to diminish the wonderful progress being made or the equally wonderful people at all of those companies driving that change, but there is still a long way to go. We're still not yet at the stage of games managing to get even the basic core fundamentals right, let alone more of the niche areas.

Gaming accessibility faces unique advantages and disadvantages across the major platforms (PC, console, and mobile.) Which platform is it easiest to include gaming accessibility?

They're all a bit different. I'd say VR is the trickiest, due to the many assumptions the platform makes about the configuration and capabilities of our bodies. That's not to say it's impossible, it's just practically harder because there's a lot more that you have to keep in mind. PC lends itself more naturally due to its native compatibility with a wide range of external hardware and software solutions that can compliment efforts made within the games themselves.

Consoles by comparison are much more locked down. And there's a cultural side to consoles that you don't get quite as much with other platforms. When there's all the buzz about the latest PS5 or Xbox exclusive, it's a big deal to be locked out from that through inaccessibility, having to sit on the outside away from that thing that all your friends are talking about and doing, and that is plastered all over billboards, TV ads etc. Mobile brings some barriers around input and screen size, but on the other hand, it has a huge overlap with situational barriers that affect us all, like playing in the sunlight or while one hand is holding onto a subway rail - it's a great illustration of how thinking about accessibility can benefit all players.

What are the major roadblocks to improving accessibility across these platforms? How can we clear those roadblocks?

One area that I'd love to see progress on is the unnecessary hardware barriers that come from how locked down some platforms are. But really the big barriers don't lie with the platforms themselves, they're in the middleware. There is so much that the tools developers use could be doing to make developers' lives easier, but instead, they're just a blocker. I've spoken to so many developers who wanted to do great things but simply couldn't because their game engine didn't support it. That needs to change. It wouldn't take a great deal for the tables to be turned, for engines to be a huge accessibility enabler instead of a huge accessibility blocker. Things like menu narration, scaleable UI frameworks, subtitle/caption systems, robust remapping, and so on.

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For years, middleware programs (e.g., Unity) have lacked accessibility features to allow developers to incorporate user accessibility. This has significantly impacted the accessibility of indie mobile games. Why do you think we haven’t seen more progress from these companies on including accessibility functionality?

A: We are actually starting to see the first signs of progress now, most notably Unity having hired several people to work full time solely on accessibility. Part of that is making the editor itself more accessible to disabled developers, but they'll also be working on ways to help developers make their games more accessible. But it has been a very long time coming, and and a key reason for that I think lies in what an engine is. Engines aren't tools for players, they're tools for developers.

The engine companies' customers are game developers, not players. So no matter how much noise players may make about what they need from engines, they aren't the people engines need to hear from. The people engines need to hear from are their customers, i.e. game developers. And that's where the hole has been historically. The engine developers see accessibility as just another backlog item and one that not enough developers have been bugging them about it to justify them giving it any kind of priority. That has of course now started to change, but there's a bit of a lag. Developers have to try doing things first to then figure out where the unnecessary repeated work lies.

Game accessibility is most successful when considered from the initial game design phase. If the tools used to create games do not have the accessibility features as part of their offerings, can we ever expect to reach universal accessibility inclusion?

That's an interesting question, due to the term 'universal accessibility inclusion'. Regardless of what tools are or are not available, we will never reach that state, because of what games are. It's the core of how game accessibility differs from accessibility in other industries. The definition of 'game' requires a state of conflict. That doesn't mean literal combat-based gameplay with people shooting each other, it means a ruleset that sits between a player and being able to achieve their goal. Barriers are put in their path. And any kind of barrier is going to be exclusionary once it runs up against human variance.

You can't just get rid of them all - if you remove too many barriers it is no longer a game, it instead becomes a narrative or a toy. So it's not about there being this fixed bar of "accessible" to either hit or not hit. Instead, it's about optimisation, figuring out which barriers are necessary Vs unnecessary, and avoiding unnecessary barriers that get between your players and the kind of emotional experience you want them to have.

That tangent aside, as for whether games can be as accessible as they reasonably could without toolset support - the short answer is no. While there are some studios who are willing and able to pour a ton of resources into building bespoke solutions, it's not feasible, reasonable or even sensible for all companies to do that.

To be clear, that doesn't mean throwing half-hearted automated solutions at it. Instead, it means removing work and expense that is unnecessary. The wheel shouldn't have to be completely reinvented every time.

Often, developers reference high development costs as a reason for the exclusion of accessibility. Is it actually costly to include accessibility? Does this argument ignore the benefits that come with game accessibility (e.g. higher sales, goodwill, increased press and promotion)?

It's a bit of a tricky question to answer. And it relates to the previous one; the point at which accessibility is considered. A quick example of that is The Outer Worlds. It's an example of by far the most commonly complained about accessibility issue - tiny text. Had they just decided from the very start before designing any UI that they weren't going to have any tiny text, that would be the work done. Zero cost, it's just a design decision. However they hadn't realised that it would be an issue, so launched with tiny text, got a ton of complaints, and went back in to fix it. Fixing the tiny text took three whole months of solid work. So that's the big factor in cost, whether you design upfront or leave yourself a mountain of technical debt. The question to ask in that instance isn't "is feature X worth it", it's "is it worth spending X number of hours to do this now, Vs Y times more hours to have to remediate the issue later in development".

And there is a wide range of contributors to the business case, as you said things like direct sales or loss of sales - when Candy Crush was pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars per quarter, how much more could they have earned had the game been accessible to the 8% of males who are colourblind? Then there's PR value, both directly and through community word of mouth. And the way that considering accessibility benefits players in general, like designing for low vision and ending up with a UI that works in direct sunlight - Assassins Creed Oddysey's subtitles were used by 95% of their players, the non-gyro alt controls for Into The Dead were designed for disabled players but used by 75% of the whole playerbase.

And the cost of urgent remediation and potential fines for being in breach of CVAA legislation. The impact on sales of failing to meet rapidly shifting and growing player expectations. The extra storefront visibility that being able to tag your games for accessibility can bring in a crowded marketplace, and the dedicated accessibility showcases that storefronts like Google Play, iOS, Xbox and Playstation often run.

Another side to it is that mindsets vary greatly. There are people whose job it is to ensure that target audiences are reached, people whose job is to ensure the game meets its launch date. People whose job it is to ensure the controls and camera are effective, that the interface is easy to use, and so on - this can cover people with a wide spectrum of motivations and ways of thinking.

For some people, it's always just a simple return on investment equation of cost Vs potential sales, motivated by feature usage data. For others it's about ensuring as much of the potential player-base as possible are having the intended emotional experience, motivated by personal anecdotes, I've often seen developers say things like 'I don't care how many people use this, it would be wrong not to’. And so on.

There's some processy stuff that can help too. Like trying to assign as much as possible as success criteria rather than backlog items. Or to reword that in English, instead of a feature competing with other features, it's treated as a requirement on other features. E.g. instead of having three items on your to do list to make the mini-map, inventory screen, and make all the UI colourblind friendly, you just have two - the mini-map and the inventory, and neither of those is allowed to be marked as done unless it's colourblind friendly.

Ultimately, if you're looking for evidence to justify doing it, you're looking at it the wrong way around. Turn the question around - which audiences do you want to exclude from your game? There will be some, not every game is to everyone's tastes. But accessibility isn't about tastes, it's about access. People are being allowed the luxury of choice to be able to play the games that they like and are the target audience for.

Specifically, what advice would you offer mobile game developers on how to incorporate accessibility into their games?

The most important advice I can give is the same across all platforms, and it is simply to do it.

That may sound trite, but it's important. Too often people can feel intimidated by the topic, like there's this huge mountain of possible things none of which they feel confident in understanding and not wanting to do a bad job of it and mess things up, and so doing nothing. This is the absolute worst thing you can do. You don't have to nail everything first time around, nobody can or does. It's a journey. You're already doing a ton of stuff without even realising it, so start by identifying those, and then move on to picking a few low hanging fruit, quick wins that you feel confident about. You'll learn from that process, and everything you learn now will pay dividends for your next game.

Gaming accessibility is a truly grassroots movement. Indie developers, amateur programmers, and disabled gamers created early solutions to accessible gaming. Tell me your thoughts on these early accessibility pioneers. Who inspired your accessibility advocacy?

Absolutely, everything that happens today is built upon the shoulders of what came before. And although things have accelerated incredibly in the past decade, game accessibility goes back to at least Bertie The Brian in 1950, which is one of the contenders for having been the first ever computer game. The developer included configurable difficulty because he recognised human variance and how adjusting barriers in line with that can bring people from across the spectrum of variance closer to having the intended emotional experience.

There are many more great examples. Like the highly configurable gameplay of Atari VCS games of the late 1970s. The mouth and chin operated Hands Free Controller released by Nintendo in the late 80s. The dawn of subtitling in games in the early 90s. Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, a blind-accessible Sega Saturn game from 1997. History is filled with great innovators and boundary-pushers, and it's always good to take a step back and understand the journey that we've been on.

But having said, that my entry into the field wasn't inspired by other advocates, it was because it seemed to me like there was something that was profoundly and unnecessarily broken. And it was because of the people involved, the human impact on those people of it being broken, and in turn the potential for positive impact both on the people and on wider society from it being fixed.

Through several ventures, you contribute to the industry-wide advancement of game accessibility. You work with game developers, speak at conferences, co-authored the Game Accessibility Guidelines, and co-founded the Game Accessibility Conference. How does each of these efforts work together to help advance the awareness of game accessibility?

Initiatives generally arise from a place of need. Of something being broken and needing to be fixed. Developers were increasingly getting on board with why accessibility matters, but despite there being resources available, didn't have a clear developer friendly set of guidance. Hence us working on the guidelines. Accessibility talks were becoming more commonplace at conferences, but the talks being accepted onto lineups were still generally basic awareness raisers, which did not reflect the progress being made and the increasing levels of expertise and experience that needed to be shared between developers, and the conferences themselves were often lacking in accessibility for disabled attendees. Hence us starting the conference.

In general these and many other initiatives fall into two broad goals; 1. growing the community and building connections between people, 2. spreading knowledge and awareness. That first one about community and connections is particularly important for me. I think that is absolutely critical for advocacy work. How much good can you do in a couple of minutes of your own work? Not much. But how much good can come from spending those couple of minutes introducing two like-minded people

In the coming years, what new accessibility features can disabled gamers look forward to?

I think the progress will be in two directions - firstly consolidation of the basics like text size, remapping, subtitle presentation, effect & camera intensity, and colourblind friendly design. And pushing the bar at the other end into demographics that are currently left out the most. I think mainstream games accessible to players who are completely blind will be a significant growth area, particularly once Unity & co gets their UI accessibility functionality sorted out.

But ultimately, it's not accessibility that people should be looking forward to, accessibility is just a means to an end. What matters is games. Being able to get just as excited about the next great release as everyone else without having to wonder whether you're going to be allowed in or unnecessarily locked out. And what those games equate to matters too, not just recreation but the participation in culture and society that gaming brings.

About the author

Aaron Spelker is the founder of ‘Apple iPhone iOS Voiceover Compatible Games’ which provides weekly long-form reviews of iPhone games that are accessible to blind and vision-impaired gamers. His game reviews are posted to the Facebook group of the same name and to the video game section of the Triple Tap Tech website.