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Interview with Tara Voelker, co-founder of the Game Accessibility Conference

Disability is a mismatch between a person and their environment, resulting in barriers performing day-to-day tasks, including gaming. These barriers are often unnecessary. Accessibility simply means avoiding those unnecessary barriers. This often means reinforcing how information is communicated, and offering players some flexibility, both of which often translate into a better experience for all players.

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I sat down with Tara Voelker, who makes game accessibility her crusade and on February 27th in San Francisco the Game Accessibility Conference is taking place.  Tara is a co-founder of the conference while attendees can expect a wide range of topics from all sectors of the industry – indie to AAA, academia to accessibility specialists – and leave with inspiration, new contacts, and practical knowledge of how to ensure their vision is able to reach as wide a range of players as possible, so no player is unnecessarily excluded from the access to culture, recreation and socializing that gaming brings.

Give the readers a quick overview of the show and what your goals are for it.

Over the last three years and interest in game accessibility, and it’s been steadily growing, but we have found that the bigger conferences have been just scratching the surface and not really giving that in-depth knowledge.  People are wanting to get more resources, seeing case studies and being able to talk with others that have had firsthand experience at dealing with this and the issues that can arise.

The goal is to give users the tools they need to actually make games accessible.

Step 1: To raise awareness

Step 2: Learn how to do it and give them resources

Most people are aware, its step 2 that’s really important.

“We’re at a tipping point right now where developers want to make games more accessible, so we’re holding an event to give them the resources to do so. They’ll have everything they need and access to like-minded individuals and industry experts.”
– Tara Voelker, Gaikai, event co-director

What kind of challenges are developers faced with?

We are seeing that developers understand what, but not the how.  In case of subtitles in the game.  The developers know that they need to be integrated.  But they are not sure of the details, such as the font size, or is there a particular font to use and how the fonts will look on certain background images.

There are also a lot of challenges when it comes to budgets and resourcing. And with that in mind, the conferencing is having a particular session titled, Accessibility As A Micro-Indie.

“Tackling accessibility as a small indie is a very different prospect to tackling it as a large AAA studio, for many reasons. Not just the differences in budget and resources, but also workflow, approval, politics, toolsets.

This session will explore some of both the advantages and challenges unique to working in a studio of less than five people, and offer advice to other developers who find themselves in the same situation.”

Also another session dealing with handling accessibility for game that has already been released, titled ‘Evolve’: An Adventure in Accessibility Retro-Fitting.

“It’s always said that you should plan for accessibility from the beginning, but what happens if you don’t? Turtle Rock Studios learned the hard way with Evolve, but gained a lot of knowledge taking steps to make their game more accessible post launch. In this session, learn not only how to avoid the challenges they encountered but how thinking of gamers with disabilities made their title more appealing to the general audience for Evolve Stage 2.”

In the case of Evolve, which if you are not aware of the game, it’s first-person shooter with a heavy sci-fi multiplayer focus. The game pits four-player crews of alien hunters against player-controlled monsters in a harsh and dangerous landscape. With unique abilities, items, and strategies, each alien must be used to their maximum potential to take down the large and increasingly powerful creatures they face.

After the games release, one of the first things that came back and they totally missed initially, is the addition of a color blind mode.  The game relied on being able to accurately see colors and they signified certain locations on the map, what class was your teammate using, etc.

Most commonly, color blindness (also known as color deficiency) happens when someone cannot distinguish between certain colors, usually between greens and reds, and occasionally blues.

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Games will of course use colors to signify certain elements.  But take a second and look at certain games, and you will start seeing, that with the colors that are being used, certain shapes are being used along with the color.  This design allows someone who is color blind to be able to still play the game, but now it has certain shapes, and also iconography is a lot of cases.

What would be a short list of features that all games should adhere to be considered accessible?

While this isn’t a feature, it’s important for developers to be thinking about the kind of accessible features they do want to have.  Being able to have the list and incorporate while designing and developing, will not have an impact on scope.  The scope challenges are when you have to retro-fit an accessible feature because you didn’t think about it in the beginning.

“Video games are becoming more complex all the time. Their stories are richer, their worlds more vivid and full of life. Truly, they are incredible. Nobody should be excluded from experiencing the things only video games can provide, and they want those chances. That is why game accessibility means so much.”
– Brandon Cole, blind gamer & advocate, speaker

Can you give me a game or two that you feel to an exceptional job at capturing accessibility that players should check out?

Yes, the one right now I would tell them to see, is Uncharted 4.  That one is a leader in accessibility.  As you launch the game you are presented with the accessibility menu.  For example, if you have a challenge with fine motor controls, you can turn on camera assist before getting in the game and then changing it in the menu.

They did tons of user research by bringing in players with impairments to test the game and give feedback of the menus and want should be in the game.

There is a really cool video that goes over why developers added accessibility options to Uncharted 4.

Do you see that the culture if changing on this front, or is it still a challenge for developers to think about accessibility?

It’s definitely getting a lot more prevalent.  When we starting doing talks, we would have a limited amount of audience, about 20 people coming to the talks about accessibility.  You would see the same 20 people at each of the sessions.  Then last year at GDC, we had an audience of over 200, which is a huge increase.

It is expanding every day, and not only in the game space.  Other industries are adding accessibility to the applications.

Additionally, gamers themselves are championing the effort for accessibility in games.  There is one great story where crowdfunding help accomplish fund a conference particularly on this topic.  And we aren’t talking about particular developers, or games with particular impairments.  This was crowdfunding by games wanting to be part of this important topic.

“We are just excited that we are finally at the point that there is enough interest and enough people needing these resources that a conference like this needed to exist.  This is what we are most excited about.  This is the first conference that is dedicated to game access”

Can you give me a short list of speakers for the conference?

Of course.  Here are just two of the over 15 speakers that we will have for the conference.

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You can check out the full list of speakers here:

Conference Links







I want to thank Tara for her time in talking with me. 

Game accessibility isn’t something that is talked about a lot in gaming circles.  But it is something that is incredibly important to know and understand about.  Games don’t care who the person is that is playing.  Games care about the person enjoying the experience.  Allowing game to be accessible for as many players as possible is a worthy goal and I am glad that there are people such as Tara that make this goal her crusade.

January 23rd, 2017