Accessibility Jam interview: how a gamejam hopes to raise accessibility awareness

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The three week Accessibility Jam started yesterday, an event designed to promote and demystify accessibility in gaming. Taking place online and incorporating #A11yJam—a three-day event in London—the organisers hope to use the rapid game creation formula to show developers that supporting impaired gamers isn't an expensive, time-consuming or design restricting practice. To find out more about the jam, and what it hopes to achieve, I talked to two of the event's organisers: accessibility specialist Ian Hamilton and game developer Jonard La Rosa.

While gamejams primarily appeal to indie teams and solo developers, it isn't just those groups that the Accessibility Jam hopes to target. "If anything its more of an issue for larger studios," says Hamilton. "Individuals and smaller indies are free to quickly make whatever changes they see fit, and for whatever reasons they see fit, whereas larger studios are often more structured, with big carefully managed prioritised backlogs of possible features."

With Accessibility Jam—and his work with the Game Accessibility Guidelines—Hamilton is attempting to combat an entrenched set of assumptions: that accessibility is difficult, expensive, and only benefits a limited percentage of the audience.

"It is absolutely a misconception," Hamilton says. "The fact that it's even possible to think about accessibility in the space of a game jam proves that. I've seen games produced in less than 48 hours that completely blow the accessibility efforts of most AAA games out of the water."

The key, Hamilton says, is to think about accessibility at an early point in the design process. That way, implementation is much easier and cheaper. "Those design decisions aren't niche things either. Accessibility is about avoiding unnecessary barriers, so often what's a showstopping barrier for someone with an impairment is actually still a bit of an annoyance for everyone else too, so you're actually making the game better for everyone."

Hamilton credits Bayonetta as a complex game with good accessibility options.

That touches on one of the reasons why accessibility is so important. According to the Game Accessibility Guidelines, up to 20% of people who play games have some form of disability. But accessibility goes beyond that. GAG's 'Why and How' page puts it simply: "accessibility means avoiding unnecessary barriers that prevent people with a range of impairments from accessing or enjoying your output."

"In terms of who we were reaching out to," La Rosa says, "our goal was to reach as many people as possible, be they AAA, small indie, or just someone catching glimpse of something trending on the internet which consequentially spreads awareness to our cause."

Given that accessibility can cover a broad range of impairments, gamejam entrants will have a plenty of possibilities for implementation. "The thing to bear in mind," says Hamilton, "is that medical conditions and disability are not the same thing. Someone is only actually disabled when their medical condition encounters a barrier that results in some difficultly with a day to day task. Those barriers are usually man-made, so accessibility means being aware enough of your core mechanic to be able to identify which barriers are essential to gameplay and which are unnecessary, and avoiding those which are unnecessary."

Hamilton points to Divekick—a fighting game with a limited number of button-inputs—as an example of a developer taking a known genre, and distilling it down in a way that opens it up to a wider audience. Less specifically, he points to two basic principles for developers to consider: communicating information in multiple ways, and offering difficulty options and configurable controls.

"There are a few different approaches you could take in the space of a game jam," he says. "You could try to implement as many basic features as possible, such as colourblind friendly visuals, clearly formatted timer-free text, simple configurable controls etc, to demonstrate how wide an audience can be reached. Or you could focus on one particular niche audience, such as no vision or unable to use any kind of standard controller, experimenting with ways to open up access to that particular group."

Divekick's simple control scheme makes it a more accessible fighting game.

By understanding the key principles, developers can implement accessibility into unlikely games. "Take Bayonetta for example," Hamilton says. "Many developers would instinctively think that it couldn't be made more accessible to people with impaired motor ability, as the frantic execution of complex combos is the core gameplay; a barrier that can't be avoided. But the Bayonetta devs actually abstracted it out a bit, and realised that their core mechanic isn't complexity, it's enjoying pushing your motor skills to the limit and being rewarded with a flashy combo as a result. So their difficulty setting go all the way down to single button mode, where the running around is done for you, and you just have to hit a single button at the right point to execute a combo."

For Hamilton, then, the biggest mistake developers can make is not stepping out of their own shoes. "You often see taglines like this on indie studios websites in particular—'we design games that we love, and hope other people do too'. That's quite a gamble to be taking ... Not everyone has as accurate vision as you, not everyone is as good with a controller as you, and certainly not everyone has the same intimate familiarity with everything that the game is trying to achieve as you." La Rosa summarises the pitfalls more plainly. "The typical bad practice is not considering accessibility to begin with," he says.

The London meet-up, running May 16th - 18th, will feature a workshop as well as a gamejam—giving developers a chance to see talks and receive on-site guidance from accessibility specialists. The three-week online jam will run around it, and feature a separate theme to be announced at the start of the event. "This way," La Rosa says, "it was clear that 'accessibility' itself was not the theme. It was obvious that this would be mistaken as such. We did not want to make it a niche."

Originally conceived as just the London event, the online component came almost by coincidence. "Initially I sought to make an online game jam to make accessible games for the blind," La Rosa says. "Subsequently, with the help of David DeCarmine of gamejolt, I ended up teaming with Ivano Palmentieri and 0x0961h (I really don’t know his name). We decided to take on the challenge of making a jam for all major categories of impairments. With the help and support of GAAD founders, all the resources of The AbleGamers Foundation as well as Ian Hamilton’s expertise and guidance, this event wouldn’t have culminated in such a way it has just in time for May 15 and #A11yJam."

Accessibility Jam kicked off Sunday, May 11th.