Everybody Conga! Well maybe not everybody...
Remember those old movies with the long conga line in them? Well imagine that the line is a line of gamers. But some of the gamers can’t dance. So, no conga for them. Just watching their friends have fun and a frustrated desire to dance. That is what it is like for an estimated 20-25% of the population over the age of 17. This is because these potential gamers have one or more physical or cognitive disabilities. And the games most of us make do not provide a means for these folks to access them.
Awareness is Job #1
I was asked to participate in the IGDA’s Game Not Over: Expanding the Market through Accessible Games full day tutorial at GDC a few years ago. And I guess like most of those reading this article, it was not something I had thought much about at all. And to a great extent, that is the first problem - awareness. Certainly no developer would intentionally decrease their potential user base by 20%. And I doubt anyone who makes games, even the most callous among us, would intentionally exclude anyone from getting enjoyment out of the fruits of their labor. Most likely it is simply a lack of awareness or an understanding of the issues involves and how to address them. And, of course, that damned “allocation of resources” issue that impacts every proposed gameplay feature.
Disabilities Come in Several Flavors
Rather than speaking of games for the disabled, it is better to think of it in terms of making games that are “Universally Accessible.” Disabilities can generally be divided into four basic types; visual; auditory; mobility and cognitive. And the extent of the disability in each type varies. For example, visual disabilities range from total blindness (where all game information needs to be conveyed through sound and touch) to color blindness. This is similar with all the different types of disabilities. And the result is not just a single solution. But in many cases, a different solution is required for each variant. Now, instead of a single gameplay feature to factor into the cost benefit analysis, it becomes a bunch of gameplay features - some very difficult and expensive to implement. Fortunately, others are fairly simple to set up.
Some Simple Examples
Some of the more basic features that can help make your game “Universally Accessible” include closed captioning for the hearing impaired. This means be more than just dialog. It also needs to include all game cues, including gameplay hints that might be being delivered through the sounds effects or even music. (Valve did this with Half Life2 and there is a Doom3 Closed Caption mod as well). Many mobility issues can be addressed with a single switch system like the one in “Strange Attractors,” the IGF Innovation Award winner, or by a modified one handed controller set up. Cognitive disabilities might require a slower pace or much lower difficulty level. Hey, wait a minute! Difficulty levels are already in most games. Talk about your “low hanging fruit.” Just make a special difficulty that is a lot easier! The odd this is that studies show that people who are not disabled also access and use these features when present in games.
Where’s the Game Law?
This is all interesting...but I am sure by now someone is wondering, “Where’s the Game Law?” Well, my part of the tutorial was about applicable US law. And there are a few things to be considered. Although US discrimination laws do not extend to products sold to individuals, they do apply to government sales. So, if there is any potential government sale of your game or technology in your business model, you had better pay attention to making it Universally Accessible. Section 508 of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 requires accessibility on all electronic media sold to the government. So, it may be something you need to consider. More information.
That’s the “stick” side of the equation. On the “carrot” side we have the 9926 Tax Credit to small businesses that implement accessibility into their games. Small businesses are defined as businesses with 50 or fewer employees or whose annual revenue is less that $1M US. You can recover up to 50% of the expense of the implementation of accessibility up to $10,000.00. That is a total tax credit of up to $5,000.00. And a tax credit is deducted from your taxes, not merely expensed out. I’m no tax lawyer, but $5K tax credit to close caption your game, especially for small casual game studios, could be well worth the effort. Here’s the link to the form - Pass it on to your accountant!
Here are a few more links to additional information on these issues:
Til next time, GL & HF!
[Tom Buscaglia, The Game Attorney, writes frequently on subjects of interest to game developers. The above article is for the information and education of members of the development community. Feel free to distribute or disseminate this article. But please include the legend "Copyright 200_, Thomas H. Buscaglia, Esquire" and an active link to