Accessible video game design

Accessible game design is beneficial to EVERYONE, this includes individuals with permanent or temporary disabilities, game developers, and the average player.

A man playing an unseen video game with a Xbox Adaptive Controller alongside a woman holding a typical Xbox controller. They are laughing and smiling at a screen out of frame.
Photo Credit: Microsoft

Out of the billions of people who play video games worldwide, it’s estimated that about 20% of the gaming population have a disability.

That’s hundreds of millions of people.

With hundreds of millions of people, it is crucial that everyone has the ability to enjoy and participate in the widely loved act of gaming.

The goal of accessible game design is to eliminate obstacles and ensure equal opportunities for individuals with diverse abilities. For example, incorporating customizable controls allows individuals with motor impairments to tailor the game’s interface to their specific needs. The option to change keybindings, adjust sensitivity, or use alternative input devices allows players to play comfortably and independently.

Accessibility is not only important for players with disabilities, but also for individuals who may experience temporary or situational impairments, such as low vision, hearing loss, or injury. Accessible design can also enhance the gaming experience for players with different preferences, skills, or play styles.

Not only that, it’s also beneficial for game developers and publishers, since it can increase the potential market size, customer satisfaction, and social impact of their games.

Tl;dr: Accessible game design helps everyone, so do it.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for accessibility in game design, as different gamers may have different needs and preferences. However, there are some general principles and guidelines that can help developers design more accessible games.

Let’s go over a few.

Visual elements are integral components of game design, but they can present challenges for players with certain disabilities. To address this, developers can include features such as colorblind modes and customizable menus. These accommodations make it easier for individuals with visual impairments to follow the game’s narrative.

  • Allow players to adjust the text size. Different people will have different levels of visual impairment, differences in screen size, and different viewing distances. A great way to combat this is to simply let users choose whatever size works best for them.
  • There are around 300 million people in the world with color vision deficiency. It’s important to make sure that there is no essential information/feedback conveyed by color alone. Consider the example from the game BioShock 2 below. Clicking on a green cell gives you access to a room, a safe, or will let you hack a certain device. Clicking on a red cell will activate an alarm. With red-green colorblindness, it’s more of a lucky guess to whether or not the alarm will go off.
Gif of the hacking system in BioShock 2. The first frame shows an in-game hacking panel with a few green panels, red panels, and blue panels that the player can interact with. The next frame is the same image, but in a red-green colorblind mode. The red and green panels from the previous frame are now an almost identical yellow color, making them very hard to distinguish.
  • Colorblindness can make it difficult to determine what color team users are on, where way-points are, difference in loot rarity, and a slew of other things. Use symbols, patterns, and other differences alongside color to help everyone see the difference.
  • Let users change their cursor and/or crosshair colors. In some games, the mouse cursor or crosshair can blend into the background and be hard to find. (If you’ve ever played Bloons TD6 on PC, you know what I mean.) Certain cursor designs can result in low contrast and poor visibility, so it’s good to offer players a choice of different colors and designs to play with.
  • Allows players to adjust contrast. Contrast issues are fairly common, and not just for people with visual impairments. I can recall numerous occasion where I was playing a particularly dark game in a very bright room. In order to see, I had to close the blinds and try to block as much light in the room as possible just to see where I was going.
  • Provide haptic feedback (vibration) and/or audio cues for all interactions. This is great for many players without any visual impairments as well. It’s important to add various indicators for important events that the player might be looking out for. For example, a previously locked door just opened, a puzzle was solved, or a boss just spawned. In order to indicate to the player that one of these important events just occurred, a distinct sound or haptic cue could be played. Think of the famous tune that plays in Zelda games when a secret is found.

There are a lot of essential elements of game-play that happen only through sounds. For example, imagine playing a multiplayer game when you can’t hear the footsteps of an enemy approaching behind you or the sound of nearby gunfire.

  • Make sure subtitles/captions are presented at an appropriate speed and in appropriate lengths. Movies and TV have some of the best examples. Subtitles and captions shouldn’t exceed more than around 37 characters per line, and there should only be one or two lines at a time. Having captions that are too long can be overwhelming to read and distract from what is happening in the background. In some cases, reading too far ahead in the subtitle can spoil something before it happens onscreen.
  • In many cases, characters speak off-screen and/or multiple characters are talking to each other. It can be difficult to determine who is talking to who. It is important to make distinctions between characters. Some games, like God of War, show the name of the person speaking before every line. However, this can become redundant for readers. Other games use color indicators to determine who is speaking, or they simply just include the speaker’s name once at the start of their dialogue.
  • Subtitles and captions should be large, have a simple font, and should contrast the background.
Subtitle menu from the game The Last of Us Part II. It gives players the option to choose what gets subtitled, the size and color of the subtitles, as well as if people’s names are displayed in the subtitle while talking and what colors they should be. An example of what the subtitle would look like is displayed at the bottom.
Subtitle menu from The Last of Us Part II.
  • Provide subtitles and captions for all dialogue and important sounds. This helps players who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as foreign language speakers. Include captions for everything that would help or enhance the experience for someone who can hear. The footsteps of an approaching enemy, the passing conversation between some NPCs that creates immersion or provides some lore, and the sound of a cow mooing nearby are all important things for the player to know. They want to be able to fend off the attack, learn about the world, and get some meat, too.
  • For some more in-depth subtitle tips, check out the video below as well as the BBC Subtitle Guidelines.
Making Games Better for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing | Designing for Disability by Game Maker’s Toolkit — I highly recommend watching this video as well as the others in the series if you are interested in accessible game design. They are all fantastic!
  • Providing haptic feedback alongside audio is a great alternative (as long as you make it toggle-able) for both visual and auditory reasons. It is just one additional way to alert players that something important is going on.
  • Include separate volume controls for music, speech, and sound effects. If the background is too loud and the user can’t hear the dialogue, there is a simple way to turn the unneeded noise down. It’s a good rule of thumb to keep background noise to a minimum while speech is happening, but everyone has different noise levels they can handle. Separate volume controls are also good for users that are hard of hearing and want to boost the very important game sounds over the music.

In order to play the game, users need to be able to properly control the game. There are plenty of ways to make game-play accessible and comfortable for everyone. Awesome technology like the QuadStick allow people living with quadriplegia to play popular games like Apex Legends. The only thing missing is game support for these great devices.

  • Support multiple input devices. Different input devices require different levels of motor ability. Some people can use a controller just fine, but are unable to use a mouse and keyboard at all. Maybe someone needs to switch between devices frequently depending on how they are feeling. The more support the better: eye-tracking, voice control, analogue stick, controller, mouse and keyboard, everything you can.

“First visit yesterday was a crew of vets to see the new game. Nice young guy asks me if we have controller support and I immediately go into my pre canned response about that we are PC first and that keyboard mouse are pretty easy to learn at which point he holds up his lack of a hand and shrugs as I notice his glass eye and scar on his face.”
– Cliff Bleszinski, founder of Boss Key

  • Allow players to remap controls. This is great for all players as well. I have small hands and I sometimes struggle to reach the control button, a common default key for crouching, with my pinky. For someone physically incapable of reaching the control key, or any key or button, remapping controls is imperative to play the game.
  • Let players adjust control sensitivity. This is always the first thing I adjust when playing a game. It’s always too fast or too slow for my liking. In addition to preference, “some gamers have a restricted range of movement so require very high sensitivity, others have difficulty with precision so require very low sensitivity.”
  • Include a toggle for any haptic feedback. Haptic feedback can be a great tool to assist in visual and auditory game feedback, but to some players it can cause pain and discomfort. This pain can be situational, like someone who recently broke a finger and can’t handle vibration. It can be long-term or permanent, like someone with arthritis or tendonitis. It can also effect people with sensory processing impairments.
  • Avoid or provide alternatives to requiring buttons to be held down or pushed repeatedly in rapid succession like in certain quick-time events. Some games require a player to, for example, hold down a certain key for long periods of time to sprint. This can get painful quickly. Adding in a way to toggle these long term actions is nice for everyone. Quick-time events that require buttons pressed in rapid succession can also cause issue for players since it places harder demand on motor skills than typical game-play.
  • Some players find it difficult to enter text in-game or in menus. It’s great to include alternative methods of text entry, like onscreen keyboards and voice recognition. This can become especially important in games that rely on in-game chat for communication (more on that further down).

Players living with cognitive disabilities or learning disorders may face a few different challenges when finding the perfect video game. There are a few different ways we can help them out.

  • Add in a way to disable flashing lights and repetitive patterns that could trigger photosensitive epilepsy (PSE). A great tool to use to see whether something in the game could trigger PSE is the Harding Test. It’s a video-based test that can identify whether a video (like a clip from a game) has the potential to trigger seizures in people with PSE. Games can combat this by having toggle-able effects or features that may trigger someone. For example, the game Stardew Valley includes an option to disable the snow falling effect, which includes a bright and continuous pattern of snowfall over the screen.
Screenshot from Stardew Valley’s settings menu that allows players to adjust the snow transparency and to toggle flash effects.
Screenshot from Stardew Valley’s settings menu.
  • In order to help out users with dyslexia or other cognitive disabilities (or all players, really), it’s important to use clear language in a clean and readable font. Preferably, a sans serif font with distinct characters. Developers should also avoid using all caps or all lowercase, as well as make sure there is good contrast between the text and the background. In addition, make sure text lines don’t exceed 70 characters in a single row.
  • Allow players to turn off things like head bob, screen shake, and the widely hated motion blur, as they can cause simulation sickness.
  • Players with cognitive disabilities or learning disorders can face challenges when playing video games due to the need for rapid decision-making and information processing. By incorporating adjustable difficulty levels, providing clear instructions, and offering in-game tutorials, players can go at their own pace. Features such as hints, visual cues, or the ability to pause during challenging moments can minimize frustration and promote an enjoyable gaming experience.
  • Allow any cut-scenes, narrative, and instructions to be replayed. Players might space out and miss something or forget what happened or how to do something. Maybe they zoned out or haven’t played in a few months. Attention related conditions, like ADHD, can cause players to miss out on important information.

Test with people who have different disabilities! This is the best — if not the only — way to ensure your game is accessible to all. By involving users with disabilities in testing, game developers can identify and address accessibility issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. This process helps ensure that the game can be enjoyed by a wider range of players, including those with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive impairments. If you don’t have the budget to test with a wide range of people with disabilities, something is better than nothing. Learn from all of the awesome games already out there.

Multiplayer games are immensely popular, fostering social connections and shared experiences among players. In many games, players are limited to voice and/or text chat to communicate, which aren’t always accessible to everyone. By incorporating features like text chat options, voice-to-text capabilities, and support for assistive technologies, developers can enable inclusive communication between players.

“Sometimes people get angry and yell at me because I didn’t react to some sounds like footsteps when enemies are sneaking up behind me. Then I explain to them that I’m deaf. They would say like “Oh wow” or “Jesus Christ”. Sometimes they get upset that I don’t use a microphone because I don’t speak, I use sign language to communicate in the real life.”
x75tiger75x, via reddit

There are many games that have implemented accessibility features or have been designed with accessibility in mind. Some examples are:

  • The Last of Us Part II: This game has been widely praised for its extensive accessibility options, which cover vision, hearing, motor, and cognitive aspects. The game features over 60 accessibility settings, managing to address motor, hearing, and visual impairments. The game allows players to customize almost every aspect of the gameplay, UI, audio, and visual settings, as well as providing various assist modes and presets.
  • Celeste: A platformer that offers multiple difficulty options and assist modes that allow players to adjust the game speed, number of lives, invincibility, air dashes, and more. The main character herself canonically struggles from panic attacks and a mental disability.
  • Minecraft: This widely loved and popular sandbox game allows players to create and explore. The game supports various input devices, including keyboard and mouse, controller, touch screen, VR headset, eye tracker, and voice control. The game also has a text-to-speech feature that reads out chat messages and system notifications. They also have a great caption option that shows the player which direction sounds are coming from.
Screenshot from the video game Minecraft. The image shows a grassy field, but the main focus is on the captions in the bottom right corner. They show that a sheep is baaing, a rabbit is hopping to the left of the player, and there are footsteps to the left of the player.
Minecraft’s directional captions. Photo credit: EIP Gaming
  • To learn about some other accessible games, you can use the website Can I Play That? Their site provides accessibility game reviews, news, and accessibility reference guides.

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