Brandon Cole has always lived without the use of his eyes. Born with a cancerous condition known as retinoblastoma, he underwent retina removal surgery at just 2 months old, leaving him legally blind.
“I have no memory of actually ever actually having sight,” he tells InclusionHub. “Although my mother says I did ‘see’ something when I was young, it was a very short-lived thing, and I don’t remember.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 billion people, or 15 percent of the worldwide population, live with some type of disability. As Cole explains, disabilities are inherent parts of the human experience.
“The odds are—and non-disabled people don’t like to admit this—that you’re going to be disabled, at some point in your life,” he says.
Now 36 years old, Cole never imagined he’d one day build a career as an award-winning digital video game accessibility consultant. Over the last few years he’s assisted video game developers, such as Santa Monica Studio and Naughty Dog, among others. His most recent work includes implementing low-vision accessibility measures for those studios, including popular action-adventure games God of War and The Last of Us Part II.
The latter’s celebrated release in June 2020 represented a huge shift in accessible gaming, which has become more of a priority as the audience for video games has grown considerably throughout the years. It’s also being adapted into an HBO series starring Anna Torv from Fringe. As with many industries, video games have been slow to implement accessibility improvement measures, but studios such as Naughty Dog are considered to be at the forefront of such efforts, which can also help improve social isolation for players, including people with disabilities.
There’s no question video games have become more and more ubiquitous—especially during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. They currently are the most popular engagement vehicle, says UK-based accessible gaming specialist advocate Ian Hamilton.
According to online tech news hub VentureBeat, approximately 2.6 billion people from all walks of life across the globe partake in digital gaming. Furthermore, approximately 92 percent of those living with disabilities are gamers, comprising more than 33 million people in the United States—underscoring the importance of making such forms of entertainment more accessible.
“[Video] games now outsell all other screen media combined,” Hamilton tells InclusionHub. “They represent access to culture, recreation, socializing—things that many people take for granted, but if your means of accessing those things in day to day life is in some way restricted, games can be an enormous contributor to people’s quality of life. And being technology-based they are, in theory at least, wonderfully suited to accessibility.”
Accessible Video Games Help Combat Social Isolation
A gaming enthusiast himself, Hamilton is perfectly aware how important video games are to the wider culture.
“Making games accessible matters, because games matter,” says Hamilton, who serves as co-director of GAconf—an annual gathering of accessible gaming advocates, players, and supporters—and is the coordinator of Game Accessibility Guidelines, a resource tool for inclusive game design.
Like Cole, he strives to create a world where gamers can feel comfortable and accepted—regardless of any disability.
An often under-discussed aspect of gaming is the positive impact it can have on users. According to The AbleGamers Charity, a West Virginia-based nonprofit built on inclusive gaming, more than half of those identifying as part of the disability community are inclined to suffer from social isolation, more than non-disabled individuals.
An analysis by Pew Research Center finds that “innovations in game design and platforms have increased the opportunities to interact and socialize while playing, adding “Games play an important role in the creation of teens’ friendships—and this is especially true for boys.”
“Video games are not simply entertaining media,” it continues. “They also serve as a potent opportunity for socializing for teens with new friends and old. Fully 83% of American teens who play games say they play video games with others in the same room, with 91% of boys and 72% of girls doing so.”
That’s why the work Hamilton and others are doing is so crucial.
Hamilton's accessibility journey began through seeing play testing footage of preschool-level video games that had been adapted for profoundly motor-disabled children. This had been achieved by simplifying the controls, so they could then be mapped to technology called accessibility switches, which are simple 'on/off' input devices, such as a button mounted on a wheelchair headrest, that are used by people who can't operate traditional devices like a mouse or a keyboard. Accessibility switches are exactly the same technology that the Xbox Adaptive Controller would later be designed to work with.
“It was such a relatively small design tweak, and I was watching these kids playing happily, doing the same things as their classmates, equal participants in that small culture and society,” he explains. “That really opened my eyes to just how important games can be, how important our day-to-day design choices can be to the world.”
Clearly moved by how one small adjustment could make such a profound difference in a disabled child’s life, Hamilton started working on similar projects, too. As his career progressed, he was assigned oversight over large numbers of games and noticed teams kept making the same mistakes—accidentally making their games a miserable experience for large groups of people by messing up basics like contrast and color use, which he attributed to through lack of awareness. That pushed him into working on internal guidelines and internal consulting, and had accessibility assigned as an official part of his responsibilities. Hamilton slowly incorporated these changes once he became a senior designer with the BBC.
A relocation spawned a profound revelation.
“The BBC were moving to the other side of the UK, and I couldn't move with them. So I looked around for other companies where I could carry on the same role, naively assuming that like other industries, accessibility was the standard discipline,” he explains. “I was wrong. [At the time] the number of other companies that had roles like that was zero. But now there are 70 or so permanent, in-house roles like that worldwide. So that was like being hit by a lightning bolt. I had no idea that the entire industry was in such dire need of fixing.
"That's the point at which accessibility became a calling," he continued, "and when I went independent and started working in advocacy too, joining the other people who were already fighting to change the industry for the better."
Staying on the Right Path to Digital Accessibility
While the video game industry has matured and grown just in the last few years, there is still work to be done.
Hamilton argues that accessible video games aren’t where they should be at this moment when compared with the products of other industries. However, they’re moving in the right direction.
“There is a common journey,” Hamilton says. “Developers start to seriously consider accessibility for the first time late in the development, manage to squeeze in a few things through difficult refactoring at a stressful stage of the project, and then think: ‘Damn, if only we’d thought about this earlier! We could have done so much more, done it so much more easily and cheaply, and done a better job of it, too.’”
That’s something the designers at Naughty Dog, the video game studio, were cognizant of when developing The Last of Us Part II.
Manager and senior producer with Sony Interactive Entertainment Sam Thompson acknowledges in a blog post that “the single most important rule in inclusive design is to start the process as early as possible during development.”
“The more time you give the team to prototype, iterate and playtest features not only will the accessibility features be better integrated into the overall design,” he states “but it also reveals and inspires the need for countless additional accessibility related as well as general gameplay features that the team didn’t realize they needed in order to make everything work together properly.”
Matthew Gallant, lead systems designer at Naughty Dog, shares in the same posting that listening to the disability community is key to developing an inclusive experience.
“One of the things that often is very motivating for us is listening to small requests [and] hearing how these little things that can block an entire game for a person,” he says. “If you can just provide an option or workaround so that barrier won’t exist for the player so their gameplay is a seamless experience, that is our design intention and that is what drives us. I also think that when we’re designing these accessibility features, it’s not even really a niche audience. These conditions and barriers are widespread. They’re incredibly common. So many people are gamers and so many people have various needs.”
Cole, who has also provided his expertise to game developers Blind Sparrow Interactive, myTrueSound, and Jackbox Games, tells InclusionHub he learned by fixing what he thought was broken for the blind community. He says fighting games are the most popular genre, mainly because the opponent is always going to be directly across from you.
“As long as you know what side they're on, you can tell where they're at,” he explains. “Sometimes you might not know how far away they are from you, but there are moves you can use to gauge that. If you fire a projectile, it takes a long time to hit them, and you know they're far away.”
Cole says the development of games with stereo sound and other features has been a huge win for the blind community. With audio panning, gamers can determine not only what side the sound is coming from, but also how far away the opponent is located.
“If the sounds that we make and our opponents make are coming from the center of the stereo field, then we know we're probably in the center of the screen, probably up close and personal,” he explains. “But if our opponent's audio is all the way on the right, then already we know they're on the right side of the screen.”
Cole says one of his biggest achievements was blogging about his challenges with online streaming service Twitch, which is popular among gamers. The piece caught the company’s attention, and it responded in kind for his expertise.
“There was a time where accessibility on Twitch was so terrible that I almost stopped streaming there because I no longer could log in without help,” he recalls. “So in my blog post, it was almost a ‘cry for help,’ hoping they would read what I had to say. And they did read it. And because they read it, they actually ended up hiring me to help fix it!”
“I’ve worked all over the accessibility space,” Cole adds. “And I’m happy to do that, because I believe everyone should have access to everything they might want.”
Playability for those with all types of disabilities is something both Cole and Hamilton are endlessly passionate about, and both frequently speak at gaming industry conferences stressing its importance.
In fact, the two accessibility advocates first met in 2014 while co-moderating a video game accessibility panel. They have developed a shared respect for one another.
“Hamilton, to this day, is probably one of the best around,” Cole says. “He’s really good at his job, and he’s responsible for pretty much launching the careers of many people, and mine in fact is one of them.”
While Cole enjoys reviewing video games and giving the gift of play to the blind community, he also stresses the importance of inclusivity within accessible video games.
Most companies will hire the bare minimum of people to resolve accessibility issues. Naughty Dog, however, has tapped into the Playability Initiative, of which Cole is part of, engaging seven consultants representing various disabilities.
“We are a group of disability consultants of all types, from motor impairment, to cognitive impairment, all sorts of different things,” he says. “And the idea is that if you hire the Playability Initiative, you’re hiring once, and you’re getting all of us.”
“If you’re developing a game, you have to ensure it works for someone who is visually impaired, or someone who can’t hear or has a physical disability,” continues Cole. “So we’re trying to make it easy on developers and say: ‘Hire us, and we’ll help you make your game accessible to as many people as we possibly can.’”
Those with cognitive and motor disabilities also benefit from accessible video games, through organizations such as Special Effect. The UK-based nonprofit strives to build an inclusive community and optimize quality of life by helping everyone play video games.
Staffed by occupational therapists and gaming specialists, Special Effect deploys eye-gaze technology for those with severe physical injuries or illnesses, as well as telepresent robots assisting medically isolated children with socialization.
“We’re transforming the lives of people with physical challenges right across the world through the innovative use of technology,” Barrie Ellis, Technical Specialist for Special Effect, tells InclusionHub. “At the core of this mission is our work to optimize inclusion, enjoyment, and quality of life by helping people control video games to the best of their abilities for as long as they need us.”
“These [tools] are being used every day internationally by people with few easy-to-find alternatives alongside those who can play almost anything,” Ellis says.
Fostering Inclusive Connections Through Accessible Gaming
More and more video game providers, organizations, and developers understanding the need for accessibility will further enhance social connections and wellness within the disability community.
As Cole and Hamilton have emphasized, the best way to improve accessibility is by incorporating inclusive design practices throughout the project.
“One of the main benefits of thinking about accessibility from the start is the opportunities it enables to better understand the shape of the problem,” explains Hamilton, “and there are a few methods of doing that: Formative user research, use of best practice guidelines, competitor analysis, consultants—all with their own pros and cons—but the more you can do, the more their strengths cancel each other’s weaknesses, meaning you stand a much better chance of as many people as reasonably possible being able to have the kind of experience you want them to have.”