For the first time in 2020, many disabled game developers and consumers attended gaming events that were otherwise unable to attend due to disability and cost. The gaming industry was no stranger to hybrid or online events prior to the Covid-19 pandemic – E3, for example, has been streaming showcases for years – but not until lockdowns came in, changing the way events had to function and raising awareness of the disabled experience, that organizers have adopted widespread virtual and physical accessibility.
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Progress in event accessibility looked set to ramp up in 2021. But in 2022, conferences and showcases returned to normal. The Games Developers Conference (GDC) met as a largely face-to-face hybrid event, with some talks being face-to-face exclusive despite concerns over the surge in Covid-19 cases and the BA.2 variant; later, The Washington Post reported that the GDC’s Covid-19 guidelines were not being actively enforced. TwitchCon, whose organizers backtracked on not needing Covid-19 precautions due to backlash, came under further scrutiny after attendees tweeted about multiple accessibility barriers and injuries sustained from TwitchCon’s foam pit. Online accessibility was also lost. Geoff Knightley’s Summer Game Fest and Game Awards were not as well captioned as before, and audio-narrated versions of the events were either absent or not listed on YouTube.
How was it that so much progress was abandoned after the lessons of 2020 and 2021? Speak against NME before this article, some studios and organizers saw accessibility as just a trend, or simply didn’t have the time, resources, or staff. But this is all guesswork.
Thankfully, what isn’t speculation is that there are individuals committed to raising the bar for accessibility across the industry, however small their numbers may be, be it hell or high tide.
The stakes are international. Like on the coast of New Zealand and Australia, where the volunteer organization Accessibility Unlocked bridges the gap between disabled developers, students, resources, other organizations and companies who want to implement accessibility in studios.
“Our primary focus is on developers and how they can improve their experience throughout their careers, but we always like to encourage people to seek resources for their audience,” said Cameron Hopkinson, co-founder of Accessibility Unlocked.
Accessibility Unlocked also sometimes consults pro bono for conferences. One of their recent partners was the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA), the organizers of Games Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP), a networking conference for developers in the region.
According to the 2022 New Zealand Interactive Media Industry survey, only 5% identified as neurodivergent and 1% as disabled. It’s a big difference compared to 29% identifying as disabled in a 2021 survey by the International Game Developer Association (IGDA). As small as the industry is in New Zealand and Australia, accessibility has not been much of an issue. Still, IGEA was and is committed to accessibility for GCAP.
“As with game design, it’s very often just good design practice to make something accessible.” – Red Wolfe of Igea
When asked why, Sav Wolfe, IGEA’s Manager of Events, Content, and Diversity and Inclusion said, “As with game design, it’s very often just good design practice to make something accessible.”
Since developers will emphasize the design of accessible games, it is essential to conduct early research and plan for accessibility implementation. It was necessary for IGEA to contact Accessibility Unlocked as soon as they realized that GCAP would be held online in 2020 to determine what could be done in terms of scope and budget to improve the experience for participants.
“During the two years [of holding GCAP virtually]our most surprising and meaningful interactions actually came from software we used to create “coffee catch-ups” – a queue you could join to meet another participant for a 5-minute timed chat before going to a other person would go,” Wolfe said. conference calls were a chance to meet people on their terms.”
In the United States and Europe, IGDA’s Games Accessibility Conference, also known as GAConf, founded by co-directors Ian Hamilton and Tara Voelker, adopted a similar idea by using the messaging platform Discord as a community space where attendees conversed while conversations were streamed . GAConf is the only conference in the industry dedicated to accessibility and is hailed as accessible not only to people with disabilities, but also to people who work in different countries or who usually cannot afford event or travel tickets. Although, as with other events, it was not organized virtually until 2020.
Commenting on GAConf going hybrid in 2022, Hamilton said: “For [considerations of the pandemic, various disabilities, timezones, and travel difficulties], when we finally returned to a personal part, it was essential for us to avoid the usual pitfall of personal being the primary event and online just a second-rate thing. So we turned it around; everyone consumes the same content in the same way and in-person attendees are still on Discord, the in-person event is more of a viewing party.
“You can be of any race, gender identity, sexuality or economic status and be disabled. So for us, these are all groups that we want to feel included in GAConf,” Voelker said. “Our last in-person event, we finally had pronoun badges for our guests. I am delighted that we finally had them, but it shows that we are still growing when it comes to supporting all our visitors.”
The differing responses from GCAP and GAConf to the same problem of isolation during the pandemic show that alternative, accessible solutions are possible, beneficial to multiple groups, and not for everyone. But of course, the financial cost and labor involved can make attempting an accessible event or maintaining accessibility standards daunting.
As mentioned earlier, Accessibility Unlocked is a volunteer organization. And when consulting for GCAP 2020, they had to advise, among other things, on the lack of proper subtitles due to the prohibitive cost of subtitling software at the time and few hands on deck. To this end, they decided to at least make transcripts. GAConf is also compiled by a volunteer team; it’s largely funded by sponsorship, and virtual tickets are pay what you can, while in-person tickets are only high enough to cover the cost per person, such as for catering. Hamilton gave an estimate of $7,000 USD to personally run two days of GAConf, a small amount compared to most conference budgets, but no doubt a significant amount.
Both the founders of GAConf and Accessibility Unlocked emphasized the importance of selecting the right location. You could make the comparison that venues are to event organizers what engines are to game developers: frameworks that have a major impact on costs and what can or cannot be done with regard to accessibility.
Accessible locations consequently affect studio showcases, which in turn can affect brand recognition. Last year, Xbox was cited by disability advocates as most consistent with accessibility and their commitment to courting more than 400 million disabled gamers worldwide. Their booth at Gamescom 2022, led by Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager Brannon Zahand and Technical Program Manager Nisha Patel, became the subject of a talk they gave at the US edition of GAConf in October.
The booth was created with the requirements of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in mind and included ramps, customizable demo stations, eye-catching signage, staff trained to assist people with disabilities, and more. To pull this off, they had to work with the Gamescom team at the Koelnmesse GmbH exhibition center in Cologne, Germany.
“We are very goal-oriented in our participation in events and would be cautious about supporting a show or venue that doesn’t provide basic accessibility features for attendees,” said Jennifer Nichols, Director of Global Events at Xbox, in response to a request for comment.
But Microsoft is Microsoft. Smaller organizers do not have the same budget constraints and so would be hesitant to follow accessibility recommendations for a minority of attendees. When asked how he would respond to these concerns, Zahand acknowledged the limitations and advised them to start with the basics and take the steps they can, stating that “you can do a lot with very little”.
“Furthermore, based on our experience at Gamescom, I estimate that almost all of the accessible features and inclusive design considerations we implemented in our booth were used by at least one or more members of our Gaming and Disability community, with the huge majority used by multiple individuals,” Zahand added. “So I would be cautious assuming a more inclusive space went unused.”
Zahand and Patel also shared interactions that stuck with them at Gamescom. Someone in an electric wheelchair who needed a friend to lug around a heavy metal ramp because most of the other cabins were inaccessible; a mobility-impaired mother who finally beats a level in a game; a man in a wheelchair thanking Patel for Xbox’s commitment to accessibility.
In preparing this article, I also spoke with Gaming Accessibility Nexusjournalists Antonio I. Martinez and Nickie “Talvi” Harper-Williams, as well as blind content creator SightlessKombat, to try and get a sense of how disabled attendees felt about industry events. It was disheartening to learn that all three of them were essentially prevented from doing their jobs. For SightlessKombat and Martinez, it was because the industry’s reliance on in-person events is itself a barrier, while for Talvi it was because an event overloaded her senses and didn’t even have a place where she could sit to rest and write.
The industry still has a long way to go before accessibility is an expected standard across the board. But it’s important that we try – starting with the recognition that we all lose if we don’t invest in our disabled peers, nor welcome them into our communities, virtually and in person.
Sherry Toh is a freelance journalist, accessibility advocate and regular contributor to NME.