The passion for game accessibility has grown exponentially over the past decade among developers and gamers. According to the ESA Foundation, there are nearly 46 million players with disabilities in the US alone. So we’re excited to see game developers actively seeking resources to guide inclusive game design to ensure their games are fun for everyone to play.
At Microsoft, accessibility is a key aspect when creating products. Implementing integrative design principles is a fundamental part of the entire development process in Team Xbox.
In early 2019, members of the Microsoft Gaming Accessibility team set out to create that Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs); a comprehensive set of best practices to help the gaming industry advance accessibility efforts. The XAGs are intended to be used by designers to generate ideas and as a checklist for validating the accessibility of a game. The original XAGs, leveraging years of accessibility research in the gaming industry and close partnerships with industry experts and members of the gaming & disability community, were introduced in January 2020.
Once launched, the team is committed to ensuring that feedback from our Gaming & Disability community is both encouraged and heard loud and clear. From the start of this process, it was agreed that the only way to truly ensure that the needs of developers and members of the Gaming & Disability community are met is to work with these groups during and after the creation of the XAGs.
Over the past year, developers have expressed their enthusiasm for the XAGs, but have also asked for additional context and clarification on how to ensure these guidelines are properly implemented in their games. Additionally, there was a clear desire for more content to help a developer understand where to start or how to focus their efforts. Finally, help was sought to understand the impact of XAGs on the gaming experience of players with disabilities.
With all this exciting feedback, the team developed a vision of how the XAGs could be improved to be even more helpful. Kaitlyn Jones from the Microsoft Gaming Accessibility Team led the project. As a gaming accessibility expert with a background as an occupational therapist, Kaitlyn focused on the following improvements:
• • Improved language: The language used in the XAGs has been improved to ensure that the guidelines are clear and easy to understand. The focus on removing overly technical terms or adding additional context to make it easier for readers to understand terms was a top priority.
• • Clear goal”: Each XAG now has a short “target” statement. Readers can more easily find XAGs that are relevant to their current work by quickly reading through the goal statements.
• • Improved overview: To ensure developers understand the meaning of each XAG policy, improved overview sections now provide important contextual information, including a summary of the impact a XAG can have on players with disabilities as well as on players with situation disorders.
• • Scoping questions: For high-level questions, developers need to determine if certain elements are present in their game. This yes / no determination can help developers more easily identify which XAGs are the top priorities to focus on first.
• • Key areas to the goal: Helps developers identify areas in their gaming experience that should be considered when implementing XAG guidelines.
• • Background and basic information: Because some XAGs are more complex than others, additional background and basic information has been provided to help understand certain XAGs.
• • Examples of implementation guidelines
Using our game improvement guidelines
Once all updated Xbox Accessibility Guidelines When the team was ready, they realized they could take more steps to ensure developers could figure out whether or not their games were actually achieving the level of accessibility they wanted. With this in mind, the Game Reliability Engineering Team and the Gaming Accessibility Team have worked together to create the industry’s first platform-based game accessibility testing program that can validate games against the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. Mike Gamble, Principal Software Engineering Lead in Game Reliability Engineering and a 25-year gaming industry veteran, led the project.
Developers now have the option to send their Xbox or PC title to Microsoft and have it analyzed and validated against the recommendations in the XAGs. When issues arise, these are noted with replication steps, screenshots, and other information to help the developer better understand which aspect of a particular experience may be challenging for particular players with disabilities.
They also wanted to make sure the developers understood the potential impact of a particular problem on our players. To this end, the reports contain additional information such as game accessibility links and including design documentation, non-profit and industry recognized subject matter experts, platform-specific technical documentation, and much more.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the program, however, is the involvement of players with disabilities in the test project. Each test run involves members of the Gaming & Disability Community in order not only to carry out test cases against games, but also to provide their feedback and findings.
We were overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received from the developers who worked with us on testing the testing program – their feedback shaped it. Because of this, we are confident that this program has something to offer them, and ultimately their customers, whether a developer is just beginning to dip their toes into game accessibility or whether they are well on their way to inclusive design is advanced.
The trip goes on
The Xbox Gaming Accessibility Team is incredibly grateful to all of the game developers and members of the Gaming & Disability Community, advocates, and experts who have given us feedback over the past year. But our work is not done yet. We continue to receive feedback from developers and the Gaming & Disability Community. It is important for us to ensure that we are constantly raising and raising the bar for inclusive gaming. This is only one point on this journey.