Tag Archives: accessibility

Postpartum: Mainichi – How Personal Experience Became a Game

A screenshot of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi displaying an overhead view of several rooms in an adorable apartment, and a cute stylised character with dark skin and dark hair wearing a white and purple outfit.

This will be a design article on my game Mainichi, aiming to be insight to my thought process during its creation and serve as a guide for others to make games. To get the most out of this, download Mainichi here and then come back to read this! If the download is giving you problems, use my contact info and I’ll send you a copy. For extra reading, I also suggest getting a copy of anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as I’ll be speaking to many of the ideas she advocates in it.

There is a movement. A movement that says “You can too.” It is growing in size, accessibility, and voice. Game design is, and always has been, for everyone, but the narrow path the industry took blocked off many peoples’ opportunity to join in on this artistic revolution. It’s assumed you must have the best graphics, know how to code, have the money to develop a game that can speak to the world.

I only know life with computers and video games in them. My father is a programmer and shared a love for technology with his children. I grew up surrounded by games and, naturally, wanted to make them. But my father never passed down the skill to code, and I never realized how important programming fit into making a game until I tried making them years later. Coding became a monster; I couldn’t get it and felt my creative energy dissipate every time I tried to learn. I entered university believing game design wasn’t for me and gave up on that dream to join the industry.

But now, I’ve come full circle. The industry badly needs to diversify and there’s still roadblocks. Publisher model game development is choked by putting profit above all else, and the monochromatic landscape of non-AAA development still values methods that require monetary investment and a previous buy-in to programming culture that many of us just don’t have. Despite this, I still had something to say, or rather, something I didn’t know how to say. I had something I needed others to play.

This is how Mainichi was born. It was an experiment in translating a personal experience into game mechanics, and also a push to prove to myself that I can make a game, even if the video game industry wouldn’t accept me. I want Mainichi to be a call to arms, a triumph of the personal. I made a game that only I could make, and I’m hoping this exercise empowers others to express a life that is uniquely theirs.

Choosing Vocal Chords

The biggest roadblock I had to overcome was choosing the program I would use to make my game. I asked for suggestions, consulted lists, and tried out many to no avail. I ran into many bumps; usually, the more free and open source something is, the more programming is integral to the making process. Though, some did come with their own scripting language that was easier to learn and a viable method for those who aren’t completely code-phobic like I am. Many of the more popular game makers are primed for certain types of games, like shooters or platformers. Looking to make something akin to an adventure game, the obtuse methods to simple get someone walking across the screen on a level plane and generating a textbox from an NPC were quick to grate my nerves.

If there was something I learned, it’s the increasing amount of tools for people to use all assume different competencies, wants, and conventions. Authoring programs are prepared for certain users, and make it easy or difficult to do particular things. This isn’t simply a practical thing to know, but political. Many programs assume you have the privilege, tastes, and wants of the hegemonic man. However, some of these tools come with communities that make it easier to subvert this assumption, and is, in particular, something I encourage others to factor in when choosing a program for themselves. Here is what I came up with for myself and the needs I perceived I needed for my game ideas:

*Programming unnecessary or extremely minimal/optional
*No to low cost
*Made it simple or easy for me to use textboxes, characters, variables, cutscenes
*Has an active enough community to provide custom content

These and other factors contributed to me picking RPG Maker VX, despite its price tag. Mostly, my personal disposition and skills overcame the cost for it after not feeling compatible with all my other options- I was familiar with the toolset already, had the skills to edit its art assets enough for my own devices, and most of my ideas would benefit from the assumption of an RPG/adventure game being made. There were narrow expectations about the kind of game I wanted to make inside those conventions, but there was room to subvert these paradigms. As an aside, RPGMVX does have a cheaper sibling, RPGMXP, that I ended up not choosing because I had the familiarity with the former. However, for those new to both and interested in using them, XP is as viable, just for different reasons. I think others can find similar, free programs and still do what I did with Mainichi, RPGMVX just happened to be right for me.

Training My Voice

It’s easy to have a story or an idea. What makes a game significant is its designed experience. Coming into this experiment, I knew that current attempts of doling out social awareness just through story devices plainly didn’t work. I had to choose methods of design to communicate the feelings of my experience to the player, because otherwise I could simply point them to an essay I’ve done. I would say Mainichi lets someone feel rather than tells them what to feel. It’s a key difference to create empathy instead of telling the player what’s right to think.

If this experiment is judged successful, I think it will be because of my philosophy of being hyper-personal, or like what my colleague Jenn Frank says is “alarmingly specific.” This applied not only to the topic but the design as well; I wanted to draw upon my ideas about sociology, postmodern art, ludonarrative resonance, and diversity politics in video games and have them influence the way the player interacted with the rules. I wanted this game to be dripping with the intersection of all of my influences, and create a new way of looking at design as a byproduct. I think for a personal piece like this to work, you have to speak to the world in general through a very specialized perspective.

How to design a game for social good is a fraught question. It’s difficult to position the player in a way that doesn’t have them exploit the minority and unknowingly replicate the problematic ideologies the game set out to defeat. This is why I stressed reactivity of the system and eliminated min/maxing of any sort. When you look at the system as a metaphor for society, the suffering that happens to the character doesn’t become something the player enables but joins ranks against.

There is something to be said about being too referential in a game, but I decided to be extremely so. I made the character after my likeness and named them after myself, I have a Japanese title, there’s a Dragon Age II cameo, etc. However, everything does have a personal link to add to the aesthetic and ‘meaning’ of the piece. Since the game is essentially interacting with a system, it could be replicated with numbers and without any sort of cultural representation. So it felt right to imbue as much of the game with my personal easter eggs because the game won’t make complete sense without the meta-awareness of how it fits in. And really, all games that try to mean something have to do that as well.

Speaking

I also recognized there would be audiences for my game, but no ‘perfect player.’ There is no one person that can absorb everything this game is meant to do. I’m not even the perfect player for my game. Rather, I knew that it would be released to the world and many people of different relationships to games would play it, including those who don’t game at all. So my game doesn’t have a target audience like many other games, and I didn’t have a genre in mind when making the game. However, I was aware of the different expectations people would bring to my game.

A lot of this game is speaking to the game development community. It is a community that finds making a game about minority issues near-impossible, so I ended up making one in about a week. There are also different paths for it to be analyzed, genealogy-wise, and one could see Mainichi as an offspring of Dys4ia and Passage. From Dys4ia I am intentionally making my game political through the personal, merely repeating the idea in a different format to diversify how we see, define, and interface with games. Another game in this lineage would be Merritt Kopas’ LIM, which also relies on mechanics replicating emotional experiences. I also see Mainichi as a critique to Passage in this regard; just because this isn’t AAA development doesn’t mean the types of games coming out of the indie scene aren’t dominated by heterosexual white men’s narratives. I want the community to know that some people don’t have the luxury of mulling over something as long term and general as the passage of life towards death or saving the world. Some of us have to worry for our physical safety every day we leave the house, some of us will live and die unequal citizens in a system that doesn’t care; the street scene in Mainichi hopes to be referential to the design of Passage for the community of developers that care about that sort of design canon.

Because of the look and that it is in fact made with an RPG Maker, I knew some players would be bringing the baggage that comes along with RPGs. I also have quite a lot to say about RPGs, how I think they are evolving, and my answer to ‘what is an RPG.’ So I specifically highlighted certain conventions, like choice, time management, NPCs, cause/effect, multiple paths to the end goal. I then proceeded to flip the expectations players would have with elements; the choices you make aren’t epic or demarcated by a clear morality, the player is taught to avoid as much interaction as possible, and the player will be depressed looking for the ‘good’ ending. Mainly, I find RPGs abstract things so we can interact with them, an exercise in turning something qualitative into a system. The player gains empathy through my attempt of abstracting how people gender me, and allowed the player to experiment in the system to realize the experiences I’ve been through.

Outside of the highbrow stuff, I wanted to communicate an experience that I couldn’t do with words alone. Ultimately, this could be a project in telling my best friend why I was often depressed despite the good intentions of my support group. Similarly, I wanted players with cisgender privilege to also empathize with one aspect of having a queer gender or presentation. It can also serve as a tool for a trans* person to share with their friends if they have the same trouble explaining like I did.

You Can Too

A huge reason I made Mainichi was to say that, yes, anyone can make a game of critical merit. You don’t have to be a programmer, you don’t need a whole bunch of disposable income, be on a triple digit design team, or a part of the indie in-crowd. The important thing is to know game design is something everyone has the capacity to work on, and the implementation into a program is the hard part.

This is important to note because video games aren’t the only types of games there are: I am currently working on a card game that will allow players to simulate and interrogate the dynamics of a first date or sex. In addition, as The Border House has already shown, there are also non-traditional formats of digital games that beg to be used and experimented with, like Twine and Ren’py. What I think a lot of the non-AAA developers forgot was that one leaves the publisher model behind in order to do something different. I’ve seen many failed projects because so many want to make the next Final Fantasy with RPG Maker and don’t see the dissonance in politics concerning that. Instead, take part in diversifying not only the characters and stories we see in games, but how we fundamentally interact with them as a whole.

Game accessibility guidelines aim to remove barriers

A photograph of an XBOX 360 controller. Shared on a creative commons license by Dan Rodriguez.

An exciting, free, online resource has launched to help game developers remove barriers and welcome players with cognitive, physical or sensory impairments. The Game Accessibility Guidelines is a comprehensive set of considerations to make sure that a game’s UI and controls are inclusive to the broadest range of people possible. Their about page highlights why every developer should care about accessibility:

15-20% of gamers are disabled (PopCap). Other conditions that aren’t registered disabilities can also hit barriers. 15% of the adult population have a reading age of below 11 years old (NCES / BIS), 8% of males have red-green colour deficiency (AAO), and many people have temporary impairments such as a broken arm. Many more have situational impairments such as playing in a noisy room or in bright sunlight, and all players have different levels of ability – there’s no ‘typical gamer’.

The guidelines focus on motor, cognitive, visual and auditory impairments, with helpful advice such as allowing controls to be remapped and providing both autosave and manual save features.

The resource serves two purposes – it shows all developers how their game design can be improved for greater accessibility, and also offers detailed advice for projects specifically targeted at differently abled communities. The ‘basic’ and ‘intermediate’ lists contain advice that is relatively cheap to implement and in many cases simply represents good game design that benefits all players. The ‘advanced’ list targets the more specific needs of niche audiences, with design practices that take significant resources to achieve, such as playtesting with “representative samples from relevant categories of impairment” and providing “full internal sampled self-voicing for all text”.

The result is a startlingly thorough resource for any game developer who wants to do the right thing. Overall, the message is about giving players the ability to choose how they engage with the game; giving players options about how input and feedback are configured, and communicating all important information with a combination of sound, visuals and text. By removing barriers that privilege some abilities over others, the experience of all players can be improved.

Deconstructing Diablo 3: The Irony of Accessible Ableism

The following is a guest post from Static Nonsense:

Static Nonsense is the alias of a group of nonwhite, disabled queer trans folk who spend much of their spare time gaming and lounging on the tubes of the internets in a bathrobe. Formerly console gaming, they have since moved to PC gaming and MMOs, where the problems of the gaming community became (even more) crystal clear. They write primarily at Some Assembly Required and Chronicles of a Crip ‘Lock as a way to hash together their muddled thoughts on society and the effects of sexism, racism, ableism et al, or just as a way to wind down.

Chronic Illness Cat meme generator: “Live vicariously through Diablo III character” ~ credit not mine, unverified

 

So, I love dungeon crawlers. I remember years ago when I was younger, playing random indie games that I could come across, including one where the entire essence of the game is you looking for treasure. Nothing else, just straight and to the point. Of course, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it. But since then I branched out into various other games, like the Champions of Norrath series, both of the .hack// series (or rather, rpgs with very obvious dungeon-crawling characteristics), and eventually the Diablo series.

Unfortunately though, I never was able to play much of the latter – I never really had anyone to play with, at the time. Now, I simply can’t play them period. Games that rely so heavily on mouse clicks to move and cast spells destroy my hands in as little as an hour. On bad days, even less than that. Which is one of the reasons why I like Diablo 3 so much.

See, unlike the first two, Diablo 3 includes two particular functions that will make the game significantly more accessible to people with disabilities. The first, you are actually able to change the keybind for moving your character to a keyboard button instead of clicking the mouse. By doing so, you are able to make your character move to where the mouse cursor is, but you don’t have to click repeatedly or hold the button down to keep yourself at a steady pace. For familiarity and ease of access, I have my move button set as W.

The second, and which is notably unique in the games of such a genre, is elective mode. By default, you are only able to assign particular skills of specific types to particular buttons. The reason why this is a major problem is because your class’s primary damage skills are only able to be assigned to your mouse’s left click. When it’s a skill that you are spamming, having to click the button continuously can be incredibly painful, and others may not have the dexterity necessary to use individual mouse buttons in the fashion that they were designed to be utilized in. But if you enable elective mode, you are then able to map your skills to whatever keybinds you decide to set up. Most of mine are set up with the standard 1 2 3 4, with tab as my “stand still and kill shit” button.

It doesn’t come without its own problems, though. If you decide to change your keybindings, you will find that you cannot change the functions assigned to your mouse buttons. Unlike all the other keys, they are locked. I, personally, cannot fathom why, but that may be because I actually have to think about such things on a day to day basis. The other major problem, which is directly related to this, is that for some reason particular skills cannot be assigned to your mouse buttons. This can include some major defensive skills, such as Spirit Walk for witch doctors and Smoke Screen for demon hunters. When you already have to rely on a mouse simply to move (even if you’re not clicking for said movement), it can be difficult to suddenly switch from the mouse to buttons on a keyboard you designate for defensive or otherwise important skills. And it’s even harder for someone who can’t use a mouse well, but is forced to utilize the right and left click just to have access to those two skill slots. There are workarounds for these, such as using a gaming mouse with custom commands for additional buttons and using external macro software to simulate a mouse click when using a keyboard button. But the fact that we have to rely on such things just to get the full accessibility out of a game is just poor programming and execution.

So here we have this game, where its current form is more accessible than its former titles, but with serious limits. Yet even with these in mind, Blizzard hasn’t exactly been stellar with disabilities in the past. It’s great to see progress, and moving away from seriously clunky mechanics and UIs that plagued the series before. But then we look on the flip side, on things that they clearly don’t give a damn about and haven’t for a long, long time.

“Madness” this, “madness” that. It seems like as soon as you decide to get your toes wet, the sheer levels of psychobigotry start piling up from the start. Which, unfortunately, is pretty typical. I mean, come on. Three entire expansion packs for World of Warcraft alone are based on the bad guys having gone mad. Year after year after year, and that’s not even getting into elements such as particular quests or npcs, and even without approaching other games from the same company.

First major story-line quest chain, off to lay the mad king of Tristram to rest. Then it’s off to fight off the clutches of the mad cultists. Let’s not forget the mad ramblings of the cultist leader, and that mad hermit that you are forced to listen to from the spider cave. Then you go off and hunt down the mad cultists specifically, while trudging through the torture chambers of the mad king, while the mad cultists are torturing and killing the dude you’re trying to save.

Have I said ‘mad’ enough yet? Because that’s only the first act out of four.

At least with cut scenes and quest dialogue, you can just hit Esc and not have to listen to it. But you don’t have that option with the random speech bubbles that show up, conversations between you and your follower[s] or other various npcs. I hope you don’t plan on bringing the templar with you, despite him being the most effective follower available, because he will not shut up about it. The fact that you have to go through the exact same story-line with the exact same quests four times in a row per character doesn’t exactly help matters. I haven’t felt like psychobigotry was thrown this much into my face since Rift. Given the fact that I’m no longer playing Rift, one can (accurately) guess that my bullshit-tolerance bar is pretty damn low. Here’s hoping that I’ll be able to work past it all this time and continue to enjoy the game for its mechanics. And if not, well, at least I got the game for free.

Legend of Grimrock and Accessibility

A screenshot from Legend of Grimrock. The top 75% of the screen shows a dungeon hallway. The bottom bar contains buttons with items on the left, four character portraits with status bars in the middle, and six navigation arrows on the right.

A screenshot from Legend of Grimrock, with navigation arrows.

Via my Twitter feed, a bit of good news. A recent development update for indie dungeon crawler Legend of Grimrock changed the GUI for the game to remove the bar at the bottom of the screen that contained items, character statuses, and movement arrows. In the comments on the post, a disabled gamer inquired about the removal of the arrow buttons, mentioning that he preferred using a mouse to navigate. In response, the developer added the arrows back in as an optional setting in the menu.

Rampant Coyote points out that this is one of the many reasons to support indie game developers like Almost Human. It’s highly unlikely that a major game studio would see, let alone act on, feedback from one player to make their game more accessible. (For example, colorblind modes are still often an afterthought, if they are ever implemented at all.) As has been pointed out before, adding options that make game control more flexible can mean the difference between being able to play a game or not for certain people. So it’s great to see the Almost Human folks taking that to heart and making sure that everyone can play their game.

A picture of a recording microphone with an over-zealous lens flare.

What Would You Like to See in a ‘The Border House’ Podcast?

A picture of a recording microphone with an over-zealous lens flare.

A picture of a recording microphone with an over-zealous lens flare.

Kind followers of The Border House (TBH), we have some exciting news! Writers of TBH are looking to create a regular series of podcasts that resonate with the topics and values this blog stands for. We plan further establishing a sense of community in game criticism that embraces diversity and includes those who are often marginalized by expanding the medium TBH can be experienced. Alongside the quality writing provided to you through the blog, relevant chats with regular members will be available to stream and download. Because this project is not just for the benefit of the writers, but also to provide more content for followers, we would like your input on some decisions that will affect production. All feedback, questions, concerns, and blurbs are appreciated, so feel encouraged to comment!

The first matter to tackle is figuring out what you all would like to hear in these talks; round-table discussions about recently released articles, discussion on current events in game criticism, game reviews/roasts? Knowing what would supplement the content already present is important so we can deliver new and exciting perspectives that have something else to offer. We want to talk about what you care about, but first, we need to find out what that is! Give us a run down or link us to other shows doing it right, we want to be about the community.

The next topic is making sure our podcasts are as accessible as possible. We want all of our current readers to benefit from the addition of audio talks, as well as welcome more who find audio easier to follow. Therefore, we would like to become more aware of the accessibility needs you all will encounter in order to enjoy this new feature. Please let us know any concerns and solutions you have, we care that everyone benefits! Discussion is already underway for the most apparent issue, which is transcribing the talk so those who are unable to listen can read along and join in on the discussion just like everyone else. Details such as appreciating transcription in non-spoken English languages are definitely input we’d like to know! Knowing a service or method to easily be able to do things like that will also be helpful to share. Would adding visuals help or hinder your experience? Let us know!

We hope you all are as excited as we are to start up this podcast and that you can take some time to drop in your two cents so we are aware of our community’s needs and interests. Drop off a comment here and we will try out best to address all the questions that may crop up. Let’s make it work!

Subtitles During Cut Scenes

My video game genre of choice is role playing games. Many of these have detailed cut scenes that tell the story of the game as you progress through the experience. Unfortunately,  in a number of games that I have recently played there has been a glaring omission: subtitles. Games with this issue include Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, Jeanne d’Arc, and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony. Each of these games is text heavy during the game play but then has NO subtitles during the animated cut scenes. These specific games also have the problem that they do not recap the cut scenes in text form after they finish. If a player was unable to hear the dialogue during the scenes, he or she would miss part of the story.

Image from a Jeanne d'Arc cut scene. Shows Jeanne (a blonde short-haired female warrior in silver plate armor) yelling at soldiers. It is unclear what she is saying since there are no subtitles on the image.

With hearing loss affecting approximately 17% of Ameican adults and that number only rising with age this is a large concern for many gamers. Television and the movie studios have added Close Captioning and subtitles to their media. Ubisoft pledged to include subtitles in future games produced in-house.  Are some developers consistently providing subtitles and should be commended? How many others appear to ignore this issue? We need more publishers and developers to understand this as an important accessibility concern and consistently provide subtitles when characters speak.

Game difficulty settings

Demon's Souls Storm King Battle. Pictures a player character on the lower right with a large flying manta ray type creature, The Storm King, taking up most of the picture.

Some video games are known for their brutal difficulty. Roguelike games often reward death by having the player lose all experience and items. Atlus’ recent game Demon’s Souls had death mean the player went back to the start of a level, lost all of their accumulated experience (in the form of souls), and had every enemy reappear. If the player’s character could not make it back to the location of their demise to recollect their lost souls/experience in one attempt it would be lost forever.  On the other hand there are games with numerous difficulty levels. Players can choose Easy, Medium, or Hard or any variation of such in many recent games including Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Bioshock, Heavy Rain and Bayonetta. These steps in difficulty level make games accessible to a larger number of players.

Vita-Chamber from Bioshock. A large cylindrical metal container with glass doors, similar to a phone booth in size.

There are many ways to make a game less difficult. Just a few examples include enemies with lower health, less enemies, the player having higher defense, more time to input commands, or diminished penalty for character death. Bioshock and Bioshock 2 include a mechanic called Vita-Chambers. If the player’s character dies at lower difficulty levels they resurrect in the Vita-Chamber. Their health is diminished but any enemies that were dead when they player’s character perished remain so and any damage done to enemies that remained alive is still present. This mechanic made the game more forgiving for players that find shooters difficult.

Why are these various difficulty settings so important? According to the Entertainment Software Association the average gamer is 35 years old, 65% of households play games, and 40% of gamers are female. Video games DO appeal to people of all ages and sexes. Some gamers have played shooters for decades and want the challenge of higher difficulty,  some are new to certain genres and have trouble with the controls, some never play shooters but like adventure games, and others may have difficulty with fast paced games for a variety of reasons. There is simply a large variety of gamers out there. Varied difficulty settings allows players to make the game experience more closely fit their needs. They make a game more accessible and higher accessibility means a greater potential base of happy customers.

But not all gamers want lower difficulty settings. Beating a game like Demon’s Souls requires a certain mix of skills and patience. These brutally difficult games give players a sense of accomplishment when they complete them. As the industry adds more games with various difficulty settings some complain that games are just too easy. I argue that various difficulty settings do not take away that sense of thrill when beating the game on higher difficulty levels. Mass Effect even has an achievement for completing the game on the highest difficulty level without changing the setting, titled Insanity. If a gamer chooses to undertake that challenge they can proudly display it to others when completing the game. How does my beating the game on Easy diminish that other player’s accomplishment of beating it on the highest difficulty setting?

What do you think? Do various difficulty setting increase accessibility which is great OR do they diminish the pride of completing difficult games? Can they do both? Are easier game settings ever a negative?

Console Gaming: In-Game Text Size

In a previous post I discussed the issue of text size in console interfaces. But gaming accessibility does not end at the interface screen. In-game text size can be a large barrier for visually impaired gamers.  AbleGamers recently named Dragon Age : Origins their accessible game of the year for 2009. But for all the positive things about this game, one thing that is lacking is the option to increase text size.

When playing on a computer it is possible to download mods for many games. There is already an interface mod available for the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins that increases the font size. However, this is not something that improves the experience for console gamers. When playing Dragon Age: Origins on my Playstation 3 with a 32 inch HDTV the dialogue font is only a third of an inch tall. From 8 feet away this becomes unreadable to me.

Screen shot from Dragon Age: Origins showing the text size of dialogue options

This small text size is an issue for visually impaired gamers as well as standard definition television owners. This has been a problem for many games in the last few years including Capcom’s Dead Rising and another recent BioWare game, Mass Effect 2.

Some games have much larger font that makes them easier to read. Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon for the Wii has nice large font. On my 32 inch HDTV the upper font is an inch tall while the lower text is 0.6 inches tall. Also, the white of the letters have a slight black outline which makes them easier to read when the background is a lighter color.

Screen shot of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobos Dungeon

Screen shot of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon

Clearly both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins had much more text on the screen at a time than Chocobo’s Dungeon. But gamers would rather be able to change the setting so they can play their favorite games, even if that means scrolling through more lines of text , rather than owning otherwise unreadable games. An increased text size option in a console game improves it’s accessibility which means there is a larger pool of potential gamers/customers and that is good situation for everyone.

Console interface text size

Text size in console games can be a huge issue for visually impaired individuals. The ideal situation would be options that allow for larger text or icons to make the interface more accessible to gamers. So, how are the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 treating text size? All of the following images were taken off my home 32 inch television sitting at the sofa that is 8 feet away from the screen.

The console that does the best is the Wii.

Wii interface screen

The buttons/icons are large and the images are clear. When hovering over an icon the name of the channel or game selected shows up in large font under the box.  Even without the words, the boxes themselves show an image of the channel or game that the button represents making it easier to quickly find the buttons on screen. In this example “Chocobo’s Dungeon” is visible  in large font under the selected box. On my TV this font shows up as 3/4 inch tall per letter.

I would rate the Xbox360 as second best.

Xbox 360 Interface image (main screen)

Xbox 360 Interface image (main screen)

Xbox 360 interface screen after hitting guide button

Xbox 360 interface screen after hitting guide button

On the main dashboard of the Xbox360 interface there are large boxes that have a clear visual representation of what they do.  The game selection box has a picture of the game currently in the disc drive, in the case of this photo it is MagnaCarta 2.  The text size that displays “Play MagnaCarta2″ shows up as 1/2 inch tall letters on my screen. When pressing the Guide button on the center of the controller a second menu pops up. This menu is shown in the second photo.  While there are no pictorial representations of the commands you select the text here also measures at 1/2 inch tall per letter on my television.

In last place I put the Playstation 3. In fact, this console’s interface can be a problem for gamers with minor visual impairments.

Playstation 3 interface

Playstation 3 interface

While there is an option to change the text font style I cannot find an  option to increase the font size. This is a problem as the text size is small compared to the other systems described here. When I measure the text size on my screen it is 3/8 inch tall. That was the smallest font size of the three systems.

For many people the difference between 3/4 inch text (Wii), 1/2 inch text (the Xbox360), and 3/8 inch text (the PS3) on a 32 inch television from 8 feet away is inconsequential. My significant other has no problem clearly reading each of these interfaces. But for people with some visual impairments, such as myself, these sizes can become a problem. I can see the Wii interface with no problem. The Xbox 360 takes some focusing but is readable. But, with the lack of a larger font option on the PS3 I cannot sit at the sofa and see that text. It becomes slightly too blurry for me to read from that distance.

So what can console makers do? One great example is the use of visual cues other than text to indicate selection. The Wii interface does that beautifully by showing a picture of the game or channel in each box. But what is lacking in all these systems in an option to increase the text size. Not everyone needs the larger text, but it would be a great option to increase accessibility for visually impaired players.  The inclusion of this option would help many players.

Interview with Mark Barlet of AbleGamers.com

AbleGamers.com is a site that evaluates the accessibility of games, reviewing them based on how playable they are for gamers with disabilities. It is a unique resource for both game players and developers, and one that is likely to be of interest to many of our readers, so I asked founder Mark Barlet to answer a few questions about himself and the site for us, and he graciously agreed. Thank you to Mark for taking the time to speak with me over e-mail.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into gaming?

My name is Mark Barlet, and I was born on my birthday. I am a little uncommitted on my favorite color, so I picked clear. I got into gaming just like everyone else did. I am a child of the late 80′s so gaming is in my blood. I love MMOs I started playing Asheron’s Call and went from there.

How did AbleGamers get its start, and what are the goals of the site?

The goals of the site started simply, my best friend was diagnosed with MS and I watched it try to steal her love of gaming away from her. I was disabled myself from my days in the military, but my disability did not effect my gaming. Steph on the other hand had a disability that drastically altered her approach to gaming. We went and looked for info on the web looking for answers, and found nothing… so we started AbleGamers.

What are some important things to look for when determining the accessibility of a game?

It is very hard to say “THIS” is what we are looking for. Depending on your disability game accessibility can mean anything. So what we look for are options. I am not deaf and do not need subtitles when I play, but is there an option for subtitles? Steve [Spohn, Associate Editor of AbleGamers] does 99% of his interaction with his PC by use of the mouse, so a game must be playable using just a mouse. That said, others can not use a mouse at all, so we look to see if a game can be played by using the keyboard.

Right now the highest rated game on AbleGamers is Dragon Age: Origins. Does DA:O have any unique qualities that make it particularly accessible?

There are so many. It is almost 100% mouseable, it is also almost 100% keyboardable. It also has some great features for the cognitive disability community. An example, the ability to pause the action and chose the next moves in battle with no timer and no need to rush. For some in the disabled community that is a homerun! It is close captioned, and more. It really is as close to a total package as you can get.

[Ed.: since conducting this interview, AbleGamers named the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins their 2009 Accessible Game of the Year.]

AbleGamers not only provides valuable information for disabled gamers, it’s also a community. What surprises or challenges have you encountered in trying to foster a community around the site?

This is anecdotal, but I have become aware that the gamer approaches accessibility in different ways depending on when they were disabled. Not every time, but many times, when someone comes on to the site and asks the community for help, and they have been disabled all of their lives they look for a solution prescribed for them. If they have MD, they want a “MD solution” and if you tell them that this “Y Solution” will help them out, they are less willing to try it because it is not an “MD” fix. While those disabled later in life are much more willing to to try ANYTHING that works no matter if it is an X, Y, or Z. I can not answer definitively why this is, I have some theories, but it would take pages to explain what I think is going on. So this is a challenge, and sometime frustrating when you want to get a gamer back into the game, and you think you have the answer, and they rebuff you. I know that this has caused some frustration within the community.

The fact is to get a community to really work, you need lots of people… and to reach that critical mass has taken time.

AbleGamers has been featured on some major gaming blogs, like Joystiq. What has the reaction from the mainstream gaming community been like? Have you gotten any backlash, or have folks been generally supportive?

Well, it depends. If you took a poll of the comments on some of these stories then the hard core gamers do not care for us. They fear we are going to ruin their gaming. All I can say to that is not going to happen. We are gamers who are disabled… not disabled gamers. We are gamers first and I do not think that there are many in our community that would want to ruin a game for everyone so that they could play. As we said before… options are the key. Would we like to be able to slow a game down? Sure… what a great OPTION.

Have you had the chance to work with any game developers? What has the reaction been from the development community?

Oh my yes! We talk to developers all the time. We have contacts within Blizzard, EA, BioWare and so on. We do interviews when we can, we were at BlizCon this year, GDC for 2 years in a row and so on. Most listen, and want to make sure that there game can be played by everyone. They key to a game being accessible has a lot to do with WHERE in the development cycle we can talk to them. The closer the game is to GOLD, the less likely we are able to advocate for changes.

What are your plans for the future of AbleGamers?

Well this year AbleGamers became the AbleGamers Foundation a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity. We are taking all the things we have learned in our 5 years and advocating more actively for our community. We are not well funded at the moment but we are working on it, and as our ability grows so will our mission. You can check out where we are on our nonprofit site, AbleGamers.org.

Is there anything else you would like to let our readers know about yourself or AbleGamers?

Everyone is welcome at AbleGamers.com.