Accessibility reviews and previews are incredibly beneficial, yet not every game has the potential to be examined. Information about accessible video games is slim, and as a disabled gamer, it can be exhausting and demoralizing to once again boot up a game, only to find out I can’t play it.
Earlier this month, however, both Xbox and video game accessibility outlet DAGERSystem unveiled two systems to help curb this problem, by offering players means to identify potential inaccessible barriers before purchasing a title. The Game Accessibility Feature Tags and the Accessible Games Database are two tools that, while not perfect, will ultimately lead to a more inclusive space for disabled consumers.
With the feature tags and database, disabled individuals can select a specific title and view the notable features and options that are included to help reduce unintentional and inaccessible barriers. For Xbox, players can select a game on the Xbox store, and after moving to the right on the game’s page, can view available features like control remapping, colorblind filters, and subtitles. As for the Database, it is only available as an online page, and while continuously growing, currently contains 144 titles. Both services offer some of the available indicators that can help determine a game’s accessibility.
Josh Straub, Editor-in-Chief of DAGERSystem, discusses the catalyst for the creation of the database, noting that the industry’s unwillingness to commit to accessibility led to its inception.
“The AGD [Accessible Games Database] has been in development since 2018 but the idea is much older than that,” he tells Fanbyte. “When I was in college (around 2012), I prepared a proposal for the ESA to implement something similar. At the time, they said accessibility was too subjective — that’s when I realized that the first step to creating such a service would be raising the profile of video game accessibility.”
When he began consulting on games, Straub thought of a “features-based filtering system” that disabled players could access. However, in 2015, the inclusion of accessibility menus was not a popular idea amongst studios.
“It wasn’t until the release of The Last of Us Part II that a AAA studio proved it was possible to build a massively accessible game using a features-based approach that also appealed to the mainstream,” he says. “Once that happened, we knew we had a good starting point for a master list of filters and we immediately started work on the AGD.”
Despite the database’s very recent launch, Straub is hopeful that more titles will be added as it gains popularity. Currently, he and his team are the ones who upload each game, primarily from a retail copy, after determining what features are present. Straub admits this can often take “days or weeks” before the database is updated with a new entry. He ultimately wants developers and publishers to be able to input their own data from their own games.
“We are hoping that enough developers and publishers see value in the AGD that they are willing to set up pipelines to input games before they release,” he continues, “but establishing those relationships and building that pipeline is a process that we are working on constantly.”
Developers adding their own tags is a key component behind the Game Accessibility Feature Tags within the Xbox store. Brannon Zahand, Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager at Xbox, explains the goals behind the tags, noting that they are beneficial to players and developers alike.
“The first [goal] is to make it easier for gamers with disabilities to find content that works well for them,” Zahand tells Fanbyte. “By using the Accessibility Spotlight page, along with search and filter functionality which will be added in the coming months, gamers with disabilities can narrow down game content by the types of features they use often.” Beyond searching for features, the Tags afford developers the opportunity to publicly disclose what options disabled players can expect before playing or purchasing a title. Not only that, but if other studios see what features are present in newer games, Zahand wishes this will push the industry to strive for an inclusive future.
Currently, only 20 tags exist — but as the system gets more use, and as developers and players provide input and suggestions regarding which tags should coincide with specific features, Zahand is hopeful it will improve. Ultimately, the tags are yet another method in which Xbox strives to support disabled individuals. By actively including disabled voices, future improvements should directly reflect community feedback.
“We will be evaluating community feedback over the coming months to determine how useful the current tags are to the community,” he says. “We’ll also be considering what additional tags might be useful and what criteria for those tags might look like. The goal is to have a robust set of feature tags that help our community find content that will work for them without having so many that it is overwhelming or difficult to use.”
While the Game Accessibility Feature Tags and the Game Accessibility Database are excellent tools that will benefit disabled players when determining what they can purchase or play, they are not without their faults. As Straub mentions, he and his team are the only ones updating the database — meaning that disabled players still need to wait an unspecified amount of time before viewing a game’s features. Furthermore, the database cannot currently determine a game’s overall ease of access — how accessible a game is based on its design.
“We are working on a special system to denote this kind of inherent accessibility, and you can look forward to hearing more about that in the coming months,” Straub says.
As for Xbox’s Feature Tags, the inclusion of — or conversely, lack of — a tag does not entirely determine a game’s accessibility. Tara Voelker, who leads Xbox’s Game Studios Accessibility and Gaming and Disability Community teams, explains the importance of inclusive design in conjunction with adding features. “For example, for a game to have the subtitles tag, the prerequisite is that the game has spoken words to subtitle,” Voelker writes in a Twitter thread. But a game without subtitles does not mean that it is inaccessible for deaf and hard of hearing players. The lack of a subtitle tag fails to indicate other forms of accessibility or even if the game is inherently accessible.
This criticism is especially valid when considering that the disabled experience, especially in gaming, is so unique and personal. Even if a game features a tag for varying difficulties, that doesn’t mean that the platforming or combat sections will be any less difficult for players with motor disabilities. It also won’t communicate how well blind and low vision players can detect enemies or points of interest within complex environments. A game may feature the subtitles tag, but how well does that convey if subtitles detect side conversations or if they’re scalable to sizes that cater to specific players?
Within the accessible movement in games, the addition of two systems that will allow disabled players to search for games that include specific accessibility features is invaluable. Each innovation that grants choice to disabled individuals is proof that the industry continues to listen to the concerns of disabled consumers. And while these systems may not be perfect, their existence will no doubt result in future iterations that improve upon their predecessors’ shortcomings. Accessibility is ultimately a continuous journey — one that will never provide all the solutions. But if developers like Xbox and individuals like Straub keep working to craft accessible solutions, disabled players — and all players, for that matter — will continue to benefit from their ideas.