Universal Accessibility for Gaming

Gary Bartos
6 min readMay 24, 2024

(Future Solutions, Proposal 3)

Could you help me raise awareness about the need for improved accessibility for card games, board games, role-playing games, and video games? Would you work as hard as I do, or possibly harder?

Meeple game pieces in red, green, blue, yellow, and even purple. The purple Meeple are probably all humming songs by Prince.
We’re all Meeple! Image from RawPixel.com

This is an expansive topic, and I’m already preparing a series of lectures and a textbook about accessibility in gaming. The proposal in this blog post is just one more means to get conversations started.

For now this is a monologue into the void, and not yet a conversation, but here we go.

Proposal

Ensure that everyone can play the same game together, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

Provide game designers with the tools, references, and community contacts to design games with disabled gamers, not simply for them.

For card games, board games, and role-playing games, provide an open source framework for universal accessibility. For video games and smart phone apps, present design requirements and principles for accessible control of the game.

The slogan “Nothing about us without us” is key:

Problems

Many games are inaccessible to people with disabilities. Up to 1 in 4 adults in the United States have disabilities. Although someone (like me) may have adapted well to everyday life, a disability can become evident in certain contexts — like gaming.

Everyone deserves to have fun. We should all be able to play the same games — the latest, coolest games — and not limit accessibility just to classic games that have been around for decades or centuries.

Disabilities are not the problem. The lack of accessibility is the problem. There are multiple accessibility problems to solve, because there are many disabilities.

Every design choice can include or exclude members of some gaming community.

  • Visual Acuity. The text on game cards can be too small for people to read. Some people may not be able to read the text at all. A larger group of people may find reading small text fatiguing , yet not realize why playing a card-based game is tiring. Changing visual focus from cards to board to rules and back and forth can be fatiguing, too.
  • Dexterity. Small game pieces (e.g. meeple) may hard to hold for someone with limited use of their hands.
  • Mobility. The site for game night may be inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. Is there a ramp? Are doorways wide enough?
  • Color. Some of the colors on boards, cards, and game pieces may not be distinguishable from one another if a gamer has a color deficiency or color blindness. Color blindness is more common among men — possibly as high as 8% prevalence (1 in 12 men).
  • Hearing. Talk at the gaming table may be necessary to the game — “Give me Park Place before Pat lands on it, and I’ll pay twice its value.” Banter at the gaming table may just be social. If the conversation isn’t signed using ASL, and if there isn’t live captioning, then gamers with hearing impairments may be excluded. (Note: live captioning on Zoom is reasonably good, so using Zoom as a chat channel can work.)
  • Cognition. Games that are deemed just a bit too difficult for gamers with cognitive impairments may be more accessible by improving the quality of the rule book, and by uploading a game walkthrough on YouTube. Tabletop games could offer levels of complexity, just as video games do.
  • Neurodiversity. Design tweaks would make games more accessible to gamers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD), and other conditions. It can help to think of these conditions labeled “disorders” as alternate types of brain wiring. AutismSpeaks.org gives the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as 1 in 36 children. The prevalence of ADHD in children is about 11%. ASD and ADHD are just two of the most well-known types of neurodiversity, including…
  • Reading and understanding text. Estimates vary, but dyslexia may affect as many as 1 in 5 people worldwide. A more conservative estimate of prevalence, 1 in 8, would mean a billion people are dyslexic.
  • And so on.

Each community of disabled gamers may represent a small percentage of the population. But the percentage of gamers who have at least one disability is relatively high. A small percentage of a large population is a lot of people. Worldwide perhaps as many as two billion people have at least one disability.

And here’s the kicker: about half of seniors have some disability. Even if you don’t have a disability now, there’s a good chance you’ll have a disability later in life. Consider your future self as a gamer.

Solution / Solutions

Provide an open framework to assist game designers and game hackers to make games accessible to more gamers.

implement accessibility improvements,

Starting in 2024, introduce the framework in presentations, interviews, videos, and online forums.

Difficulties

Awareness of disabilities and awareness of accessibility barriers has improved, but remains low.

There aren’t enough experts in accessibility and assistive technology to keep up with the release of new games.

Addressing accessibility barriers one game at a time requires time and enthusiasm. There may be no compensation, and may cost the designer or developer money.

Until most game publishers become aware that accessibility improvements benefit all gamers, improvements in accessibility may seem to involve “extra” cost and extra effort.

Workarounds

Until you have the chance to help a game designer, attend a presentation on accessibility in gaming, or read a book about universal accessibility in gaming, take steps to make incremental improvements in accessibility.

Invite gamers with disabilities to join you at a game night. Observe. Chat. Figure out what the accessibility barriers are. Make some new friends.

To call back to the points made in the Difficulties section above, try one or more of these:

  • Increase awareness of the need for accessibility. Your help is needed.
  • Learn more about accessibility from sites such as Meeple Like Us.
  • Bootstrap improvements in accessibility. Playtest accessibility improvements you make to one game you love. Apply those lessons to a second game. Present your findings to a group.
  • Review accessibility barriers in games that are popular, well designed, and published by a small publisher you have some hope of contacting in the future.

If you want to advise a game designer, work with independent game designers first. Focus on students who are studying game design, game designers who attend local meetups, and people you like chatting with you.

When you’re ready, have conversations with small game publishers with a reputation for great games, such as Stonemaier Games.

Suggest design tweaks to independent game designers who post on BoardGameGeek.com.

If you are a game designer with experience in accessibility, request that people interview you. Post YouTube videos. Write blog posts.

Last year I spoke with Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games, and we talked about the designs of several games. Here’s my post from September 2023 with a link to the YouTube video with Jamey and me:

Offer to playtest a draft of my book. Please! I’m expecting to have materials ready to review by fall of 2024, with publication targeted for early 2025.

How to Contact Me

Before contacting me, please read both the Preamble and the Introduction to this series, which are linked below.

For accessibility in gaming, I’m open to communicating with students. By “communicating” I mean passing some messages back and forth, but necessarily having a Zoom call or a long chat. I’d include students majoring in game design as game designers.

I’d favor working with game publishers, game designers, people who run gaming conventions, game shop owners who host design meetups, and interviewers who are disabled gamers. Those are the folks for whom my current and future work will be most useful.

Here’s the index to proposals I’ve written so far.

Happy gaming!

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Gary Bartos

Founder of Echobatix, engineer, inventor of assistive technology for people with disabilities. Keen on accessible gaming. echobatix@gmail.com