How Hard of Hearing Accessibility In Entertainment Is Changing

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A key focus for many creators of entertainment products is accessibility, but whilst a growing number of creators are focusing on ensuring that as many people who have undergone audiology tests can enjoy them as possible, there have still been overall issues about implementation.

At the 2023 Game Developers Conference, there have been several explorations of accessibility as there have been for many years. However, the question has changed from if features to improve the experience for hard of hearing and deaf people are implemented to when they start being discussed in the creation process.

Accessibility Design Lead and Strategist for Ubisoft, Aderyn Thompson has argued that the current philosophy when it comes to accessibility needs to change, and is currently in the process of doing so.

Accessibility Vs Accommodation

Ms Thompson’s speech was focused on the differences between accessibility and accommodation, and how developers and designers are providing the latter instead of the former.

Accessibility, according to Ms Thomspon, is not a separate experience but making the overall experience fair and equitable for everyone, whilst an accommodation is a concession to allow for some form of access even if it is not as convenient.

The comparison she used was that accessibility was an integrated entrance that does not feature steps or any obstacle that would hamper wheelchair access, whilst an accommodation is a hastily added ramp leading into a back entrance.

She noted that a lot of video games which have touted “accessibility” features instead are offering accommodations and concessions that are added to the game late in development to provide some form of experience even if it is not an optimal one.

A simple solution she offers is that many games with accessibility features would function better by not putting them in a single accessibility menu but instead integrating them into the rest of the game’s options, although games that start development with accessibility in mind tend to require fewer accommodations adding at the end.

Thinking Backwards

Another argument Ms Thompson makes is that a lot of accessibility design philosophies have been built with an approach of adding features to a game that will make an experience easier to enjoy for a wider audience, with The Last of Us: Part II being the most ambitious example of this.

Whilst this can help, Ms Thompson argued that this approach can be unproductive, and instead the focus should be on the barriers players are facing and the root cause of that barrier.

For example, a game that relies on sound cues to effectively play the game without a disadvantage should consider other ways to present that information, such as through controller vibrations or visual indications of noise instead.

The final, and most vital point is that accessibility is not incompatible with challenge, noting that ultimately game designers set the rules that games are played by, and defining challenge in a way that does not exclude other players is an essential part of making enjoyable and rewarding games.

Ultimately, what is offered here is a change of approach from a series of silos to a more holistic, unified experience.