Xbox's director of accessibility, Anita Mortaloni, recently took the time to speak with us about accessibility in gaming and the company's continued journey to innovate within the space.We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Anita Mortaloni, Xbox's director of accessibility, and enjoyed a discussion about Xbox's journey so far, from changing the narrative around accessibility to implementing new features — "at the end of the day, play is a fundamental human need."
Accessibility in video games
'When everyone plays, we all win' has been a phrase used by many members of the Xbox team in recent years, and with the 2022 celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we had a great chat about the video game industry's progress so far. "One of the common misconceptions in accessibility and gaming accessibility is that accessibility is expensive... and it is if you wait until the end and retrofit it," Mortaloni tells us. "However, if you partner with the disability community from the start, and ask the questions of what barriers your customers or players face, you end up creating products that are better for everyone." By connecting with the disability community early on, making it easier for developers with disabilities or allies of the disability community to create their visions, and by identifying the ever-expanding barriers that bar some players from joining in with the hobby, Xbox hopes to create an accessible experience for as many people as possible. Combining those three principles gives the accessibility team a way to determine which aspects need to be innovated upon, and we're seeing that happen at a steady pace. "For us, putting the player at the centre of everything we do naturally helps us identify where to innovate, and it goes for our creators as well," Mortaloni says. "At the end of the day, play is a fundamental human need. And we want to do everything we can to make that happen for as many people as possible, and that really comes down to listening to what all our players need."
"There is a reason that when we are all very little, there's a focus on play and connecting. It is something that we should carry through our entire lifetime."When developing a new title, Xbox partners with the disability community from the get-go and continues the relationship even after the game has launched. "It's not enough to create an accessible product if your trailers, communications, or your events aren't accessible as well." While it's important to begin your accessibility journey early enough, Mortaloni can't stress enough the importance of partnering with the disability community. "There is this saying, 'nothing for us without us,' so we encourage everyone who's designing [a game] to develop with the community, not for the community, and really understand the barriers to play in the lived experience."
One way for the team to identify key areas to work on is via the Xbox Accessibility Insider League (XAIL), which has gained around 160,000 members since its inception in May 2021. It gives developers an opportunity to receive feedback from players that self-identify as having a disability or players that consider themselves allies of the community. It's essentially a connection point that uses the Microsoft Gaming Accessibility Testing Service (MGATS) to see how the game sits within the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. "The coolest thing about the programme is that you get qualitative feedback from gamers with disabilities telling you how easy it is for your game to play," Mortaloni remarks. "So, the more we can incorporate partnering with the community, the better."
As the industry embraces accessibility options as a standard practice, more games are beginning to offer a robust set of tools to help players that might need certain settings and modes to help them. Rebellion's Sniper Elite 5, for example, offers tutorial options within the game's pause menu, subtitle and text options, colour blindness modes, difficulty adjustments, customisable audio levels, assisted aim setting and other input-assisted modes, and more. We noted that games are beginning to offer accessibility menus as the first screen you see when loading a game. "I think that speaks to where the industry is going. Several years ago, that would have been a highlight like, 'you put an accessibility feature at the start of the game!' Now it's an expectation, and if you don't do it, it's noticed," says Mortaloni. "I love how the bar keeps getting raised with accessibility. And we're not satisfied. We're not saying hey, we're good, we're done, we can stop. No, we're continually pushing how to make it accessible and make it a better experience for everyone."
Achievements and accessibility
"Xbox believes in empowering gamers to play games any way they want, with the people they want, how they want to, and where they want to. So, we strive to make life for the billions of people around the world fun by creating experiences that they can enjoy."
There was a fair bit of chatter surrounding Double Fine's Psychonauts 2 when it was confirmed that the game's invincibility mode wouldn't disable achievements. We thought we would take the opportunity to find out from Xbox's director of accessibility where the team stands on certain settings affecting the difficulty of achievement unlocks, to hopefully lay the conversation to rest once and for all.
"We know that everyone plays differently, and that can change over the course of a day, maybe you've been staring at a computer screen all day, or over your lifetime. We're all going to get older. So how we play today is likely going to be very different to how we play in five, ten, 20, or 30 years. Some days, you want to play because of the story, the music, or the character. Other days you want to play because of the connections with people. Some days, it's all about achievements! We want to let people enjoy the experience in the world of gaming how they want to play on that day. So, for us, it really is about the play, and because it's a fundamental need we want people to play how they want."
Last year, the Xbox Store was updated with Accessibility Feature Tags, which allow game developers to highlight common accessibility features included with their games on the storefront. The tags are designed in partnership with the disability community and as of writing, there are 20 features listed that encompass narrated game menus, subtitle options, input remapping, full keyboard support, single stick gameplay, and more. You can find the full list of tags on the Xbox support page.
"By looking at the criteria for accessibility tags, [a developer's] title can have tags on the store so players can find the next game that they're going to love and know that they can play it all the way to the end," says Mortaloni. "Because there's nothing more frustrating than getting 99% through and finding out you can't win the boss fight because of some new mechanism."
Xbox Adaptive ControllerOutside of software iterations, Xbox has focused on offering players hardware in the form of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which launched back in 2018. The controller acts as an anchor point for third-party accessibility accessories. "Our goal with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and gaming in general, is to accommodate the broad-ranging usage requirements for gamers with disabilities," Mortaloni explains. "So while still ensuring that the Xbox Adaptive Controller remains affordable and easy to use, we've made the controller as low-cost to consumers as possible and are also waiving Xbox licencing fee for peripheral devices that meet accessibility and quality guidelines."
The controller itself is now available in 33 markets across the world, and the accessibility team continues to communicate with the players to ascertain the areas that need to be improved upon. The most recent firmware update, for instance, adds "the ability to increase the size and tooltips to button images on the Xbox Adaptive Controllers remapping screen."
The future of accessibility
"We know that accessibility for us and everyone is a journey, to achieve our goals, to make gaming a place where everyone can have fun. Across the industry, everyone can do more to partner with the disability community, and then increase representation in our games as creators and as companies as a whole," Mortaloni explains. "We want our creators and communities that build the games and platforms, to be representative of the full breadth of experiences, disabilities, cultures, and really, all people on Earth, which is why it is so imperative that we provide tools and resources to empower everyone who wants to be creative to do that."
Mortaloni also discussed the new Gaming Accessibility Fundamentals Learning Path, a free course that can be found within the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. It acts as an introduction to the basics of gaming accessibility and offers you a chance to learn about the experiences of players with disabilities. Anybody can access the course for free and it lasts for around four hours, depending on your learning style. "After four hours of a free course on gaming fundamentals, how to connect with the community, and best practices on software, hardware and assistive tech, you get a badge and a trophy that you can share — very game-like — but it's to share the knowledge like 'Hey, I know something!'"
When partnering with developers, the team at Xbox offers the Gaming Accessibility Fundamentals Learning Path alongside the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines and MGADS to give them the tools to implement features within their games. "We provide all the resources and support that we can to enable folks to be able to do that and encourage folks to consider that from the very start of product design and to partner with the gaming and disability community," Mortaloni tells us.
Outside of game development, the future of accessibility in games should reach farther than the games themselves. One such area that has been improved upon is the official Xbox streams, which now has a brand-new all-ASL (American Sign Language) Twitch channel. "We wanted to make sure that the all-ASL Twitch channel had ASL for everything that was there, so that viewers didn't have didn't go and find things that didn't have ASL," Mortaloni tells us. "We wanted to make sure that there were no surprises and that we could maintain that set of expectations."
Accessibility in gaming is a continuous journey for developers, publishers, and players alike. It's a journey that we can all become a part of, and there are many resources out there for you to learn about it if it's something you'd like to champion yourself, such as the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines or joining the Xbox Ambassadors program.
When everyone plays, we all win.