Video games, at their best, can be a transformative experience. A way to experience fantastic adventures, thrilling escapades, and an excuse to have fun with friends and family all over the globe. While video games continue to advance dramatically from a technological standpoint from year to year, accessibility issues for some gamers continue to be a persistent problem.
Robert Managad and Yoon Young Kim, recent alumni from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design (BDes ’20), have set out to tackle the issue of gaming with disabilities through an independent study project funded by the Design Experience Fund they started while they were at the School of Design.
“After a talk in February 2019, Yoon Young Kim and I realized that there were gaps when it came to the playing experiences of gamers with disabilities,” said Managad, who is currently working as a Product Designer at Duolingo in Pittsburgh. “Throughout the Summer and Fall, we spent a lot of time doing research. We talked to industry leaders, such as the UX designers at Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, accessibility gurus, and charity organizations striving to help the gaming industry become more inclusive. We also spent a good amount of time doing field research — we interviewed gamers in our local community who identified as having a visual, cognitive, hearing, or motor disability.”
At the end of the Fall 2019 semester, Managad and Kim decided to scope down their findings and tackle the primary gaps they found.
“We discovered that we wanted to develop a way for players with disability to learn about a game’s accessibility and expected inputs prior to a purchase,” said Managad. “We found a need to connect players with a disability to game developers during a time where inclusive design is becoming increasingly present.”
“We also wanted to prototype physical interventions to help players handle non-game experiences, such as hardware,” added Kim.
With these gaps in mind, the team went to work on two different solutions: a web platform called Accessitags and a set of custom-designed Nintendo Switch Accessories for people with muscular dystrophy.
“The gaps we chose were based off of our primary interests after synthesizing our research and after assessing that these two made the most of our talents as Communications and Product Designers, respectively,” said Managad.
Accessitags is a web-based community platform for users to explore a game’s accessibility options and expected inputs, as well as allowing them to connect with professionals in the community. Accessitags consists of three main features: searching for games by accessibility tags, demo’ing those game’s accessibility options and expected inputs, and acting as a community platform that connects game designers and developers with the Accessitags community.
“We're currently in the alpha stage of this prototype, using a more-than-barebones black-and-white full contrast prototype for the research phase of the platform,” added Managad.
In this product design portion of this project, the team explored the potential of making the Nintendo Switch more accessible.
“In our product design curriculum, we learn a lot about design criteria,” said Kim. “This project really made me consider accessibility in the ‘must’ category and consider how to enhance the game playing experience from a physical perspective.
“Of course, every game playing experience is different,” continued Kim. “We hope that these proposed Nintendo Switch accessories will at least enhance and streamline that experience for a muscular dystrophy case."
So far the team has developed two product designs for the Nintendo Switch: trigger enhancements and an upgraded dock cover with a hinge.
“We found that our participant had difficulty and discomfort moving their fingers to activate the back trigger buttons of the Nintendo Joycon controller,” said Kim. “We created accessories to extend the activation point of the triggers to a more convenient location.”
Beyond using the controllers, sometimes just retrieving the controllers or the system itself can be an issue for a gamer with a disability.
“Joycons are hard enough to remove on your own,” said Kim. “We found that our participant had difficulty taking off the Joycons from the Nintendo Switch controller because it was a two-handed interaction (one hand to hold the console in place, another to take the controllers off). This hinged dock cover holds the Nintendo Switch console in place, so you can smoothly remove the Joycons with one hand.”
Although the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic altered the trajectory of their project, the team has still been able to continue their work past the Spring semester and their graduation.
“This project was greatly fronted by a huge amount of research Robert and I collected before reaching the design and creating phase,” said Kim. “We hope that some of our findings can contribute to the discussion of accessibility in design and gaming. Video games have made great progress in becoming much more accessible with add on accessories, button remapping options, accessibility menu toggling, etc.”
For the team, the contributions from the School of Design Experience Fund not only covered the purchase of physical materials for prototyping purposes, they were crucial to getting this important work off the ground.
“The Experience Fund gave us the means for conducting intimate research at the get-go, especially with gamers in our local community,” said Managad. “We used the Experience Fund to generously compensate gamers with disability for spending the time to tell us about their lived experiences.
“We couldn't have gotten to this point without the help from some extremely generous folks and organizations,” added Managad. “Over our past year working on this independent study, we chatted with over fifty individuals about their experiences and expertise in designing for accessibility in gaming. In particular, we'd like to give a huge thanks to Mark Christman, the Chapter Director of the Western PA FSHD Society; Steve Spohn, the COO of the AbleGamers Charity; Jake Manion, the Head of Product at Internet of Elephants; and Mackenzie Cherban (MDes '18), Interaction Designer at Microsoft.”