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It’s readily apparent that ‘inclusive game design’ is a broad goal for the industry. Ask anybody making games, and it’s possible to receive wildly different answers about how to do that. The International Game Developers Association’s Renee Gittins did just that in a roundtable discussion on reaching players through inclusive game design.
The first thing that needs doing in a discussion like this is to define the terms. Inclusivity for one person might be having a game that features anything beyond the standard male Caucasian hero archetype. Or it could be setting a game in a location that is authentic to the culture and people that live there. It could even be as simple as including simplified controls, or colorblind modes to allow players with disabilities to enjoy themselves.
What IS inclusive game design
WB Games Montreal’s Osama Dorias takes a wide view on the subject of what inclusive game design means.
“To me it’s a game that made an effort to be inclusive,” said Dorias. “It’s a game that stood out and included something that shows they were trying to reach a broader audience.”
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Microsoft’s Tara Voelker has a more focused approach. Voelker is the Xbox Game Studios Accessibility lead, as well as the co-director of the Game Accessibility Conference.
“Being inclusive is literally being able to play the game,” Voelker said. “If you’re not including them then they can’t play it. It’s pretty cut and dry.”
Netflix’s Laura Teclemariam has a different perspective on the phrase.
“I think consumers are pretty savvy. Especially gamers,” she said. “When they’re playing a level, or they’re using a character that is positioned in a certain theme, or from a certain country, or a certain background, they can tell whether or not it’s authentic.”
Inclusive game design begins with inclusive game designers
Authenticity is difficult to fake. The easiest way to achieve it is to have a diverse staff available to offer comments and suggestions that otherwise may never be raised.
“When we were going through developing a lot of the characters our original slate of characters tended to skew more male,” Teclemariam said, on working on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. “I happened to be one of the few females in the room on the development team. One of the things I highlighted was that I’d love to have an all female squad… if I wasn’t part of the team to represent the female point of view maybe that perspective might have taken longer to get put into the game.”
“There’s a strong business case for including characters from diverse backgrounds,” said Dorias. “The tricky part is to not make it sound like you’re just putting in a token; a palette swap for the skin tone, or a voice actor was hired but everything seems the same… it has to be early on. If you don’t bring the person [from a diverse background] on early on, you’re doing damage control. A lot of times the decisions are irreversible because of production concerns, or financial concerns.”
Having those diverse staff at hand is more becoming the norm. While companies have been slowly diversifying their staff for a number of years, the realities of the on-going pandemic have accelerated hiring practices.
“For a long time people with disabilities were excluded from the workforce in game development because this idea of remote work wasn’t available to them,” Voelker explained. “Remote work can be huge to people with disabilities. Travelling can be one of the biggest annoyances… literally being able to work from home has been huge. When you have more people with disabilities on your team, you end up with a more inclusive product.”
Once you have the staff, inclusive design starts early
Having staff on hand with experience living with disabilities, or bringing in consultants with that same experience is how you make sure the portrayal is authentic. Eventually the actual game design becomes a factor, though. So where in the often years-long process of developing a game can those lived experiences affect change?
“It has to start from the very beginning, in the design documents themselves,” said Dorias. “The language that you use in the design documents is extremely important. If you’re gendering the player, as an example… it’s going to put the reader in a specific frame of mind and everything’s going to be built around it. If you come up and just say, whenever you see instances of someone either in a meeting or in a design doc use the pronoun ‘he’, ask them to change it into ‘they’. The idea is to eventually change the language of our design docs so they become more inclusive. As a result, without even putting in too much effort you’re going to see people are going to approach all the problems differently.”
Voelker agrees that starting early is the way forward, but notes that as an industry developers still start on the problem far too late.
“We’ve made our game and then we identify gaps, and then we add options to kind of put a band-aid on the situation,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong thinking about the impacts of accessibility on a paper prototype.”
Design can only start early if staff feel safe to chime in
Inclusive game design isn’t just something that goes in a single direction. A company has to be able to not just have a diverse staff, but an environment that staff feel safe speaking up in. Without that it can be difficult to benefit from those lived experiences.
“Not all of your efforts are going to be fruitful. Not all the things you try are gonna work,” said Dorias. “But in the long run you’re going to be able to do positive change. So keep at it.”