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It is obvious that “inclusive game design” is a general goal for the industry. Ask anyone who makes games, and you can get wildly different answers on how to do this. That’s exactly what Renee Gittins of the International Game Developers Association did during a panel discussion on how to reach gamers through inclusive game design.
The first thing to do in a discussion like this is to define the terms. Inclusiveness for a person might be having a game that features something beyond the standard Caucasian male hero archetype. Or it could be setting up a game in a place authentic to the culture and people who live there. It could even be as simple as including simplified controls or color blind modes to allow gamers with disabilities to have fun.
What is Inclusive Game Design
Osama Dorias from WB Games Montreal has a broad view of what inclusive game design means.
“For me, it’s a game that has strived to be inclusive,” Dorias said. “It’s a game that stood out and included something that shows they were trying to reach a wider audience.”
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Microsoft’s Tara Voelker has a more targeted approach. Voelker is the chief accessibility officer for Xbox Game Studios, 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 don’t include them, they can’t play it. It’s pretty cut and dry.
Netflix’s Laura Teclemariam has a different take on the phrase.
“I think consumers are pretty savvy. Especially the players,” she said. “When they’re playing a level, or they’re using a character positioned in a certain theme, or from a certain country, or from a certain background, they can tell whether it’s authentic or not.”
Inclusive game design starts with inclusive game designers
Authenticity is hard to fake. The easiest way to do this is to have a diverse staff available to offer feedback and suggestions that might otherwise never come up.
“When we were developing a lot of characters, our original roster of characters tended to be more male,” said Teclemariam, working on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. “I happened to be one of the few women on the development team. One of the things I pointed out was that I would love to have an all-female team…if I wasn’t part of the team to represent the female point of view, maybe that perspective would have taken longer to be integrated into the game.”
“There’s a strong business case for including characters from diverse backgrounds,” Dorias said. “The tricky part is not making it look like you’re just putting in a token; a skin tone palette swap, or a voice actor has been hired but everything looks the same… it has to be early. If you don’t bring the person [from a diverse background] from the start, you control the damage. Often, decisions are irreversible due to production or financial problems.
Having this diverse workforce at your fingertips is increasingly becoming the norm. While companies have been slowly diversifying their workforce for several years, the realities of the ongoing pandemic have accelerated hiring practices.
“For a long time, people with disabilities were excluded from the game development workforce because this idea of remote work wasn’t accessible to them,” Voelker explained. “Remote work can be huge for people with disabilities. Traveling 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 with experience of living with a disability on site or bringing in consultants with the same experience is how you ensure the representation is authentic. Eventually, the very design of the game becomes a factor. So where in the process of developing a game, which often lasts years, can these lived experiences influence change?
“It has to start from the very beginning, in the design documents themselves,” Dorias said. “The language you use in design documents is extremely important. If you define the gender of the player, for example… it’s going to put the player in a specific mindset and everything is going to be built around that. If you come in and just say, whenever you see examples of someone in a meeting or in a design document using the pronoun “he”, ask them to change it to “they”. The idea is to eventually change the language of our design documents so that they become more inclusive. As a result, without even trying too hard, you will find that people will approach all problems differently.
Voelker agrees that starting early is the way to go, but notes that as developers in the industry, they always start solving the problem much too late.
“We’ve created our game, then we identify the gaps, then we add options to kind of put a band-aid on the situation,” she said. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about accessibility impacts on a paper prototype.”
Design can only start early if staff feel safe to intervene
Inclusive game design isn’t just a one-way thing. A company must be able to not only have a diverse workforce, but also an environment in which staff feel safe to express themselves. Without it, it can be difficult to benefit from these lived experiences.
“All your efforts will not be successful. All the things you try won’t work,” Dorias said. “But in the long run, you will be able to make positive changes. So keep it up.
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