Most Influential Projects 2021

32 Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing

Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Service Image 1

For leveling up on inclusion in video games

Video games are meant to be challenging—but they also need to be accessible. There are nearly 46 million gamers with disabilities in the United States alone, and those kinds of numbers are driving Microsoft to develop a better experience for both players and developers around the world.

After the company worked with members of the gaming and disability community in 2019 to create the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs) for its own platform, the company received requests from game studios for additional context, clarity and guidelines.

"The team realized that it could take further steps to ensure that developers have a way to find out whether or not their games were actually reaching the level of accessibility they targeted," said Brannon Zahand, senior gaming accessibility program manager at Microsoft.

So the tech giant began working on a first-of-its-kind testing service that has subject matter experts and gamers with disabilities vet the games against revised XAGs, including good practices for text displays, visual cues and haptic feedback. That feedback is then provided to game makers.

"Designing for the billions of people on this planet starts with designing for just one and extending to many, and … accessibility should be considered from the very start of product design," said Xbox accessibility director Anita Mortaloni.

The testing service solves two major problems for developers. Those without experience in tailoring their games to players with disabilities will now have more help to create more inclusive designs. And the service also helps game makers keep their projects on track. By being able to solicit feedback in the middle of the development process, they can flag accessibility issues earlier, which keeps schedules and budgets on target. Microsoft’s goal is to provide feedback to developers—of both PC games and those designed for the Xbox platform—within seven business days of submission.

"Whether a developer is just starting to dip their toes into game accessibility or if they are already far along in their inclusive design journey, this program has something to offer," Zahand said.

The debut of the new service in February was an immediate hit for developers. Within one month of launch, the team had tested five titles and logged 177 concerns. Players are reaping benefits, too, with bone-deep accessibility built into user interface navigation, difficulty settings and communications experiences.

The service is part of a larger focus Microsoft has placed on breaking down barriers for players. In 2019, it introduced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which features two oversized buttons designed to be easier to strike with fingers or any appendage. And in May, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox Accessibility Insider League, which lets players with disabilities share feedback on games that pose accessibility challenges.

"Empowering gamers with disabilities to play where they want and with the people they want, is something we are passionate about," said Mortaloni. "It’s about listening and meeting the needs of all of our players."