AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Tara Voelker, Xbox Game Studios Accessibility Lead.

July 02, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken
AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Tara Voelker, Xbox Game Studios Accessibility Lead.
Show Notes Transcript

 Tara is currently the Xbox Game Studios Accessibility Lead. In this role, she conceptualizes strategic programs and spearheads development initiatives to establish and promote a superior yet accessible gaming experience across all Xbox Game Studios titles. She is also the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Game Accessibility Conference (#GaConf), a two day conference fully dedicated to accessibility in game development. She also has a passion for horror media and would love to see more accessible horror games in the market. 

>> Hello everyone. Welcome to axschat. Today we have a guest that's returning for a second time and we're so excited about this conversation. So. And Neil's going to magically appear in the window at some point. That's what he said. So I do hope it's magical when he appears. Antonio, don't you? So. But Tara, welcome back to the program. Remind everybody who you are and how you got in this field. And obviously you did something right in your past lives because you have a dream job. >> I. Wow. I really do have a dream job. It's great. So. Hello, everyone. In case you don't remember me, I think my hair was pink or orange or something, so, you know, I'm hard to keep track of, but. So I work in video games, which is why I have the best job in the world. So I'm currently the accessibility lead for Xbox Game Studios. So I work with all of our our our studios and their games to help make games more accessible for people with disabilities. And it's a bit of everything. It's some consulting, it's educational programs, it's working with user research, an amazing test team. And when I'm not doing that in my copious free time, I'm the co-director of the Game Accessibility Conference, a conference that happens twice a year, once in London, once somewhere in the US, you know, working to educate developers. This is literally all I do all the time is talk about video games and how to help people with disabilities be able to play them. So. >> Are you a gamer? I just I'm going to assume that. >> But I want to ask. I am I'm I'm a huge gamer. And I've I've always been a big gamer since I was very, very young. Both my mom and my dad also played video games. And we we were a gamer family. So I always played them. And, you know, one of the reasons I'm so into accessibility in video games is actually when I was when I was young, I was ten or 11. I was actually I was hit by a car while I was walking home from school one day. And it obviously I had some pretty severe injuries, including like a broken hip. And so I couldn't, you know, go outside and play with my friends like I had been doing previously. But what I could do is still play video games with my friends. And so video gaming was a huge part of my recovery. But like, what ended up sticking with me was like I had like broken my arm and all this other stuff. So I had to hold the controller, like, because my arm was like in this L-shaped cast, I had to like hold it awkwardly near my armpit, but I could still play. But like remembering how weird it was to try to hold the controller, like as an adult. When I later started learning more about accessibility, like it clicked from that childhood memory and I'm like, Oh my gosh. Like, I get this. But also I know how important literally gaming was to me in that moment. Like, I don't know, we should, we should work on this. We can do better. And now it's just literally all I do. >> Well, I remember whenever my son is 33, just to give everybody some context and we used to make fun of him and his friends and we'd say, is not as if you're going to be able to grow up and, you know, be a video gamer. See, you've got to do stuff in there and there's not any job. Yeah. So obviously we were wrong. And Tara, before we got on, I mentioned someone that I interviewed who was an amazing designer and one of the designers of Xbox. His name is August de Los Rayes, and I don't know if you know him, but he's amazing designer and if you don't know, connect your with him because he actually was working with Xbox and he was the designer. I don't know exactly what that means when somebody says that, but it sounds cool to me. But he became a quadriplegic during it and as it happened, you know, he went to Xbox and they're like, well, we think that probably even makes you a better designer. And I agree with that. So they were very, very flexible with him and that really impressed me as a company. Do you have you found that as well? >> I have. So I'm actually the the outgoing lead of an employee resource group at. Oh, he did magically appear. >> He did what. >> You said it would happen and then it did. So I'm actually the outgoing lead of an employee resource group called Gaming and Disability. We have a whole series of urges for underrepresented groups in gaming specifically. And one of the reasons that I had been lead of this ERG is really, you know, Xbox in to the larger extent. Microsoft like really makes it easy to just be a disabled person and come forward with that version of yourself and all of the good and bad that comes. So with that and, you know, allowing people to bring their unique perspectives and everything they learn to put into the product and and make it better. And it was honestly the programs like that that made me come to Microsoft in the first place. It was one of the places that I was just like, not to sound like some kind of Microsoft shill right now, but like it was, it was, you know, the stuff like the these urges and the gaming for everyone programs specifically that I was just like, I feel like I could make a difference and help make the gaming industry better if I were over there. Like, I need to get in and help. >> I agree. I agree. You want to be an influence in there. And I just want to also not brag about Microsoft, but the reality. If Microsoft had not made accessibility a commitment as early as 3.1, there was accessibility features in there. My company, Tech Access, couldn't have existed where 90% of the technologists that worked for me had severe disabilities. So sorry. I'm also a big fan of Microsoft. I am. I appreciate all the stuff that they've done. And I love some people at Microsoft, too. So including you, Tara, there's some really amazing people. Yeah, there's some of me I just interviewed David Dom. Oh, he's. >> Fantastic. >> Oh, my God. >> How did you not know? Not to, like, stand girl over him or anything and girl. >> Terrible. >> There was. So as part of the the urges that I mentioned, we were having a panel for a part of Xbox that I was moderating and he was on the panel. And just as he was talking, I was just like, he's so smart. He Michael Smart. I was just like, why? Why am I even here? Like, I shouldn't be moderating. >> You should know we need you. And he's coming on next just yet. Yeah, but he said something on my interview with him, and I'd love to interview on human potential too. But he he ask the hundreds of employees that work for him what it was like to work for a disabled manager. And I was like, Oh, I love that question. I love that he would ask that question. So I'm so impressed with him. But anyway, I'll stop. Neil, thank you for magically joining us. I don't know if you or Antonio would like to step in this girl's conversation. Oh, yeah. >> I was enjoying being a spectator sideshow. So, Tara, thank you for joining us. And apologies for me being late to my own party. It's pleasure to have you back. I think your hair color is almost, almost back to the color it was when we first instituted. We within all that time. >> I was. >> Like. >> Okay, I know. >> We were thinking it was orange, though. >> Yeah. >> I know it was blue, but a little bit darker. >> Okay. What I had appointment was it. >> Yeah. >> No, I just. I just forgot that the previous one for this because I really want because we know that we, we started this adventure of access chat and a few a few years ago and many things have changed in the way we talk about accessibility all became normalized, a more common word in the tech industry. And that is what is taking me to ask about what from the last time that we talk, what type of changes have you noticed now, particularly on the game in the gaming industry? Because I know that you, Ian and others have been evangelizing this for so long and I wonder what are the outcomes that you've seen? >> It's been a huge shift in the industry since last time I was on. So like one notable difference is I wasn't actually working full time accessibility. The last time I was on in gaming, there weren't accessibility jobs, so you could either do what Ian is still doing, which is independent consulting with different companies. I find that way too stressful. I cannot handle not 100% knowing like when my next paycheck is coming in or how much it is. So like props to Ian for being able to handle that lifestyle or so again, either consulting or getting a job at a studio, which is what I was doing at the time, and using your position within the studio to influence accessibility. So at that time I was a producer at a video game studio and a producer helps organize all the scheduling and all of that stuff. So when building out of schedule, I could ensure there was time baked in to do accessibility work. And that was, you know, on the side. Ian and I had started running the Game Accessibility Conference. It was still very much in its infancy, even though like Ian and I had been doing it, advocating for gaming accessibility since the dawn of time, I believe there hadn't been a lot of shifts. We were just starting to see some cool things happen versus now I have a team like there. There's a team of people working full time on accessibility in gaming, which, you know, that literally did not exist a few years ago. And you see those impacts happening in the industry of we've had games come out since then like the Last of US part two, which is fully playable by people with no vision by blind folk. And that is something that, you know, if you had asked me, you know, last time I was on like, Oh, terror, will there ever be a triple-A game released that is 100% playable without sighted assistance? I would have been like, Yeah, I don't know. Like I would, I, I would have wanted it to happen, but I also probably would have just doubted that people would ever put just like the time to literally learned about blind gamers to make that. And we have those now and it's been really great because there's every essentially every year now like the bar is being raised on, like what players will accept, what they expect even as a standard of accessibility in video games. And you know, for me it's really fun because like Ubisoft is a publisher that has had, you know, accessibility that they've been putting in their products and openly talking about for a long time. And so I, I love that. Basically, I feel like my team and David historians team over at Ubisoft were in this kind of like war of like arms race of one upping each other to try to figure out what we can do to be the most accessible publisher. I like that. The fact that I even got to see that sentence, that there are people competing to be the most accessible game company, is not something that would have happened last time it was on here that did not exist. It wasn't a thing. >> It's been a wonderful to watch, actually, the the speed at which accessibility is just caught on in the gaming industry. And we're an Italian and I work in, you know, more traditional tech. And whilst, you know, it has, you know, been there a long time, the speed of adoption within gaming has been just phenomenal. You know, we've watched it go from 0 to 100 mile an hour within the space of about four or five years. And that's credit to you. And in and, you know, the pioneers and the and the community spirit that you've engendered. So, you know, fabulous. And it's why I wanted to invite you back here because I think it's gaming is one of the biggest success stories for accessibility that we have. And that and, you know, all of our sort of connected home devices, you know, is that these are the areas where accessibility is suddenly become something that's embedded in the stuff that everybody does. So congratulations. And it's great that actually you're talking about that competition. So what are the things that the sort of bleeding edge that you're competing on? >> Honestly, the the biggest thing is that. We've gotten some basics down that, you know, everyone's products are sort of hitting now. Like even last time I came on well, even I want to say last time it came on, but it's actually still a problem. Like, subtitles and games, like, are still really bad. Text size is still really bad, but those are things that like we have a consistency coming out of the stuff coming out of Xbox Game Studios and you know, Ubisoft is also definitely doing it, having this consistency. And so now we're trying to like one up different types of features for different communities. So like I was really excited because earlier this year, Forza Horizon five, which is an amazing racing game, I'm obviously biased. We launched a patch that took all of the cinematics in game and added either ASL or BSL picture and picture options that you could use. And you know, that was something that we were having conversations with literally gamers with disability. We actually have a workshop that is we bring in different gamers with disabilities and just let them tell their stories to the developers so they can understand because who knows their life better than literally the person living it. And and one of the things that that got talked about was how reading subtitles could be exhausting for a deaf person, especially if their first language is a sign language and not English. And, you know, the developer had or the dev team had a French developer living in England and he was just like, Oh my God, it is exhausting existing in your second language all the time. And he was just like that. That thing was something so similar and connected even though, you know, one, the first language was different, but it meant the same thing. And he was like, I'd be so upset, like if I couldn't turn a game to French and I had to do it in English, like, yes, I speak English, but like it's not my first language. And that story kind of was just like, how hard would it be to add sign language into a video game? And so like now we have sign language in the game, and I was really excited about that. But then Ubisoft is over here launching games like Immortals Fenyx Rising that has amazing cognitive accessibility in these kind of puzzles and assists and like, we don't have anything like that yet, so it's just like, Oh, okay, well, we did a great thing for this community. Oh, but look at what they did. Okay, now we've got to go do something else. You know, that's kind of how this arms race keeps going. But we keep learning and stealing from each other, not. >> Having it for our community. >> So this brings me back to one of the things that Ian was talking about all that time back was that sometimes you have to design in things that are difficult because that's part of the game. And I think we've also had interviews with people that are doing e-learning and online learning design. And I think that that probably some of the stuff that you're doing in gaming could really benefit the e-learning community, because I don't think that there's been anywhere near the sort of pace of adoption and enthusiasm for accessibility in that community. There has been gaming. And to be frank. It's certainly not as interesting or engaging. And we could do with some of the energy from gaming, which is essentially learning. Every time you play a game, you learn stuff and you figure out how to do things. To to change the pedagogy of how we get people to adapt and adopt new skills within organizations. So the fact that you've been doing this accessibly and you're embedding ways of accessing stuff and innovating on it, I think could be really beneficial to all kinds of organizations where that people don't see themselves as gamers there or that it's you or we're corporate. We, you know, I can't admit to playing games. I mean, it's quite interesting to see actually how many people are casual gamers as well. So I mean, I'm I'm not a big console gamer. I did find I moved house recently. I did find my peers, too, in the north of. >> Look, the PS2 is a classic console. There are amazing games on Libya's to. >> Still go granturismo you know. But, but, but I do think that, you know, the casual gaming and gamification of learning has real benefits for organizations that we could do more with that to help people that, you know, learn and adapt and adopt new skills. Because there's this sort of inertia within organizations. When we say, why aren't organizations digitally transforming, we've got all of this stuff is partly it's inertia, it's fear is lack of engagement. And then how do we make that accessible? What we can also learn from the gaming community on that. So how can we get the two communities to to talk to each other? >> It's been really interesting having worked both sides of like I did some website and app accessibility briefly before kind of hopping back into video games and. It's been it's just been fascinating in that there's a different problem set and different technologies and a lot of more traditional accessibility, like hasn't necessarily understood that. A lot of things we do have to be bespoke. Like, for example, when you make a video game, you have to really work to get a screen reader to work. For example, you make a website and you you may accidentally have a website that works with the screen reader if you just did your HTML right. Like gaming doesn't get any of those easy wins. And it means that we have to work in a different way towards accessibility to get it in. Like everything has to be intentional and that should be true in other forms of tech. But I think the biggest thing that we need to talk about and interact with more is basically because our text is so different, we operate different, but I think you're seeing the end results of that. But it also means that we don't overlap a ton, like we don't go to the same conferences, we don't, you know, learn to read. I don't think we don't read the same articles. That's not true because there is a lot of cross learning for us, but the places that we go to learn are always where other accessibility people are. Like a lot of times you like, I'll go to the Game Developers Conference where they're debuting new stuff about Unreal Engine, and I'm not really going to run into people from other areas of accessibility who are in gaming. And so I think we have to find those moments where things definitely apply to both of us. Like I absolutely love listening to basically anything about Champs programs because like I run a Champs program and like that is something that exists in both worlds. But you know, unless people are kind of advertising specifically that, hey, this is like technology agnostic, like a lot of times game accessibility, people aren't going to show up because we're like, Oh, they're going to talk about this thing and we can't even use that. And then it just makes us sad. >> Yeah, I get that when we do have a chance program too, it's great that organizations are adopting them. But I think that when we look at sort of micro learnings and immersive tech, you know, there are areas where in what seems like Greendale Corporate World, we're doing quite a lot of stuff using similar engines, similar kind of technologies to do slightly different things and we could learn from you. So for example, we do a lot with digital twins looking at how we can create these virtual environments, the digital copies of real things, so that people are solving problems for in power plants or, you know, all sorts of complex environments. And we should be able to learn from you how to make them accessible. So, you know, people are doing sort of virtual conferences and you see there are all of these sort of virtual conference platforms with this sort of slightly crummy avatars where everyone walks out and is doing all of this. And I'm thinking, you know, gaming has this sorted already, you know, so. So how do we sort of bring the people from gaming not. >> To let let me interrupt them, because I think Tara already gave us some ideas on that because they have run specials and they buy them. And I believe other industries even than that. Right. So I think that that's probably a way to start, you know, and and that's that's where my question was going is now why why they felt that they needed to engage with the community with disabilities and what methodologies that they use to make sure that they were able to capture the best information to make it useful for the people developing the games for. >> So for us, you know, the mantra of the community has always been nothing about us without us. So the easiest thing to do to, you know, make sure you're solving the needs for disabled people is be like, what are your problems? And then work on it and bring it back and be like, did this solve the problem? You know, there have been so many times that like very well intentioned people without disabilities make something. And it's just like that is not at all what I needed or like that actually doesn't solve the problem at all. And a really great example actually we had this happened to one of our products and so Forza Horizon four as they were working on it for a demo that they were putting out at a big conference called E3, they made a one handed version of the control scheme that could be used, and they were really excited to have this one handed control scheme. And there are some people who only can use one hand who are able to use it. But when we had people with disabilities come in, one of the gamers we had is someone who can only play with one hand, and they were like, Oh, well, you should be good. We've got the one handed control scheme. And he was actually like, Actually, no, based on how because of the functionality I have in my hand, like I actually can't do that. And also here's why. I think if I couldn't hold that, like I think that would be terrible. And it was just like this moment of just like. Oh, you guys, did we actually ask anyone like this. >> If. >> This addressed the issue? Exactly. And so, you know, after literally just being able to talk to a gamer who plays with one hand, they were able to be like, oh, you know what? Rather than us make a crazy preset control scheme, like, why don't we just have customizable controls that you can remap things however you want and you know that solved it. And there's just so many times that our devs don't. I mean, they don't know what they don't know. Right. And when you bring in, you know, different gamers with disabilities and you get to hear, I mean, the good, bad, the ugly, you know, they'll come in and oh my God, like gamers are so persistent. Like they are amazingly persistent. And if they want to play a game, they will find a way to play that game. And they will have like, oh, here is the eight step process that I use with this remapping software in a virtual keyboard, and then this thing and then this thing and this thing. And when I do all of that, then I can play this game and like the devs will just sit there being like, wow, they really wanted to play the game. Also, what if I had to do that to play a game? I wouldn't play games. That's exhausting. But normally though, here's something they'll be like. You guys realize if we just put this thing in game, like you can knock that seven steps down to one, right? Like, maybe we should just put that in the game. And, you know, it solves so many, so many problems. And, you know, it spurs innovation as well when they get to talk to gamers with disabilities and hear what they want. I mean, there have been amazing features that have been added and the massive benefit is, you know, gaming is growing. And as we continue to grow, like. We will reach into new markets, places that, you know, traditionally maybe they weren't hardcore gamers. And if you didn't grow up being a hardcore gamer and you go to jump into some of these games, like you'll get wrecked. So like, you know, having some of these options that were initially thought of, you know, for gamers with disabilities are also incredibly useful for people who are newer and coming in and don't have that lifelong gaming experience that others have had. >> Or people on a Friday night that have had a couple of drinks and still want to play a driving game. >> And I love that you listen to your audience because we still are not really doing that. And so I love that the gamers are protecting the gamers. I just really appreciate that. There's stupid stuff I see. Like it. One thing I personally hate as an older person is when I'm watching a movie and they're texting the characters or texting with each other and they're showing you these little tiny fonts that I can't see and it irritates me. It's like, Why are you doing that? I don't want to look at your little tiny script, so I just really like that you're listening to the users and you have a lot of people with disabilities that are users. Like you said, look at the motivation they take to figure out how to play those games. So I just I think we all can learn so much from what you're doing. Tara and I appreciate you and Ian's work because you're including people. We should all be included. So that's your works. Very powerful. Thank you. Speak for you to hear issue. >> Oh, no, no, we're good at that. But but I do I do genuinely think that that kind of community spirit is really strong, you know, and I find the point you made about casual gaming, I think is really hot the whole point because I. I don't think people really appreciate quite how big casual gaming would become. And sometimes it doesn't actually become that casual as well, because I as I said, I hadn't had a console out for ages. It didn't mean I don't play games. I just happened to be, you know, addicted to playing the games on my phone because they could be played at a point in time when I had had the bandwidth to do it. And that wasn't usually when I was sat in front of the TV. So but. They need to find features and find ways to sort of wrap them in. So maybe that's the new frontier. And it also, let's face it, a lot of the people that were playing the kind of games that I was playing, I'm not the youngest. And as a consequence, they're likely to need those larger fonts and maybe have a few mobility issues that they're a bit shaky and all the rest of it. So. So maybe that's another frontier for for for gaming is this how do we how do we take what has been beautifully done in the sort of console gaming and PC gaming world and look to start to emulate that for some of us all get to play games on laptop. >> You know, it's definitely it's an area that like I personally am getting more involved in ramping up in. There are people who know more about mobile gaming than I do, and it's been. Hi, Deborah. She magically disappear. >> From the same room for too long. >> It's. There are things that we have to work on and learn because there are unique challenges from, you know, the touch screen and how to use that to, you know, making sure, like legibility is a huge thing. I mean, between literally like half the time my phone is so covered in smears of like whatever I've been eating that day anyway. Like, you know, it's so both like literally situational accessibility is big before you even start adding in people's disabilities on top of it. And frankly, I'm terrified because I'm just like, Oh my God, there's so many things I can see here that could be inaccessible. It makes me anxious. >> Yeah. Oh, no, for sure. And there was, you know, a few occasions where I've been sort of the player advocates and especially fonts, especially fonts and tiny screens late at night when you're tired anyway and everything's been a little so. So I think that yeah, it will be interesting. And then the other area where I think things converge also is it's sort of all in the sort of immersive and augmented reality stuff that is super interesting. I don't know whether you've come across Cognition and Andrew's force then, but they're they've got in is a VR headset with it with a brain control interface. So it's like what they call assisted reality. And I just think that, you know, if you haven't met already, we should introduce you because that is an area where essentially if you're looking at all of these immersive games in virtual reality, that's this huge opportunity to go to that next level by using sort of thought waves and everything else. >> I haven't done a lot of VR because I get really motion sick. >> Me too. >> It's it's it's a huge struggle. And so like, I know some things like I have played VR, but I normally don't and you know, I know some basics about like what to do in VR accessibility. Honestly, there are there have already been a few great talks, but it's a space that I'm like, let's not be, let's do we have to do VR like as an industry? Can we like? Maybe not because I don't want to puke. >> Yeah. If I don't play first person shooters because I just end up spinning around and getting vertigo. So yeah, I will think. But I think they're going to go that because it's new technology, we're going to use it. So and I think the brain computer interface stuff is, is actually super interesting. I'm particularly interested in doing that in a noninvasive way. Thank you. No, thank you. Elon Musk are not going to give up in Europe. Can you imagine letting Elon Musk. Go ahead. >> No, I have absolutely no interest in that. Not at all. >> No, no, no. Yeah. Okay. So thank you. Anyway, on that note, let's end it on a high or low note, depending on what we think about it. It's been a pleasure having you back and really look forward to joining us on Twitter too. For for the Twitter chat, need to thank my critics for keeping us captioned and accessible and thank you again. It's been a real pleasure. >> Now, thank you so much for having me back. I was really excited to be able to be like, Look, here is all the good news since last time I was here. It was so fun. >> It's been brilliant. Thank you. Thank.