AXSChat Podcast

AXSChat Podcast with Ian Hamilton, Game accessibility specialist.

November 21, 2022 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Ian Hamilton
AXSChat Podcast with Ian Hamilton, Game accessibility specialist.
AXSChat Podcast
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AXSChat Podcast
AXSChat Podcast with Ian Hamilton, Game accessibility specialist.
Nov 21, 2022
Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken talk with Ian Hamilton

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Game accessibility specialist with a 16-year background in raising the bar for gamers with disabilities, though advocacy and awareness raising – writing, speaking, organising events, community building – and consulting, working with studios from the smallest indies to the largest AAAs, with publishers, platforms, industry and government bodies. Co-director of GAconf and coordinator of gameaccessibilityguidelines.com.

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https://twitter.com/AkwyZ
https://twitter.com/neilmilliken
https://twitter.com/debraruh

LinkedIn
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https://www.linkedin.com/company/axschat/

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Game accessibility specialist with a 16-year background in raising the bar for gamers with disabilities, though advocacy and awareness raising – writing, speaking, organising events, community building – and consulting, working with studios from the smallest indies to the largest AAAs, with publishers, platforms, industry and government bodies. Co-director of GAconf and coordinator of gameaccessibilityguidelines.com.

Support the Show.

Follow axschat on social media
Twitter:

https://twitter.com/axschat
https://twitter.com/AkwyZ
https://twitter.com/neilmilliken
https://twitter.com/debraruh

LinkedIn
https://www.linkedin.com/in/antoniovieirasantos/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/axschat/

Vimeo
https://vimeo.com/akwyz




This is a draft transcript produced live at the event and corrected for spelling and basic errors. and will need to be checked if you wish to publish it. AXSCHAT Ian Hamilton

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat. I'm really glad that we're able to welcome back Ian Hamilton. We were thinking that Ian is a regular here on Axschat and then we realised it's been six years. So, we are all a little bit more portly, our hair is greyer, our beards are stublier. Ian, it's great to have you back. I think that when we talked, first time around, there were good things happening in the gaming industry but the gaming industry really has gone from the birth of accessibility as a topic to it being something companies compete on now, within the space of a few short years and as a catalyst in that industry, we are delighted to have you back. So, tell us please a little bit for those that haven't been with us for the last six years, a bit about your background and work that you're doing with GA Coms etc.

IAN:

Yeah, so I'm an accessibility specialist in games specifically. I've got background in web design, NUX before that. I started kind of getting my indoctrination in accessibility whilst working at the BBC on their kits, games and websites across both. So, I was seeing how, in the web industry, there is very well-established standards and practices and disciplines and there really wasn't that in the game site. So, that is where I started getting interested in accessibility was then in the BBC and over my time there it kind of evolved to the point where I had part of my working week set aside and actually part of my responsibilities was accessibility and then along came a time when BBC moved across the other side of the country. I kind of moved with them so I had to look around for a new job. By that point, accessibility was the aspect of my role that I enjoyed the most and wanted to go and find somewhere elsewhere where I could continue doing the same thing and the number of roles out there was zero, literally zero. So, that was like a lightning bolt for me. I had assumed sitting this little bubble of one company that everyone else had got their stuff sorted out. But no, they hadn't. So, that was a big wake up call for me and that was what pushing it into advocacy and awareness raising and like writing and speaking and working on guidelines and all that kind of stuff and that situation has now changed quite fundamentally. This was a long time ago. This was back in about ten years ago. Even the last time I was on this show, six years ago in 2016, there were still no accessibility roles at all in gaming studies. There were two gaming accessibility roles at all in gaming studios. There were two gaming accessibility roles in existence, which was Evan and Thompson and Bryce Johnson at Xbox but that was working on the accessibility on the Xbox platform rather than games themselves. Fast forward from too six years ago to now, there is now 70 people in fulltime dedicated accessibility roles in gaming studios and publishers. There has been quite a phenomenal pace of change.

DEBRA:

Ian, welcome back to the programme. We always enjoy your work and so, I've a really hard question for you Ian, so, there is this thing that we are talking about brand new and very excited about it because it's just going to change everything and it's called the Metaverse, okay? So, I'm fascinated with what the gamers have done to our word technology wise because I hear people talking about this Metaverse and it's like okay, I hear you, but this is not a brand-new thing. This is something that's already been done it's just the gamers now are insisting that this be accessible for everyone not all gamers but certainly leaders like you, Ian. I was curious as your work as it has evolved. How does it tie into now what we're doing with the metaverse? Which isn't that all about gaming or do I misunderstand what the Internet three is all about?

IAN:

Well, it's not about gaming per se, it's about existing in and navigating in a virtual 3D environment which of course, has lots in common with games. So, there is a lot of good lessons that can be learned from the games industry especially when you've got companies that have five hundred or so really passionate skilled creator problem solvers throwing themselves at these kind of problems in games that have budgets so, hundreds of millions of dollars. That's a really valuable asset that not a lot of kind of tech start-ups have access to. So, it's nice that people are able to kind of move sideways and theoretically you can look sideways to another similar and cross pollination going on and it's been exactly the same with the games industry and other industries as well. Like game developers, if they just shift their heads slightly to the side and look at some other screen-based industries, there's all kind of wonderful lessons to be learned from things like captioning and audio description, all that kind of stuff that's applicable to games as well.

DEBRA:

I agree. And I think the opportunity, I keep saying when I'm talk about the Metaverse that they need to turn and look to the gamers because I think you know, if the whole world is I'm going to be a digital twin and all that and it's just very interesting to me but I think the work that you and leaders like you have done, to make sure games are accessible for everyone, I think it lends itself to what we are trying to do with the Metaverse. And I'm concerned that we are going to continue to make the same mistakes we've been making all along when we're dealing with technology and communications. And I was talking to somebody about that not long ago and had said you yourself are going to fall off that bell shaped curve that we are designing for. So, with the efforts that you've made, and others have made in gaming to make gaming accessible to anyone that wants to game, it seems like we need to take those design, you know ideas, processes and pick them up and put them into the Metaverse conversations. But do you see Ian that the two paths are crossing in a way because it seems like the people that are working on the Metaverse, they seem to be a lot of it is still happening in a vacuum. So, I was just wondering have you seen the industry move to getting the gamers more involved because I think that there is a lot of value in that?

IAN:

Honestly no, I don't pay much attention to what happens in the Metaverse.

DEBRA:

Okay.

IAN:

It's not of much industry to me.

DEBRA:

It's interesting because I would think you all would add a lot of value so, I am fascinated that you're saying, we're just going to stick, you know, I'm putting words in your mouth but is there an opportunity for us to bring those two conversations together more and will there be benefit to our community by doing that and maybe I'm asking that to everybody, you know? But that's what I've been thinking but I honestly, I'm not a gamer, my kids are.

IAN:

But Debra, you can even ask, do we really need the Metaverse? Will it be as brilliant as people want it to be or just have its own space in corner like many other technologies that wouldn't work. I think that could be more the case. I don't think it's going to be as predominant so, that's probably why some people might not have that interest as the VC is trying to push money and bringing investment to those organisations. Yeah, that's exactly where I'm coming from.

DEBRA:

Okay cool. Go ahead, Ian, I think I accidentally stepped on you, I'm sorry.

IAN:

That's fine. I'm just saying that's exactly the perspective that I come from, I don't think that it's this great new paradigm that's going to completely transform how we live and work, I think there are lots of people with a lot of money invest who want you to think that to get a return on their investment. And you mentioned Facebook changing its name to Meta, Facebook have haemorrhaged so much money from that. Yeah, I think, it will be exactly as Antonio is describing it, it will be some interesting side show that some people use from time to time. Remember when 3D TV was going to transform how we consume media, you know? That's where I'm coming from that I don't think it's this huge new paradigm that's going to change how we live our lives. But it's always the same, going back to what you said earlier, when some new technological innovation comes around, people are so excited by the emergent potential of this new paradigm that they completely forget everything they already knew, thinking this new thing is completely different and like nothing that has come before. Actually, they usually are just a slight tweak to what has gone on before so a lot of what you already knew is still applicable, but people seem to forget that in the race to the new shiny, you know?

NEIL:

I still have my 3D glasses that I bought with my 3D TV that I've used precisely twice. I watched the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and I watched Avatar, and I had a headache after both experiences, and they are being gathering dust in the cupboard ever since. I think there are specific use cases where the virtual reality rather than the Metaverse because it's constrained, it's like a mini verse will have utility, but the last thing I want to do is spend eight hours a day with a headset on. There is no joy in that. I think that you know, just to go to work and then the idea of having to walk in a virtual world between meetings and that whole, I have watched the number of times s where we have done things in the metaverse and there are all sorts of people around and they are all sort of bumping against walls and trying to navigate because actually they are sort of in their late middle age and they've forgotten how to use their WASD keys and you know, it's a long time since they actually did anything immersive, when you could just click on a link and turn into a Zoom call or a Team's meeting, which are perfectly serviceable. So, I think that Antonio, you're right, the case for it is really you know not necessarily there for the kind of investment that's going on and people are hyping it up because they really want to get their money back. We've seen in the last week that Meta have made something like 13,000 people redundant. Some of that based on the haemorrhaging of cash because they've been chasing after the Metaverse dream. Some of it because they over expanded because everyone was online during Covid and now people are quiet enjoying touching the flesh again and going to real events. So, what is different about gaming? Why is it that gaming is this huge, huge, huge industry, where people are still really engaged? What do you reel is the difference? Why do you enjoy working in gaming as opposed to being sceptical about the Metaverse? I know I've got my reasons, but it would be good to hear from you.

IAN:

Why I would choose to work in one to the other, I think it's just the difference it makes to people's lives. I mean, Metaverse is ostensibly about socialising. Gaming is about socialising as well but in a much more enjoyable context. So, the not just the socialising itself but the taking part in society that the huge footprints that gaming has in our culture and that has been a very, very long time since gaming overtook movies and all other screen medium. If you add together, all other screen media together you still don't get close to the value of the games industry. So, I think that even if people who have no involvement in gaming at all, if you relate to a block buster movie. If a new Star Wars movie came out and someone said to you, well actually you've got brown hair you're not allowed in that would be pretty rough right and that's what all your friends are doing, all your friends are talking about. It's plastered all over the billboards, plastered all over the TV, same kind of thing with that cultural footprint. That makes it a big deal to be excluded from. But the flip side of that, it's a big deal to be included in as well. It can be a powerful tool for social and cultural inclusion and participation in our society.

ANTONIO:

So, Ian I would like to have your opinion on the impact of the pandemic in the overall gaming industry. We know that in terms of development, we know that some brands opted not to releasing new products I'm talking about the consoles and other devices. What impact have you observed that has caused what you might say, caused a permanent change in the overall?

IAN:

What change has there been? Firstly, there is the immediate financial impact. Whereas a lot of industries suffer quite a lot due to COVID, in a similar way to what you were just saying about Facebook slash Meta, when people were on lockdown, they were playing games so the emergence of a lot of companies went up quite a bit. That's coming back down again now for various reasons but that was an immediate impact. Another one, the same with industries in general, was the shift to working from home and also, kind of related and I assume this is the same in other industries as well, was the impact that that had on user research. So, companies that were previously reluctant to use research outside of the lab were now having to. So, they were having to work out all their processes and methods and their like, how NDA has covered it as well for having a sensitive stuff showing outside of the environment. Just before COVID hit there was a game called Hyperdot which was an Indie game, they did some nice accessibility stuff, and they actually did their user research remotely which meant that they were then able to reach demographics that couldn't physically come into a lab. It also meant that they were able to have a much easier time of reaching niche demographics because they have got a global pool of participants, you know because that at the time was quite revolutionary, whereas now it's standard whereas there are benefits that Hyperdot was seeing, companies across the industry were able to realise those same benefits for accessibility as a research. So, that has been a biggie for me, the doors that it's actually opened to allow that greater engagement with the audience.

NEIL:

One of the things we talked way back when was the fact that games are meant to be difficult and that part of the challenge with accessibility translating into the gaming space was you couldn't just take the web content accessibility guidelines because each game is unique and each game has its own challenges and you mentioned at the time that there was a certain amount of push back within certain areas of gaming that people didn't want things like, you know easy mode and stuff like that. Do you think that, aside from the people that are making the games that the actual gaming community itself has really matured in its attitude to sort of accessibility settings and its understanding of the benefits of all of this stuff because from what I can see, there does seem to be a big shift in how people perceive these settings now, as less of a, oh, don't like that, it's detrimental. We should all be elite, to being something that's more celebrating the fact that everybody can choose how they wish to play.

IAN:

Well, we are certainly not there yet. There's still a huge amount of negative and toxic discourse around that topic. But it's all heading in the right direction. You don't have to go too many years into the past and you would see those kinds of comments about things like colour blindness, like comments like that about subtitles. So, for example, somebody saying, like somebody who is colour blind saying in the comments sections saying, I wish games would cater for colour blindness so I could play more games and getting replies from people saying, no, don't be ridiculous, don't be so selfish. Why should people destroy their creative vision and ruin all their designs just for you whereas now people have actually see that kind of stuff are they know that's not the case at all so, now, the discourse has actually shifted to, I'm totally in favour in colour blind modes but, it's shifting bit by bit. And now, that is the hot button topic is over difficulty, particularly the term easy mode, which is not very helpful language but it is usually framed in that way of like I'm totally in favour of accessibility, love these things, these things and these things, but I just don't think this particular thing is accessibility which is even though we have got work to do to get beyond that it's nice to have actually progressed to that point. But yeah, it's all kind of misunderstandings and misconceptions really about what developers actually want for their games. So, there's a kind of misconception amongst gamers that the actual game deliverable, the actual thing that you play equals the visions that developers have. That is not really how game development works as all. So, a designer will have an idea of what a player is going to experience then they put this framework in place, which is what the person place, which is hopefully going to engender the experience they wanted their players to have, so that actual game itself, is just the means to an end, is the experience the player has that developers actually have in mind and that's why people start thinking that like, because I'm playing this game, this game seems really hard, therefore the developer thought it was supposed to be really hard and should be excluding people, when actually the developer had this idea of like people should have a feeling of success through persistence and wants everybody to experience that, which is a very grateful kind of thing which actually lends itself to accessibility. Whereas that mindset of no, this game is a fix, doesn't.

NEIL:

Yeah. I mean, I think I quite like easy mode. For me, sometimes though, they are certain things I like to play that I tend to play when I'm tired but I just want to relax and then there are other times when I want to be fully engaged and tested and everything else and I think that choice of being able to choose being between the difficulty levels and the amount of things that I'm required to do, I'm meant to have is something that I really value.

IAN:

Yeah, I think that when Unchartered Four, came out. I think I heard someone on Play Station talking about it saying that, at the weekends when he has got like a whole afternoon to just sit there getting really into the challenge, he'll have all of the assist and stuff turned off but in the evening, when he's got home from a hard day's work, he's got half an hour to unwind, in between putting the kids to bed and having dinner or something like that, he walks on the assist and has like a chill time. So, it's a nice example of how designing for what you might perceive to be a niche demographic actually has wide reaching benefits not through disability but through people's difference in preferences as well.

ANTONIO:

Ian, you mentioned that there are a lot of people, accessibility experts working in gaming than ever before, have you seen any team or working in trying to find different ways of working, in terms of how they collaborate in order to, let's say becoming more agile on the operator or reaching outcomes faster, is there anybody out there that is somehow working differently to feel okay, these guys here are doing something really interesting that others should follow?

IAN:

Well, everyone still at quite early days certainly than if you go to Axicon and watch some of the talks there about companies who are many, many years into their accessibility journey. Most of the companies in the games industry who are doing good things and really only like, a few years, a few products into that journey, there's still a long way to go. So, people are still in the early stages of like figuring things out, how things work, and people do have quite different approaches to each other. But I suspect that as time goes on those will come closer together and especially because the accessibility community is really good at sharing and collaborating as well. And it is the same in other industries as well, it seems to be a topic where people are willing to step across the traditional divides even when the Last Universe 2 came out, which is a PlayStation exclusive. So, again, that's only available on PlayStation, as a way to sell PlayStation consoles. Phil Spencer who is the head of Xbox, PlayStation’s main competitor was on Twitter praising the Last Universe 2 and congratulating the team on their successes. For the boss of PlayStation to be publicly praising an exclusive PlayStation game, which was quite a big deal. It's not something that happens very often and it was accessibility that did it, you know and there was a really nice quote actually at a conference, a few years ago, a developer called John Noels who works on the Forza games, which are racing games and he said, it's like there is a race between developers to build the most accessible game and I know a thing or two about racing and this is a race that everybody wins and I love that quote and it's so true just even when people are not directly sharing, collaborating, people are still looking around and learning from it. And I guess it's that saying about, rising tides raises all boats, you know. But people do really, really explicitly like share and collaborate. And there was a team I was working with quite recently. They were working on some stuff around captioning. I said Well, there are these other people over here doing interesting stuff, why don't you get in touch with them, and these other people said, oh yeah, of course, here's all our documentation everything, pass it over and then they'll have meetings with us to chat through then, you know. It's not something that happens as often outside of accessibility which is really nice to see. It's really nice to see that it does happen with accessibility not it's nice to see that it doesn't happen elsewhere.

DEBRA:

Ian, I know that there was a lot of marketing done around the accessible controllers and I was just wondering because I've had people approach me and say, oh, well I've a better idea for an accessible control, a controller that would be accessible to everybody and every situation, I was just curious from your perspective if, how did making sure that the hardware parts of the games are also accessible, is that also shifting these conversations and driving innovation in the industries?

IAN:

Yeah. I like that you mentioned the marketing of it as well because that was a really stupendous thing. The fact that not only Microsoft were stepping up and investing in hardware, but you also can’t get really get more put your money where your mouth is than building hardware, you know. The way it was marketed, they not only booked a spot at the Superbowl but a double length spot, which is millions and millions of dollars, when that happens, seeing any company, let alone Microsoft, spending millions of dollars to advertise and educate about a switch interface that just blew my mind and the reception it had as well. Like mainstream news articles saying Xbox won the super bowl and stuff like that, just reams and reams of comments on social media, and even YouTube comments sections, I can never read the comments sections just nothing about positivity about it and this would have been a lot of people's first after encounter with accessibility at all. So, it was a really, really positive one. I think that helped to further the conversation across all industries, it was really lovely to see. But the US Surgeon General was Tweeting about it. TPain was Tweeting about it, Cher was Tweeting about it. It raised a lot of awareness and did a lot of good just the marketing side of it. But just something else I really liked about it was the packaging design, I don't know if you see much about that, but I love that. I think that's one of the actually most important things about the device as well because the learnings from that are applicable to anyone who is shifting physical products across.

DEBRA:

Ian, I haven't seen it, so do you mind describing just what you know the packaging looked like a little bit.

IAN:

Yeah. So, it's best to look it up because it makes a lot more sense to see at the photos and videos.

DEBAR:

All right.

IAN:

But all the packaging is designed to be accessible so there's nothing that needs cutting, nothing that needs tearing, just big loops that you can operate one handed if you just pull it, one big loop that you can operate with a finger or anything and the whole thing just all folds out. It's really, really lovely. But that way that the potential that has to influence other industries is something that is applied to in other ways as well. So, the fact that it raised all this awareness and profile about this kind of technology brought others on board. So Logitech, which is a manufacturer of well PC peripherals in general but predominantly gaming peripherals, they decided that they were going to jump in and build a bunch of accessibility switches. So, not like the typical kind of semi home breed kind of efforts that are not particularly reliable and cost a lot of money because it's small production runs. This is someone at a company which already operates factories building this kind much stuff. So, they were able to put out this suite of accessibility switches for a tiny fraction of the cost they would normally do. So, the kind of thing that would cost $1,500 dollars a suite of all different types of switches, you get packages of those for like ten schools and stuff. But the cost of this was I can't remember how much it cost, but it was something like a hundred dollars for a wide range of all different switches and stuff. You'd be lucky to get two switches of the most basic type for that normally. And because the adaptor controller is a switch interface, it was intentionally built on existing industry standards. All those switches at Logitech are built that they were thinking that it's intended for gaming that's applicable for anything that uses switches whether you're operating your iPhone, whether you're operating a tablet or attached to a wheelchair in your school. It's really nice to see the impact that's had on provider industries in general.

NEIL:

So, I think it's really interesting, a long long time, I was working in building assistive technologies on mobile phones and we were looking at buying in text to speech voices and we were given pricing and the pricing that we were given versus the pricing that the gaming industry could buy the same components for, even in sort of 2008 was you know, phenomenally different. We were being charged five or six dollars per instance of using the voice and it would be 30, 40 cents for the gaming industry. So, that just shows you know, a, that the technology industry understands scale and wants to sell to scale but also, sometimes by saying that we are assistive tech, constraining ourselves to that niche, we are actually making stuff less affordable, less financially accessible. So, when organisations like Logitech bring their scale and muscle to doing this stuff everybody benefits, as you say.

IAN:

Yeah, and just the expertise as well not just how to build products but how to handle the economics of it. So, that's why it is available as a set rather than buying them individually because that means they only have one set of packaging costs and distribution costs for a suite rather than per item. So, that allowed them to push the price of it down quite a lot. It's that kind of savvy from working in that field for a long time that I think has really helped. I just looked it up. So, yeah, they were the cheapest bargain basement switches you can normally get and $40, $50 for one and then they go up in price quickly up from there. This cost hundred dollars, ten switches of different sizes, sensitivities, two analogue triggers and also like Velcro mounting in stickers for them as well.

DEBRA:

Wow.

IAN:

That turns things on its head quite a bit, you know?

NEIL:

Yeah, definitely, economy to scale. So, thank you Ian. It's been fascinating. We've reached the end of our half hour. I'm sure we could actually go on for a lot longer. I'd like to thank My Clear Text for keeping us captioned and really look forward to having a lively discussion on Twitter and maybe one about Twitter as well. So, thank you again, Ian.

IAN:

Thank you.