A round-up of the talks from GAconf USA 2023

GAconf returned to the US this week with a series of accessibility talks hosted at the Archer Hotel in Redmond, Washington. Virtual attendance was available through Zoom and YouTube. Talks ranged from those on personal experiences of disability and accessibility to more pointed talks about the process of bringing accessibility to specific games and series. All of this was emceed by GAconf co-director, Tara Voelker.

This edition of GAconf is notable for featuring two talks on blind-accessible triple-A games, which would have been impossible only a short while ago. It’s something co-director Ian Hamilton is especially proud of, since the content of GAconf, he says, “is a reflection of the industry. So, it is wonderful to finally see the tide turning in this area.”

With COVID-19 surging and protections against it so lax, GAconf still employs precautions despite no requirement to do so at a national or local level. “All attendees [were] required to show both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test result taken in the morning before attending,” Hamilton told me. Room capacity was capped to 50 percent, and socialising areas were outdoors and ventilated, though masks at this edition were only a “recommendation.” That said, GAconf still represents one of the few events protecting its attendees as COVID cases climb.
“It’s still critically important for us,” Hamilton says. “Particularly as the nature of the event means that we have attendees who are at higher risk.”

Day one kicked off, as always, with a news update from Hamilton, in which he took us through the progress and new interventions around accessible hardware, resources, and the people we’ve welcomed into the accessibility industry since the last GAconf in April.

The traditional news update from Ian Hamilton.

The first talk came from Michael Anthony, and discussed how to reframe accessibility through the lens of social justice, and how that reframing can lead to a better quality of change. After a break, Christian Cimon and Morgan Baker delivered a presentation on accessibility in the Dead Space remake, which released earlier this year. They went on to explain how they made the game more inclusive, and how to create a horror experience for everyone.

Voelker led the first panel of the conference, which included Chad Bouton, Jay Justice, Sam McDaniel, and Voelker’s cat, Leon. The group discussed their experiences with motion sickness while playing video games. It also served as a potent reminder that having the same medical diagnosis does not equal the same experience nor the same needs, demonstrating how broad the spectrum of disabilities is.

After lunch, Rachél Bazelais led off a series of micro-talks with a live presentation about neurodiversity in the workplace, before Leah Skerry discussed how Unity is improving screen reader implementation and functionality on its platforms. This was followed by Patrycja Polowczyk presenting on gaming with a stutter, and the issue of speech accessibility.

Speech accessibility in games from the perspective of a person who stutters.

The final micro-talk came from Aggro Crab’s co-founder, Nick Kaman. He spoke live about the process of bringing accessibility into the studio’s upcoming Souls-like, Another Crab’s Treasure. This was achieved through a versatile selection of options and settings that mitigate the baseline inaccessibility of the game, giving the player unprecedented control over their experience – considering how stubbornly From Software neglects accessibility in its own games.

Another break was followed by Craig Kaufman of AbleGamers explaining how the charity supports disabled players. The final talk of the day came from Ross Minor and Jenna “Jennissary” on implementing audio description in Mortal Kombat 1, the challenges of doing so, and how it helps immerse players in the game’s narrative.

The second day of talks started with Améliane F. Chiasson sharing her experience as an accessibility lead and balancing support for players, developers, and consultants, before Jazmin Cano shared insights into developing low-vision accessibility in Owlchemy Labs’ Cosmonious High.

After the break, Xbox’s James Berg delivered a live talk on how to work with developers as an accessibility advocate, with advice on the knowledge needed and the minutiae of the production process with accessibility involved.

The second panel: Good Game Design is Accessible.

This was followed by the conference’s second panel, from Adam Oliver, Carol Mertz, Chris King, and Drew McCrory discussing accessible design, and accessibility-first approaches as good design, and how that needs to be supported.

As with day one, post-lunch welcomed a series of micro-talks. The first was from Shell Little on light sensitivity accessibility and how our considerations shouldn’t be limited to epilepsy because, as Little put it, “the bar should not be set to ‘just don’t kill someone.'” Little clarified how broad and complex an issue light sensitivity can be and how it can be addressed in video games, including how unexpected elements such as moving from a dark screen to a bright menu can induce migraines and other light sensitivity issues.

Next up, Jessica Roache spoke about how important communication is for accessibility from her perspective as Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Ubisoft. After which Alexx Aplin spoke about chronic pain, managing it in gaming, and how gaming can influence our experiences. Lastly, Morgan Baker returned to talk about sound design from the perspective of a deaf player.

The last session of the conference kicked off with Katrin Hilman and Neha Chintala walking us through how accessibility was brought into Forza Motorsport, with a focus on the game’s pioneering Blind Driving Assists, built through collaboration with the disabled community.

Next, Tyler Fentie and Chad Leaman spoke about how open source, low-cost assistive technology is key to creating accessible solutions for disabled players, and how Makers Making Change has been leveraging the maker movement and DIY solutions to otherwise inaccessible assistive technology.

That wrapped up the US leg of GAconf in 2023, and another conference replete with varied and valuable information for anyone interested in the field of gaming accessibility. It was also a conference that highlighted just how far things have come and how quickly things have progressed, even compared to where we were at the last edition in April.

GAconf will return to Europe in Spring 2024 while the end of 2023 will be marked by the GAconf Awards.

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