Before the game reveals at Geoff Keighley’s Summer Game Fest last month, the host took to Twitter to announce several accessibility initiatives for his event. Not only would disabled viewers have access to an ASL costream led by Chris “DeafGamersTV” Robinson, they also had the opportunity to tune into a completely audio-described version on Brandon “Superblindman” Cole’s Twitch channel. And the Summer Game Fest was not the only E3 press conference to consider disabled audience members. Amid the exciting game reveals, disabled individuals found an industry event that not only acknowledged but welcomed their presence in a substantial way.
The rise of digital events is by no means a new concept within the gaming industry. Since late 2011, Nintendo has unveiled both hardware and software information within compact presentations called Nintendo Directs. Developers like Sony, Microsoft, and Ubisoft have followed suit, creating their own digital productions. However, with any new form of event—especially virtual ones popularized during the Covid-19 era—developers, producers, and hosts must grapple with ensuring that shows are accessible to everyone who wants to tune in.
Summer Game Fest was not Keighley’s first foray into creating an accessible digital event. With the addition of the Innovation in Accessibility award at the most recent Game Awards, Keighley wanted to ensure that disabled players could enjoy his show.
“When we added the Innovation in Accessibility award last year to TGA, we thought it was important to make sure the actual event was as accessible as possible too,” he says. “It's important because gaming is the world's biggest and most powerful form of entertainment, so we, as an industry, have an opportunity to lead on this—and be as inviting as possible to audiences.”
Aside from promoting the collaborations between Summer Game Fest and disabled content creators, Keighley’s social media posts echoed his sentiments regarding inclusivity. With his 1.3 million followers on Twitter, Keighley not only hyped upcoming game reveals, but also used his platform to be an ally for a marginalized group of gamers. “Part of that accessibility is making audiences aware of all the different ways to experience these livestreams and partnering with experts in the field who want to share these events with their audiences as costreams,” he says.
While Keighley continues to design accessible digital events for viewers, he acknowledges that he is still learning and working to improve his shortcomings. With every successful event, his understanding of accessibility and the varying needs of disabled viewers grows, thus leading to new ideas and solutions.
“Personally, the next thing I'd like to tackle is how to make accessibility even more global—for instance different sign languages, audio descriptive mode in different languages, and so on,” he says. “We're always open to finding new ways to share our events with as many people as possible, and all the different gaming events are learning from each other. But I do sense a strong commitment across the industry—which includes the actual games, the publisher events, and other third-party events.”
Two days after Keighley’s event, Ubisoft held their own digital E3 conference in the form of an Ubisoft Forward. Along with promoting new and returning franchise reveals, the development studio prioritized accessibility to reach the maximum number of viewers. From the stream itself, which contained 12 different languages for subtitles, ASL, and audio descriptive content for select reveals, to its official YouTube channel, which featured every trailer audio-described, disabled individuals could actively participate and react to the news alongside able-bodied peers.
“For Ubisoft Forward, it’s all about making sure that we get our messages across, and by having captions included in the live stream, we increase the ease of access to our content,” says Leon Winkler, director of international events at Ubisoft. “Some of our attendees have multiple screens they might be watching at the same time, and not all of our speakers or audiences are native English speakers. Of course, accurate captions are also very important to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community.”
Ease of access is crucial when considering disabled audience members. If a service or game cannot be properly accessed, or if disabled individuals must utilize obscure or expensive methods to enjoy the same content, then an event or product can never be deemed entirely accessible. As such, developers and event organizers are constantly evolving their methods to deliver accessible experiences.
“The least we can do is make sure that all of our attendees feel welcome in our ecosystem,” Winkler says. “This is not a recent development for us, as I know that ever since I started leading the global events for Ubisoft eight years ago, accessibility and inclusivity was already high on the agenda. In the last few years, we have tried to speed up the process a bit and last year began to expand into audio description.”
While devising new methods is important, listening to disabled voices is also a necessary priority. Without feedback from consumers and event attendees, change is not possible, especially with regards to accessibility.
“It’s all about really listening to your communities. And we are in the lucky position where we have a very vocal community who wants and needs to be listened to and taken seriously,” Winkler says.
To coincide with the accessibility initiatives found within Summer Game Fest and Ubisoft Forward, the Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase included 30 language options for streams, as well as audio descriptions and ASL interpreters on official YouTube channels.
“The addition of ASL and audio descriptions by not just one but several companies has only happened in the past couple years,” Tara Voelker, accessibility program manager and gaming and disability community lead at Xbox, says. “These steps forward in accessibility are important because gamers with disabilities have been neglected for too long. Xbox has said there are an estimated over 400 million gamers with disabilities on the planet, and that’s a lot of people to leave out on not just a hobby that has proven benefits but something that is fundamentally part of our culture.”
Gaming is a global experience that can often be exclusionary for disabled individuals. A lack of proper captioning or audio descriptions, or even expensive or inaccessible equipment. can create barriers that prevent disabled players from partaking in an incredibly popular and social activity. As a result, social media is a powerful tool for both development studios and disabled voices. As disabled people learn that a service is inaccessible, they can actively communicate their frustrations and concerns on platforms like Twitter to drive change.
“This is how we began adding a language such as Persian (Farsi),” Sean (Jordan) McIntyre, product marketing manager for Xbox, says. “While Xbox is not active in Iran, there are over 110 million Farsi speakers around the world including expats and people in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan. I hate the thought that they might not feel included and there is no reason why, as Microsoft/Xbox, we shouldn’t do all we can to welcome them to the family. I don’t expect great results right out of the gate—if we’ve never localized our shows in Hindi then it’s very likely it will take people in India some time to see that we are supporting their common language.”
While individuals like Keighley and development studios like Ubisoft and Xbox continue to advertise and advance accessibility, mistakes and shortcomings are inevitably going to happen. Yet it is the willingness to continue learning and advocate for disabled voices that ultimately creates an inclusive industry. Disabled players are quickly becoming active forces in the gaming industry, and it is up to events, hosts, and developers to ensure that they feel welcomed. And as Keighley notes, the industry should not compete for accessibility but rather work together to uplift and include disabled individuals.
“I certainly hope we, as an industry, can keep building on inclusive features tied to these events and the games as well. There's still a lot to learn about what's most effective and how to best deliver these events to audiences.”