Communication is key

Are communications in games accessible? We try to find the answer through our own experience.

Gaming is a social experience in more than one way. Even if a game is designed to be played in single-player or solo, sharing the expectation, your progress and your passion for it becomes socializing. This leads to people from all places, ages and backgrounds to feel a sense of community that favors inclusion. Then we have multiplayer games, which can be very enjoyable or terrible depending on who you play with. We all have lived or read about these good and bad stories where some random person makes you uncomfortable, harassed and you only can hope they are banned or quit. But on the other hand, we have tales about people creating long-lasting friendships and even romantic relations thanks to these very same games. The sense of joining together to progress through obstacles, beating challenges and finally the sentiment of achieving something great alongside others is exhilarating. Humans are a social species, it is in our nature. But why is this all possible? Because of communication. And this is another topic where accessibility has a very important role. If like many games tell, communication is key to succeeding, accessibility is key to communicate.

In old times, games only offered text chat. A window to type and read, that was all. Time passed and we move to voice chat, which was both a blessing and a curse. Who hasn’t played a game and needed to mute a screamer, or a 10-year-old kid playing a FPS who only could boss everyone around or shout obscenities? But those aspects are not the real problem. The problem is these communication methods can be insufficient for people with disabilities, becoming a barrier not just to play properly but to socialize. When this happens these games turn into an element that creates exclusion and frustration, isolating us from others even more.

I will share a few examples of my life and playing with other people.

As a low mobility gamer with SMA Type-3, a muscular dystrophy affecting my strength and mobility, I can’t type on a physical keyboard. I can press certain keys on the left side, like W,E,C,X, Space…, the arrow keys and the numpad. I can also use a mouse, which allows me to type by using the Windows on-screen keyboard. MMOs are one of the games where people make a lot of connections. For me that never was the case due to their nature of being mostly based on text chat. Using the on-screen keyboard wasn’t fast enough for others, it’s draining and if the game locks the mouse cursor to the game window it can cause more trouble than anything. Also, text chats have a tendency to disappear or not allow typing when the text window loses the focus. In the end, games full of life and people that I would have loved to play with became a lonely place, with little to offer and a lot to miss.

Voice chat works well for me and in most games I use it. But what happens when other people can’t use it? Playing in a team with other disabled gamers with different types of disabilities is the best test. For our reviews of some titles we played with a team consisting of the following people:

  • Alexia, a Hard of hearing gamer, relying on text chat only.
  • Victor, who due to his Low Vision, uses voice chat. Can type in chat if needed but can’t read the text.
  • Tezzle, a low mobility gamer who can’t use voice chat. He needs to play using an on-screen keyboard not just for communicating but to perform most inputs required to play.
  • And finally, me.

The games offered mixed results.

The four players of Team Nexus posing for a picture in the jungle.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint was the most successful in general terms thanks to having both text-to-speech and speech-to-text, which gave us the ability to talk and use the resulting text to communicate with Alexia, and for her to type and get the text converted to audio for Victor. This wasn’t an error-free process, as one of the issues of speech-to-text is that voice recognition is a hit & miss most of the time and we had some problems getting it to work properly. Tezzle faced issues too, since when he tried to type something the chat window would lose focus and prevent any text from going in. The ping system worked well, and despite the initial chaos we managed to launch a frontal assault on a big enemy base and clear it. Still, communicating wasn’t that great and we had fun but we felt that it could have been better, for Alexia and Tezzle mostly.

Bleeding Edge intro screen saying Communication is critical to success.

Shortly after that, we played again. This time it was Alexia, Victor and me testing Bleeding Edge. The experience was similar but we had a number of problems with both voice chat and speech-to-text, which resulted in a lack of communication except for Alexia who could type freely. Text-to-speech worked well helping Victor. The ping system was again a life-saver as it also was easy to use thanks to having good options to use with toggles and the visual and sound cues but not for all us. These issues seem better now but it was something that impacted our experience in a big way.

The consensus was that text-to-speech and speech-to-text are great tools for overcoming the barriers that we faced, as long as they work well. With the recent improvements in the way those work in games people can finally see a way to stop being isolated from their teammates, being able to fully enjoy the games’ social aspect. In this regard, CVAA is a key instrument, as this legislation enforces the creation and application of features to ensure games provide means of communicating and thus the inclusion of all gamers, no matter their disability.

When these barriers aren’t there, the experience is much more positive. Here is an example:

Victor and Antonio enjoying a beautiful vista. The sea on the left, a path towards the front and the sunset between the trees.

One evening, Victor and I were playing. We had just finished mending our wounds from an encounter with an enemy patrol. We took them out fast in a short but intense firefight. Teamwork was essential and worked thanks to coordinating through voice chat and the ping system. Now we resumed our way to find an enemy squad of Wolves. These are highly skilled, well trained… A much tougher challenge. We stopped for a second to check our position and Victor said “Wow man, this is beautiful. This game has some amazing moments”. The sound of sea waves on the shore, the forest sounds at sunset while we walked towards the sun… Yes, it was truly beautiful. Victor can barely see but all these elements combined created a special moment of calm beauty for him and I was lucky to share it. I took a screenshot of the view and we went on our mission. It is this kind of experiences that make gaming special, that makes us bond as friends. If we were not able to communicate without barriers most of these moments would be missed.

It is important that the industry stays on this course, and includes people from all aspects of life and all sorts of disabilities in their research of these and new tools to keep a key element from becoming a barrier. Seeing many titles coming up with an important multiplayer component such as Valorant, Outriders, Marvel’s Avengers, Halo Infinite or even Baldur’s Gate 3, I hope they include these options. As for classic games of great success like Counter-Strike, Rainbow Six: Siege, Overwatch and more there is always hope they can be updated with these functionalities at some point.

If the recent confinement has taught us something is the importance of socializing through online means and how valuable gaming can be for our health. Not applying that lesson would mean the gaming industry is not realising its incredible potential to bring people together and the life-changing benefits that can come from it when it’s free of barriers.