On February 16, 2021, about one year after its implementation, Microsoft released an updated version of the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAG), referred to as the XAG 2.0. Additionally, Microsoft announced the official Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Services (MGATS). The updated XAG and testing program build on Microsoft’s already rigorous, accessibility practices, as according to Microsoft, “Accessibility is a core aspect of how products are built.”
Brannon Zahand, Xbox’s Senior Gaming Accessibility Program Manager, shares that updating the XAG took many months, and the project was led by Kaitlyn Jones of the Xbox team. Game Accessibility Nexus had the opportunity to chat with Brannon to learn more about the updated XAG and testing program. Here is what we learned.
In the past few years, Microsoft has been rapidly improving accessibility within and outside of Xbox. What is the driving force that led to increasing and improving accessibility at your organization?
Brannon: I think our industry and our society have historically had a very narrow view of what it meant to be a “gamer.” However, in recent years, there has been an evolution in that thinking. Almost everyone games in one way, shape or form. It might be hours spent on a console, or a few minutes here and there spent on a mobile device. It may be playing cooperatively online, playing alone, or even watching other gamers play. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how much time or skill you have- everyone is gaming.
So I think it became clear to the team at Xbox that, if everyone is gaming, then gaming needs to be for everyone. We need to make sure we aren’t unintentionally putting up barriers for those who want join in. That requires intentional, inclusive practices and thinking in everything thing we do and every product we make. We have to ensure accessibility is a focus from the very beginning.
When creating and eventually updating the XAG, what was the process like for your team, and who was involved?
Brannon: The process for us has been really collaborative and organic. We are constantly engaging with our developers and the Gaming & Disability community, gathering feedback and learning all the time. For us, the process of updating the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines was just a natural next step to making it easier for developers to make the most accessible games they can.
That said, distilling some of our more complex game accessibility concepts into easy-to-understand guidelines was challenging. That’s why we turned to Kaitlyn Jones, one of our Gaming Accessibility Program Managers, to spearhead the project. Not only is Kaitlyn a well-recognized and respected game accessibility expert, but she also has a background in Occupational Therapy which provided her a unique lens to look at the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines through. She spent a significant amount of time and energy thinking about how developers interact with these guidelines and the best ways to pass along key concepts. That resulted in many of the fantastic additions to the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines you see now, such as scoping questions, expanded overviews, and guideline examples.
When considering your guidelines, who is the target audience for the XAG? Are they specific to Xbox Studios? And what impact do you hope the XAG will have on the industry as a whole?
Brannon: The Xbox Accessibility Guidelines are made to benefit gamers but are intended for developers and publishers across the industry. We encourage everyone involved with game development to utilize the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. That includes Xbox Game Studios, our Xbox and PC development partners, and developers on other platforms as well.
By using the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines early in game development, they should result in more accessible products. And that’s what we hope to accomplish by releasing them: the creation of a new generation of inclusive, accessible content for all gamers.
We noticed the XAG include examples from games of various publishers beyond Xbox. Are these just best examples or also a statement about accessibility being universal and thus trying to motivate other studios/publishers?
Brannon: One thing we’ve learned on our accessibility journey is that we are nowhere near the end of it. We, as an organization and a company, still have so much to learn in partnership with our Gaming & Disability Community and game developers. So the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines gave us a fantastic opportunity to go out and explore how other developers were tackling accessibility. We learned a lot in the process. That’s why we showcase games from a variety of developers and we hope to include additional examples from even more developers in future updates.
What inspired your team to create the Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Services, and how do you hope this service will influence Xbox’s accessibility?
Brannon: We were inspired to create the Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Service (MGATS) after launching the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines (XAGs) in January 2020. Many of our developers said the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines were useful, but some also asked if we could review their product’s accessibility features and provide feedback. So, it made sense to create a program that would provide a simple and straightforward way to do just that.
Our hope is that developers will benefit from this additional support and can utilize the feedback provided to create really inclusive, accessible experiences. We also hope that it can help foster stronger relationships between the Gaming & Disability Community and game developers by demonstrating how feedback from the community can lead to more inclusive, enjoyable products for everyone.
We know that many of our readers are excited about the updated XAG and Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Services. How can gamers with disabilities get more involved with Xbox’s accessibility initiatives, whether it be providing feedback or partaking in the testing services?
Brannon: We are always eager to hear from the Gaming & Disability Community on our products and services, including the Xbox Accessibility Guidelines. Feedback can be submitted by e-mail to email@example.com. In addition, individuals who reside in the greater Seattle area, who are experienced using assistive technology in gaming, and are interested in being a part of the Microsoft Game Accessibility Testing Service can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
With the new console generation, what are some accessibility features you are most excited about? Any features you hope to see in the future?
Brannon: This console generation has already yielded some small but meaningful accessibility improvements. Tactile indicators, for example, are a simple but common-sense addition to our consoles that can provide benefit for everyone, including those with low or no vision or anyone who has ever fumbled behind their console trying to figure out which port is which. Another example is our Xbox Series S | X packaging, which is designed to be especially easy to open for those without as much dexterity or hand strength. Also, we’re beginning to see developers explore the use of rich spatial audio in their games to make them more immersive and accessible.
We don’t have anything new to announce right now, but in the future, as game platforms become more powerful and cloud computing becomes less expensive, I’d like to see the potential of technologies like machine learning and AI realized, to provide experiences that automatically adapt to a gamer’s playstyle and needs to ensure they are fun and appropriately challenging for everyone. We are still a ways off from that, but one day!
We would like to thank Brannon and the Xbox team again for taking the time to chat with us. We are excited for the future of gaming, and are looking forward Xbox’s very accessible future.
Based in sunny California, Morgan Baker is a chronically ill, deaf gamer. She has a Master’s in Education and specializes in research methods and design. She works as a full-time Disability Specialist, as well as provides Accessibility Consultation to gaming studios, as needed. When she isn’t drinking copious amounts of coffee, you can find Morgan working hard to create accessible solutions. You can contact her on Twitter at @momoxmia