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Microsoft testing new program to improve gaming accessibility

Microsoft is aiming to make gaming as accessible as possible for players with disabilities. A new program recommends that first and third party developers now send in their games for inclusive evaluations.

Data from the ESA Foundation suggests that there may be as many as 46 million gamers with disabilities in the US alone.

It’s incredibly promising then to hear that Microsoft is launching a testing program to help developers refine their titles to be as accessible as possible for gamers in the disabled community.

Microsoft recommends that any game currently in development – due to be released on Xbox or PC – be sent in to the program, where it will be weighed against the ‘Xbox Accessibility Guidelines’ (XAG) and give those with physical or mental impairments the chance to provide first-hand insight into improving the overall experience.

Updated yesterday, (Feb 16th) the XAGs aren’t designed to enforce legal compliance from developer studios, but instead aim to inspire them consider everyone when making technical and design choices in the building of new games. As Microsoft states, ‘When everyone plays, we all win.’

Beta games sent to Microsoft for evaluation will be distributed to several game testers with disabilities of diverse natures for feedback, and will eventually be returned with case specific recommendations from Microsoft. These will include annotated screenshots showing where improvements can be made.

A recent company blogpost states that this process aims to highlight ‘what aspect of a given experience may be challenging for certain gamers with disabilities.’

In addition to detailed revisions, Microsoft will also provide professional resources to help game designers and developers gain a foundational understanding of different afflictions, and how they may impact a person’s ability to play.

There is also an accessible checklist which covers ‘key areas to target’ and ‘implementation guidelines,’ to bring changes directly into effect.

Prior to this announcement, Microsoft had already made commitments towards becoming a bastion for inclusive gaming. Its ‘adaptive controller’ arrived back in 2018, taking the inputs of conventional Xbox handsets and allowing them to be mapped to a series of highly customisable buttons, joysticks, pedals, and switches, for those with motor function difficulties.

Incremental changes with the next generation of consoles – the Xbox Series X and Series S – such as tactile indicators on the rear of the console and increased texture on the standard controller’s grips have also been commended by testers from the disabled community for including design choices intended to ‘help as many people as possible.’

However, when it comes to actual games, there are few available that provide a wide variety of accessibility options within the menu.

Gears 5 and Sony’s The Last of Us Part II are notable exceptions, with the latter providing over 60 different options including, vision, hearing, motor presets, navigation aids, motion sickness, text-to-speech, combat accessibility, and much more.

While we’ve still plenty of work to do to make accessibility a strong ethos of game development going forward, noises from the likes of Sony and Microsoft are incredibly positive on that front.

Big changes are expected to take place in the current gen of gaming, and able bodied players aren’t the only ones set to benefit.


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