Accessibility at the W3C Workshop on Web Games

Posted on Tuesday, 9 July 2019 by Matthew Atkinson

I recently attended the W3C Workshop on Web Games, hosted at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA. This post is a summary of what I learnt from an accessibility perspective. It was a genuinely interesting and educational event and I have learnt a great deal, both technically and of the perspectives and experience of people developing games, WebXR experiences, or working on all the things that support their development and use. Hearing about the experiences of game developers, and the considerations that browser makers have to make when implementing new features was particularly fascinating. Feels like there are some huge opportunities for accessibility, too.

Thanks to everyone who made it happen and took part, the organisers in particular (it was run smoothly and impressively on-time) and TPG for sponsoring my trip. Huge thanks also to everyone involved in the preparation of our position paper.

Accessibility opportunities

Most of the participants were aware of accessibility and several had taken active steps to achieve it in their games or other products/services, which is encouraging. We hope we raised awareness further (more on our session later), but one thing that was clear was that accessibility was a general consideration for several participants, as questions/discussion on accessibility popped up in several sessions.

Unity and accessibility

Not long before the workshop, the Unity team posted a forum thread on accessibility in which they are interested in knowing how to make the Unity tools more accessible to people with disabilities. Authoring tool accessibility provides vital opportunities for all people to create, not just consume, content, so this is excellent news. Some of the Unity team were at the workshop, too, which is also great to see.

Bridging between UIs and assistive technologies

One of our nearer-term goals in the position paper was to find a way to bridge between games and assistive technologies, as proposed by the Active Game Accessibility research group. We felt that concentrating on the UI of games would be a good place to start because UI accessibility in other spheres is handled well with platform-native toolkits and, on the web, by standards such as ARIA. We thought that using an upcoming standard called the Accessibility Object Model would be a good way to achive this, when it is implemented in browsers.

Early on the first day, Luke Wagner from Mozilla presented an upcoming simpler and considerably faster process for calling standard web APIs (from console.log() to the Web Audio API and even the Accessibility Object Model, when it is implemented) from WebAssembly code. (WebAssembly, or “WASM”, is the relatively new bytecode format that can be used to run code compiled from any language, within a browser, at near-native speeds. Several engines and games have been compiled to it, and run very nicely.)

This new technique will considerably speed up the interaction between games and the browser when providing accessibility information, which could open up access to the user interfaces of games. In the meantime, we are exploring these ideas using current technology to send information from WebAssembly code to the browser, through JavaScript. Whilst not as fast, this will help us to carry out experiments and create prototypes.

Pronunciation of gender-neutral words

There was a session on diversity and localisation that included a talk about how translators might face barriers in using gender-neutral terms when translating into some languages (the examples below come from the presentation; localisation talk in PowerPoint format; localisation talk as PDF), and how languages are evolving to create/allow for such terms. However, these emerging forms are not well-supported by text-to-speech systems.

The way we use language can help our audiences feel included, rather than alienated, so it’s an important consideration. Language is constantly in flux, and this area is particularly new (definitely to me, but I gather in general too) so it seems like a good idea to follow developments and, as consensus emerges, see how we can support it.

One approach is that a wildcard character, such as ‘x’, ‘e’ or an “at” sign may be used to make a particular word gender-neutral. For example: in Spanish, “todos” and “todas” are plurals meaning “everyone” or “all”, with “todos” being a masculine word and “todas” being a feminine word. A gender-neutral form of the word may be written as “tod@s”, “todxs” or “todes”.

Another approach is separating variants, or variant parts, of words using an asterisk or full-stop. E.g. in German, we may have “der Priester” (the priest) or “die Priesterin” (the priestess), with the neutral version being written as “der*die Priester*in” (referring to both “the priest” and “the priestess”). In French, we may refer to “dear friends” as “Cheres amies”, “Chers amis” or, in a gender-neutral manner, “Cher.e.s ami.e.s”.

We are exploring this area further, and a future TPG ‘blog post will summarise what we find. In the meantime, you may wish to read the Wikipedia article “Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender”.

Awareness and empathy

Accessibility wasn’t the only topic in which developers wanted to raise awareness and empathy on behalf of players/users. Another example was in the discussion on loading of assets. People with slow Internet connections can be put off, or even prevented, from playing games with long load times (one way to work around this is to stream assets as required). In order to foster some awareness of this issue, Kasper Mol’s office at Poki, a web games platform, set up a system with a simulated poor connection—which turned out to be quite effective.

This reminded me of the GDS Empathy Lab, which contains various simulations to impart to its visitors how it feels to browse the web with certain disabilities. This all reinforces how important education/awareness and empathy are in solving problems in any sphere of endeavour.

Accessibility-focused session

I’ve mentioned that accessibility was a common thread throughout the workshop, and there was also a session in which we all discussed accessibility specifically. There were presentations from Luis Rodriguez and myself, on behalf of our position paper authors (links to both presentations and the position papers can be found below). Luis gave some compelling examples of why and how we could re-think our interactions to make them much more inclusive for people with motor impairments. I talked about game accessibility being achieved through content design (with some examples from the Game Accessibility Guidelines and via assistive technologies (aspirationally), posing the questions from our position paper. It was extremely helpful to have Ian Hamilton and Brannon Zahand on hand to provide experienced advice and industry perspectives.

Most of the workshop participants were already aware of accessibility, with several having taken steps to implement it. Many of them were interested in learning more and I think that Ian and Brannon’s examples demonstrating just what is possible may’ve provided some good encouragement here.

Outside of the accessibility-specific session, there was quite a bit of interest from several people in contributing to the accessibility efforts around standards, particularly WebXR (virtual and augmented reality on the web) and glTF (a portable interchange format for 3D models and scenes).

On day two, we ran an “Accessibility Clinic” breakout session, with the idea that developers could bring us questions about how to make certain games accessible and we could give suggestions. In our small group, we were able to give a lot of background information on how much has improved in game accessibility over the past couple of years in particular, with major consoles, game platforms and games themselves adding significant accessibility features and making commitments to do more, and where things might be going. I also had several impromptu discussion on game accessibility, and accessibility in general, with other participants over the course of the event. Seeing the level of awareness was encouraging, and the momentum and opportunities we have at the moment are even more so.

Accessibility Paper and Presentation Links

Next steps

There was much to learn and there’s much on-going work to follow. From my own, particularly accessibility-focused perspecive, these are the things I’m looking forward to doing…

  • Prototyping some game UI accessibility experiments
  • Researching the issues around pronunciation further
  • Following developments in W3C WebXR and Khronos glTF with respect to adding semantic information (such as scene descriptions)

Most of all, it’s great to see so much enthusiasm and momentum behind game accessibility, and I am looking forward to finding out what’s next. Speaking of game accessibility-related events, if you are interested in finding out more or maybe attending one, you may want to check out the Game Accessibility Conference “GAConf”.

About Matthew Atkinson

Matthew joined TPG in 2012, after time as an academic researcher. His fields of study included improvements to computer communication for older people, and access to mainstream gaming by blind and low vision people.

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