Microsoft: accessibility in games

Interview with Maxi Graeff, Integrated Marketing Lead Xbox DACH

What does accessibility mean to you at Microsoft?

At Microsoft, our goal is for every player to be able to play with their family, friends and others, regardless of the platform they choose. This also means developing products that allow people with physical limitations to participate – because when anyone can play, everyone wins.

When did you start getting involved in this area and what exactly have you done as regards campaigns, events, avatars in games and hardware?

We’ve been interested in accessibility for quite some time, but our specific involvement began in 2014 when the hardware team in Redmond (USA) started to work on making the Xbox more accessible through the use of conventional technology such as subtitles, contrast support, remapping and so on. The development of the Xbox Adaptive Controller began in 2015 as part of an internal hackathon, and the cultural shift primarily fostered by Satya Nadella and the leadership team sparked a growing number of internal and external alliances, projects and events on the subject. Our motto is ‘If we don’t actively include, we unintentionally exclude’. We keep that in mind in all our day-to-day work: in meetings, during product development and when we are planning marketing campaigns or events. We participate in broader campaigns such as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which we use to draw attention both internally and externally to our accessibility features in gaming, Windows, Office and our free Seeing AI app.

At events, too, we always have to ask ourselves: ‘Are we fully accessible?’ We have learned a lot, and our exhibition areas in the consumer and business sections at gamescom are designed to be more inclusive. Over the years, we have taken many measures to enable increased accessibility on site. From a 360-degree ramp for wheelchair users, to a wheelchair lift, to sign-language support in German and English on our stage, while streaming as well as at the gaming stations. In addition, our Xbox Adaptive Controllers were available at nearly all of the gaming stations, and players could also borrow lap trays for mice and keyboards. However, the most important consideration of all is the actual user. It was extremely valuable to have a dedicated accessibility manager on site to train employees and promoters, to serve as a point of contact for any questions that arose on the day and to provide active support in every situation.

With the Microsoft Inclusive Technologies Lab, you have your own institution dedicated to the issue of inclusion. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Our Inclusive Tech Lab at Microsoft Redmond was launched by Bryce Johnson, Inclusive Lead for Microsoft Devices. It demonstrates the latest accessible gaming technologies from Microsoft and its external partners.

Visitors can try out various scenarios and experience what it’s like to control Rocket League with just one leg, use voice commands to play Solitaire or learn how deaf players use speech to text to communicate in the multiplayer game Sea of Thieves. The goal of these demos is to increase participants’ understanding of and empathy for diversity and, additionally, to inspire future developments in products and design. Several thousand people have already visited the Inclusive Tech Lab including employees, partners and numerous university students who took part in tours, workshops and inclusive design sprints.

In your view, what needs to change for gaming to become more accessible in future? Are there any specific tips you can offer other companies?

We should all ask ourselves: ‘Am I inclusive? Is my product or my company inclusive?’ Team diversity and the support of employee resource groups (ERGs) represent a major step that will go a long way toward achieving success. ERGs are open employee groups that campaign for issues and interests relevant to minorities. They bring a diverse perspective to the table and provide very helpful feedback. All of us should work toward closer cooperation, both internally and externally, and not focus on competition. We at Microsoft are happy to share our expertise in this area and invite everyone to initiate a dialogue with us. If you want to start today, you can find training and videos on our channels: for example, on the Microsoft Game Dev channel on YouTube or in our Xbox Guidelines for Accessibility in Games.

How important do you think accessibility is for developer teams today and how will things look in the years to come?

There are over 7 billion people on our planet and 3 billion of them play games. That’s 3 billion players who all have different preferences, play on different platforms and have diverse backgrounds. As an industry, we aspire to reach all gamers – and we can only achieve that goal together, by being actively inclusive.