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MELISA:Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Open World. I’m Melisa. Your other hosts, Ale and Lari. And today we have a very special guest, María Eugenia Larreina, who’s joining us to talk about a very important topic that is accessibility in video games. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and her research focuses on the needs and preferences of persons with visual disabilities and the potential applications of audio description. Thank you so much for joining us today, Eugenia.
EUGENIA:Thank you so much for having me.
LARA: Yeah, thank you. It’s amazing. So we met each other… We’re going to be, like, giving a bit of context here. We met each other back in Berlin last year. And I was completely amazed by your talk. I was like, “Oh, my God, we have to have her in Open World because, oh my God, this is amazing.” But can you tell your professional journey walkthrough for those who don’t know you yet?
EUGENIA: Yes, of course. So I started studying translation and interpreting. I did Spanish, English and French. And when I was done, I was very interested in media, film, translation technologies, so I decided to do a master’s on audiovisual translation, and that’s when I had my first contact with accessibility. So we studied subtitling for the deaf and the hard of hearing, audio description, and respeaking. And when I finished the master’s, I had the opportunity to work on a project about audio description called the Rad project, and how to apply it to video games. So this was my Ph.D. topic, that right now I’m finishing the thesis. And I just fell in love with audio description and accessibility in general, and how to apply it to certain medium like video games.
ALEXIS: That’s amazing. And what was that inspired you to pursue a career in accessibility? And maybe, as a follow up question to that, what are some of the key challenges that you have faced in this industry so far?
EUGENIA: So I was very inspired by the fact that accessibility can be applied to anything in real life. So when you use a ramp to enter a building or when you use subtitles to watch a movie, or when you use an audio guide to guide yourself around a museum, all of this is accessibility and we are all users of accessibility all the time. And just the fact that what we do in university can be applied to real life and potentially improve real people’s lives and our lives was very exciting.
ALEXIS: I like that because that’s true. That’s true, right? Everyone is a user of accessibility to some extent at some point, right? Even with translated text.
LARA: Yeah. Don’t you get mad when you see something that is not accessible for some people and you’re like, oh my God, like, this has to be accessible? Like, it happens. Even in the simplest things, it happens.
ALEXIS: Yeah. And when it comes to video games, even some triple-A studios sometimes don’t even… I’m an old guy by now, so I notice that I sometimes need bigger fonts. I do, because I can’t see. And I came across some futuristic first-person shooters that don’t really allow me to make the font bigger and I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t play it.
EUGENIA: Yeah, and it’s really easy to make. If there is awareness about this, it’s not really hard to code or hard to integrate into the planning and the budgets. So it’s really about being aware of it.
MELISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, María Eugenia, how would you say the accessibility landscape has changed in the recent years? And also, like what emerging technologies or trends do you see happening? I bet in audio description, in particular, for your research, I imagine there’s been a lot of changes in the recent years.
EUGENIA: Yeah, no, it has changed and I would like to say that for the better. So I hope that it continues improving the whole situation. So I started the project in 2020, and back then there was no audio description at all anywhere in video games. We had audio games, which are games that only have sound. So you have a narration explaining what’s going on, but no audio description really. And now, in only three years, we have game trailers with audio description, we have audio description in some cut scenes in major games, and we also have some gameplay audio description. So it has really evolved very, very quickly and it’s very exciting. And this is also a big challenge as well because you need to be aware of all the new games that are being launched all the time. And there’s a lot of diversity, lots of new things every day, but it makes it very exciting as well. As for new things that I’m excited about, I’m very interested in virtual reality lately. I think that this will have like many cool applications for accessibility if it’s done from the start. So right now we are just like starting with the technology, starting to become more popular for gaming. And if we are thinking about accessibility now, we will make it better for the players of the future.
LARA: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I couldn’t agree with you more. And also I think about the recognition that accessibility is getting into the video game industry because there are some awards also that are like awarding video games that are accessible for everyone, right? Do you have like some example where you were like, oh my God, this game has mastered accessibility?
ALEXIS: That’s a good question.
EUGENIA: I have to say The Last of Us part 2.
LARA: Yes! I was hoping for this.
EUGENIA: It was a before and after. Yeah. Yeah, really, a before and after, that such a major triple-A game had so many accessibility options. It’s been like a major break for the industry, I would say. And now other companies are looking at it and saying, “Can we replicate this? Can we make this better?”
ALEXIS: That was something that I was gonna ask. You said that it’s not hard to code, to keep in mind, to implement. So a game like The Last of Us has set the bar too high or is it really just a matter of, okay, let’s include it in the pipeline from the very beginning and let’s go with it and it wouldn’t be too complicated? Or does it really set the bar too high?
EUGENIA: Well, I want to think that not really, that everyone can reach this level of accessibility. But of course, you need to have the resources to do so, and this might not be easy. But it really depends on the type of game, right? So depending on what game it is, you will need some different accessibility options, and maybe the ones that we have in The Last of Us cannot be applied to your game. So if you’re really creative from the start and design it with users, like real users, involving them in the creation and the testing, and then you work with the developers, the artists, the project managers, everyone together, you can really make it accessible, yeah. I believe so.
LARA: Absolutely. Yeah. So this is like the best question I have after this talk. What are some of the best practices for ensuring that websites and all digital content in general are accessible to users with disabilities?
EUGENIA: Well, again, it depends a lot on the app or on the website or things like this, but we already have some guidelines that can give developers some ideas. So, for example, we have the Web Accessibility Guidelines, or the Game Accessibility Guidelines as well, and you can start from there. But then, of course, the best would be to have users… Sorry.
LARA: Yeah, I mean, are the guidelines free to use, open to use for everyone? Like, you can find them online or something?
EUGENIA: Yeah, some of them are, others are not. For example, the information for The Last of Us is not available. We only know the accessibility options we have, but we don’t know how they were developed. We need to look into interviews of, like, people working on the game and things like that. But still, we have very public documents that we can look for. So the Game Accessibility Guidelines, for example, just like this name, is open on the Internet.
ALEXIS: We could share that link.
ALEXIS: I don’t know where links live in videos, below…
MELISA: And do you think there should be more, like, communication between gaming studios and companies to share technological advancement or guidelines and things like that? What’s your opinion about that?
EUGENIA: It would be nice if all of this information was accessible as well, so that maybe smaller studios can take inspiration from them. And it would be also very nice if the same company would make all of their games accessible and not only some of them. So this is something that happens as well. I mean, if you have already the protocols developed, you can just apply them to all your games, right? But of course, the workflow in the industry is very opaque, right? You don’t really know much about how the studios work. So maybe they have some constraints that we don’t know about, but it would be nice to have this information for everyone to use.
MELISA: Yeah, absolutely. And with the things that are available now, what advice would you give to organizations and companies that are just starting to prioritize accessibility to digital content and products, games?
EUGENIA: I think that the most important thing is to talk to real users, because sometimes we have companies creating accessibility that then is not usable by the real people. Maybe they think that it will be useful, but then when you get real people using it, it’s not meeting their needs. So if you really involve them from the start, you will cut costs and make it more profitable at the end as well, more usable. And then another important thing that I would say is to make the information about accessibility accessible itself. So if you create an accessible video game or you have some accessibility options on your website, you need to make them very clear and easy to use and not hidden in an endless menu or hidden in the tags, difficult to find. If you have created them, you want the people to use them.
LARA: Yeah. Sometimes it happens to me when I’m like playing a video game, I open the menu, I see the options, and I find, like, some really good things regarding accessibility that I’m like, “Oh my God, this is so useful.” And I’m like, why was this so hard to find in the menu, in the options, in the accessibility section? Oh, my God, why? It’s just like, yeah, it makes total sense. Total sense.
MELISA: Yeah. And also incorporating like the users. I think that’s a great advice because, at the end of the day, you’re assigning resources to make it more accessible. And of course you want to like, you know, make it right. So that’s a really, really, really good point, I think. If you, you know, assign all those resources and at the end of the day, the users are not, you know… it’s not helping them, then…
EUGENIA: Yeah, exactly.
ALEXIS: So looking ahead, right, looking in the future, what are your hopes in particular for the future of accessibility? And… I have a follow up, but I’ll leave you with that first question. What are your hopes, what do you think that accessibility’s gonna come to?
EUGENIA: Ideally, very optimistically, I hope that one day you can play a game and it’s accessible from the beginning. You don’t have to wonder if you can play it or not. You just press Play, you adjust whatever settings you need and then you go. But maybe more realistically or more in a short-term scenario, I would like to see some standardization regarding game accessibility, so maybe some minimum requirements that games should have. So we already have seen this with subtitles, for example. There are many games that now have subtitles by default, so that’s very nice for everyone.
ALEXIS: That’s a given now. We think that… Yeah. I mean, it… Let me jump on that wagon of thinking of things that should be ideal. Maybe you could even have some pre-settings on your console or computer or whatever, and the game can pick that up from the start, right? So you only need to tweak everything once.
LARA: That would be cool. Yeah.
ALEXIS: Right? Like big fonts.
LARA: Like, I don’t know, for example, in your Steam profile, you have like an option to say, “I always want big fonts because I cannot see absolutely anything.” Like me, for example. Or some other, like, accessibility feature on your, I don’t know, profile or your Steam page, PlayStation, Xbox. That would be great.
ALEXIS: Your user, you know? Your user, that games can pick it up from your profile.
LARA: Yeah, so I don’t have all the time to go into the game, into the menu first, setting the options and then…
ALEXIS: I mean, to, again, hop on what you said, María Eugenia, I have an Xbox, it’s my preferred console right now. The games already pick up if I have my console in Spanish or in English. The games already go in Spanish or in English, depending on how the console is configured.
LARA: It wouldn’t be that hard now.
ALEXIS: It wouldn’t be that hard. I don’t know. Maybe someone is watching this.
EUGENIA: No, it would be very nice. Yeah. But at the same time, I think that it’s also important that you can manually set things. For example, for my thesis, I was talking to this woman who was helping me figure out the audio description in games, how to create them, like a player who is blind. And she was telling me, “I was playing The Last of Us 2 with all the presets for visual accessibility, and then, once I had mastered the whole game, I had played through it, then I started checking off some of the accessibility options, and I started making it more difficult for myself, more challenging,” because part of the game, you know, it’s like to complete these challenges. So if you have the option to customize it completely, then you can have a new experience every time you play. So that would be nice too.
ALEXIS: I like this brainstorming. I like the idea. So again, thinking in the future, how do you see your role in shaping it, in shaping this future that we are thinking about? How do you see yourself?
EUGENIA: I would really love to stay researching game accessibility in the future, once I finish my thesis for sure. And I would like to see how all of this develops. So maybe continue doing user research, which I really like. It’s been very nice to follow up with all of these participants who have helped me with my study during these three years. And it’s really nice to have this back and forth with them, like they tell me about their experiences with new games, I tell them about some news that I read about this upcoming game. It’s really nice to have this feedback and to be in touch with them and then to take this information to society. So I really like the whole dissemination part and talking to the industry, talking to the general public, and just raising a bit of awareness about it.
ALEXIS: So in this future, do you have any interest in joining a video game publisher or a company that creates video games? Or do you think of something more altruistic from the outside as a researcher?
EUGENIA: Both would be nice, for sure.
ALEXIS: “Both. I want both.”
EUGENIA: Yeah. Yes. There is this new kind of profile, which is an accessibility consultant profile that some people with disabilities are taking now, which is very, very good. So someone who is there working with the developers hand in hand to make the game accessible. So yeah, it would be nice to do something like that, but as an accessibility researcher. Maybe continuing user research, but from a company. And then I also like university a lot. Maybe I can do everything.
ALEXIS: You can do everything, yeah.
MELISA: I love it. At the same time, you know, it’s always a thing about, you know, when academic work is a bit like, you know, further away from the company work or whatever. So I think it’s great that you’re trying to put them closer and how, you know, they can help each other. And I was wondering, going back to the brainstorming, because I have heard, I mean, some gamers, which is, you know… This is why we like having this episode, you know, so kind of giving a bit more information and insight on accessibility and to other people also because they may not know, but they think that, you know, changing the difficulty level or the story mode is just making games easier, or they complain about that and they don’t know like the real reason behind it.
EUGENIA: Yeah, no, this is a very big criticism that I have heard during these years as well. Because sometimes, when you’re talking about game accessibility, you are met with very enthusiastic people who want to jump on it and be like, “Yes, this is a great creative opportunity. Let’s do it.” And then you have the other side, which would be, “No, this is too hard. This makes no sense. People don’t need accessibility options. We don’t want the games to be easy.” What I try to tell them is that, if the game is completely unplayable for you because it’s not accessible, then it’s not hard, it’s just impossible to play. So we are not making it easier, we are just making it playable.
LARA: Oh, my God, I love that. We are not making it easier, we are making it playable. I want to tattoo that on my skin. Oh, my God! I love that! I’m very passionate… Every time I hear you speak about accessibility, it’s… I don’t know, something lights up inside me. I love it. Can you give us some advice for someone that is interested in working in this accessibility industry in video games?
EUGENIA: Interesting question. Well, something that I have learned in this time is that you should be very open to talk to very different people with very different views from you. So we really need to involve everyone in the process of making a video game into making it accessible. So you need to talk to the developers, to the artists, to the project managers, to the people in marketing who are selling the game and to the players. And all of these people have very different vocabularies, very different priorities, and they will see accessibility in different ways. So if you can really communicate with everyone, then you are winning the game, really. So just to be very open and very flexible to understand all of these roles and then being able to communicate what you want to say. Then it’s also very exciting when you are explaining something to a developer, like what is audio description? So the first time that I did this, it was very hard to explain. It was like, “Yeah, like a narration, like a voice line, like…” And at the end, I ended up explaining it as an additional voice line that you put in the soundtrack. And then they were like, “Oh yeah, I know how to code that.” It’s not that hard.
LARA: Yeah, it’s all about education.
ALEXIS: And you see them… “Oh! Yeah, yeah, I can do that.”
LARA: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
MELISA: Great advice. The whole episode. Thank you so much, María Eugenia. This was great. I think all of us can keep talking about accessibility all day. Of course, we’ll leave links in the description. And, yeah, if anyone wants to contact María Eugenia or investigate a bit more about accessibility, we always encourage you to do so.
MELISA: Yeah. Thank you so much.
EUGENIA: Sure, you can contact me anywhere. Yeah. Thank you so much. This was really great.
ALEXIS: Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. See you next time.