Potent Kindness: The Quest to Teach Games Accessibility Effectively

It’s hard to receive criticism; a global truth. Something no-one ever told me was that it’s also hard to give it, at least well.

me in a dramatic hallway sat in my wheelchair smiling

In all of my careers I’ve found myself in the position of needing to give constructive feedback to people. I learned at a young age about the compliment sandwich and it works well, to a point. As an autistic person I love a good social rule because it makes communication a little bit more predictable and it means I have to spend less energy in translating my thoughts into words. Still, I’m always learning, and I believe I can always be better.

These days my entire job as an accessibility expert hinges on my ability to give constructive criticism well. At the heart what I do is teach people about different perspectives and new ways to approach problems as designers and developers. I love teaching, I think I’m very good at it, but with games accessibility I often have to begin by telling people they made a mistake (or twenty) in something they probably poured their heart and soul into. That’s pretty hard.

I think I’ve learned to be kinder over the years. Professionally, personally and everywhere in between. I tend to say things with passion, raw emotion, and without filters. Part of that is being autistic, but it’s always crushed me that there’s probably far too many times when I say things much too harshly. I’m told I’m intimidating quite regularly. It’s a weird thing to be told when inside I feel like a totally frenetic mouse, but there it is. I think it’s probably because everything I do comes with intense passion. A fun secret about me is that I’m not actually able to really do anything consistently if I’m not terribly passionate about it. I also tend to talk about a lot of Serious Things, which is hard to do with levity and softness.

Why am I writing this confessional for Global Accessibility Awareness Day of all days? Well, I think I’ve learned to be kinder but, I used to be… hard. I was angry and frustrated. I’ve heard my good friend, Tanya DePass (who is a brilliant diversity consultant and speaker) begin her panel introductions with “well, I was angry on the internet, and now I’m here”. I think so many of us working in diversity could say this.

There’s a line in my most popular talk: “This is when I realised it wasn’t me, it was the games”. I’m speaking about the moment I discovered what accessibility in games was, what it meant and how it explained so much of why I’d struggled my whole life, despite being good at games. It was a double-edged sword because the minute I figured out it wasn’t just me hitting these barriers was the minute I began to feel like games were failing millions of people in a fundamental way. It explained all those deep-down feelings of being excluded and why it always made my heart hurt so much. I was furious I’d blamed myself and internalised it all, but I was also angry it wasn’t changing now.

The more I spoke to other disabled players and heard their stories, the angrier I became. The exclusion, pain, disappointment, frustration; I took it all on because it’s what I do. I wasn’t angry at the individuals who made games, because I knew lots of developers and they were all so caring and passionate. I was angry at the industry, at studios, at publishers. Somehow it felt easier and less personal to be angry at monolithic capitalist entities and, at the time, I don’t think I realised there’s no way for the people within those entities to distinguish who the anger is for.

My urgent desire to create change had an inescapable tone of intense frustration and hurt. I’m sure it reached more than a few developers and I’m sure it was hard to see. This was a good six years ago now and most of what I had to say went to twitter. I didn’t have any idea there was a career buried for me within that anger, but there it was. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t vicious, mean or hateful - the things I had to say paled in comparison to the toxic and entitled underbelly of gaming but, well, that’s a pretty low standard to hold oneself to.

I don’t feel so angry anymore. I’m too tired to be angry. I’m [mostly] joking, but I’ve been infected with so many amazing people’s passion. I’m proud to call myself a game developer these days and in a week, I’m flying to Amsterdam to work with my all-time favourite Guerrilla which will be a highlight of the past year of my career. Since the end of 2018 I’d had so many plans to summarise everything that I’ve personally achieved in accessibility, and every time I try it seems like much too grand an undertaking. So, instead, I’m doing what I do best and I’m pouring some good-old vulnerability into the ether.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in this career so far is kindness. I’m already an incredibly empathetic person, to the point that it’s detrimental in some ways, but empathy doesn’t automatically equal kindness. Delivering potent but kind advice, perspective and information is a really important tool for giving constructive feedback in games. I think many developers will have to learn this skill because so much of making games is collaboration, refining ideas, working together, compromise and addressing all kinds of problems. Quite often the problems are created by other people (or ourselves).

Probably my most significant failing in my past career was not being kind or patient enough to those I was directing, teaching, and working with. It was a high-pressure job and I had the most awful boss for over a decade. I let it affect me too much and I very much became one of those people where it rubbed off on those around me. I like to say I have no regrets, only grief. I took a lot of skills I’d learned from my time as photographer, designer, teacher, creative director, but I’m glad I’ve done my best to learn from my mistakes.

We learn from our past and those around us. I’m eternally grateful for all of the various people who have taken me under their wing and taught me so much about working in this industry. I’m so glad I’m a kinder person now, I’m more patient too, and I wouldn’t be either of those things without the guidance of others. I think quite often those I consider mentors, guides and teachers don’t even realise that’s what they are to me. I try to tell them when the time is right. We lift each other up.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve achieved so much in my career as an accessibility expert, but none of it would have been possible without learning kindness and patience. I’ve delivered more than a dozen talks and panels at major conferences like GDC, GA Conf and in AAA studios, I’ve been in a book, I’ve consulted on many projects, I’ve worked with some of my all-time favourite people, studios, publishers. I’ve done very exciting things I still can’t talk about, I’ve been published places like IGN, I was part of a successful reddit AMA, I’ve been interviewed more times than I remember about accessibility (especially the Xbox Adaptive Controller), I’ve been featured on Mixer several times and I made Phil Spencer belly laugh once. (Another time I told him he was wrong and then proved it with Wikipedia).

Mostly, I’ve learned to teach with kindness, and I’ve learned to have patience for change. It happens, it never happens as fast as we’d like but so much has been achieved in accessibility in games over the past couple of years. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the field. There are countless developers who are intensely passionate about accessibility and user centric design. No one works in games unless they adore them and want to make them better and better.

I truly believe games are vitally important to the world, to our culture, and to players. Games really are for everyone. I often get asked at the end of interviews what I want for the future of accessibility and my answer is always this: I want my job to be obsolete, at least in what it is today. I wouldn’t mind settling down in a role in a studio someday but right now, when there’s so much left to be done, I have important work to do spreading my story and expertise.

One day I hope accessibility is such a fundamental part of User Experience in games that every studio will have its own experts, that we can move beyond separating ‘accessibility features’ and ‘user features’ and that disabled people will always be at the core of inclusive design. Finally, I hope the stigmatisation of disabled players will be dealt with head-on so that everyone can be accepted for who they are and welcomed as a core part of the community. I want this for all marginalizations because it will make us a better industry and a positive force for cultural change.

Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day!

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