Game On for Deaf Accessibility

By and large, the world is becoming more accessible for the Deaf community — and correspondingly, more accessible for the Deaf Gaming community.

A royal blue background and white text says, "EA (Electronic Arts logo) Accessibility Empowering Play".

Source: EA

Community being the name of the game, feeling part of a group that shares an aligned hobby — particularly one as massive as gaming — can enrich life. And there's no reason auditory capacity should deprive anyone of such belonging and equal competitive footing, especially with technology behind today's games and the creative minds that build them.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing Gamers comprise roughly 15% of the near 1.9 billion players in the global gaming sector. We did the math — that's about 300 million Deaf and hard-of-hearing Gamers. Needless to say, the game movers and makers continue flexing those innovative muscles to create a better and more equal experience for Deaf Gamers.

When Ava interviewed Daniel Durant, actor and self-proclaimed video game lover, about the need for more accessibility among video games, he mentioned the lack of access with several popular games. He noted that in Call of Duty, hearing players have unequal advantages, like hearing approaching footsteps or gunshot direction. On the other hand , he commended games such as Fortnite, which uses visual effects to ensure an equal playing field for Deaf Gamers.

“There are Deaf Pro-players in Fortnite, so it proves that if it’s fair and accessible then Deaf players can be equal… I would love to improve accessibility with video games for the future.”

– Daniel Durant

Ava also had a chat with EA (Electronic Arts), the leading publisher of games on console, PC and mobile, in regards to their process and progress on this subject. EA’s commitment to accessibility and “empowering play” starts with the team hired to achieve this mission.

Morgan Baker, EA Program Lead and Deaf Gamer sat down with us to shed her perspective on the importance of access for Gamers of all abilities and how the gaming industry works to advance accessibility and inclusivity.

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Weezie Melancon: Morgan, tell us what inspired and led you to work in the field of Game Accessibility.

Morgan Baker: A bit about my journey… I am, myself, completely Deaf. I was the first Deaf person to graduate from my undergraduate and during my time at my University, I started to realize that this world is not really designed for people like me. At that time, I became heavily interested in the topics of accessibility.

I began working in accessibility, originally starting in education. Eventually, I made my way to the video games industry to assist with developers, studios and teams to help level up their game accessibility, so as many people as possible can play the games.

Source: YouTube

WM: How have you seen the industry become more accessible and inclusive in recent years?

Morgan Baker: I can speak both as a gamer as well as a specialist. Years ago, when I was much younger, inclusivity and accessibility were not as purposeful. People weren't aware of the issues; whereas now, awareness is absolutely skyrocketing. As a result, people are beginning to design more and more with accessibility in mind — particularly, for players such as myself and my community, who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing — which is really great to see.

WM: As Program Lead, how do you work with your fellow teammates or coworkers in creating new accessibility functions for games?

Morgan Baker: As Program Lead, I help create and manage programs that assist designers with innovation. I help level up their knowledge to make sure they are achieving their goals for game accessibility for all players, including Deaf and hard-of-hearing.

“It’s extremely rewarding to be able to do work that gives back to my own community of Gamers — and specifically, Gamers like myself, who are Deaf — to make gaming more inclusive to everyone.”

– Morgan Baker, EA

Morgan Baker: Every day is a little bit different. Half the time, I do work related to creating programs such as workshops, policies and strategies to help game teams weave access into a game design framework. That way, there’s a clear pipeline to address game accessibility. The other half of the time is a lot of one-on-one working with studios, individually, to help them strive towards more inclusive design practices.

WM: What are the design practices and features that make games more accessible?

Morgan Baker: There are a lot of different functionalities and strategies in the gaming industry used to make games more accessible. Deaf and hard-of-hearing accessibility in the context of games happens to be my number one specialty.

One basic strategy used whenever there's a mismatch between the player and the game is the use of subtitles and closed captions. People will equate these as the same, but they are slightly different.

Source: YouTube

Another important tool we take into consideration is the use of visual indicators. We don't only have to tell people information through text. It’s not a movie. We have a lot of things that are happening in games unlike other aspects of entertainment. For instance, we have something like a HUD (heads-up display) where we can essentially tell players information that might have been portrayed through audio channels through visual means. This is a strategy designers often use to help strategize around barriers that Deaf and hard-of-hearing players may encounter.

For example, in our game Apex Legends, you can communicate with players using our robust ping system. Pings are callouts for communication with teammates without the need for voice communication. In fact, any game is allowed to use this ping system too, as it is included in our patent pledge and free for any studio to use.

An animated image of a female gaming character with red hair in a silver space suit holding a weapon. The text says "Apex Legends".

Source: EA

Another thing that is unique to games compared to other aspects of entertainment is we have a controller, which has haptics. Of course, it's important that we don't make everything through haptics alone, but it can really help with supplementary feedback for players and with immersion, as well. These are all sources that we leverage to help make things more accessible for this particular player base.

WM: Ava has received feedback from Deaf Gamers commending the application for enhancing their gaming experience. What are your thoughts on Ava?

Morgan Baker: With an application, like Ava, speech-to-text is obviously an important aspect for game accessibility — particularly, for multiplayer options. When you have multiple players in games, you have things like chats. For chats, people often use voice communication, so you will find that many companies, including EA, will use strategies such as speech-to-text to transcribe whatever is being spoken aloud into a written format. This absolutely benefits those who are Deaf and hard of-hearing, like myself.

“With PS4 gaming, Ava is a life changer for Deaf or hard-of-hearing [players] !!! Usually, players ask if I want to Party Chat and I used to say, no, because I can't hear and wouldn’t be able to make out what they’re saying. With Ava, I'm very confident with Party Chat — now that I’m able to see what friends are saying.”

- Ava Customer/Gamer

We are always exploring ways to improve game accessibility in our pipeline to make things easier for our developers to implement in addition to making games more accessible for our players.

WM: Lastly, do you have Deaf co-workers you collaborate with on Deaf accessibility goals?

Morgan Baker: It’s hard to say. There are not many of us, but Deaf and hard-of-hearing people don’t always disclose, which is just true in any workplace if you have a disability or Deafness. I’m happy to talk about my identity as it’s just what I do, but I also respect that it’s not what everyone prefers.

For context, I’m the Program Lead and just happen to be Deaf, but I oversee things beyond Deaf accessibility. It’s extremely rewarding to be able to do work that gives back to my own community of Gamers — and specifically, Gamers like myself, who are Deaf — to make gaming more inclusive to everyone, so I'm quite lucky to have this role at EA.

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Morgan became Deaf after developing an autoimmune disorder called Inner Ear Disease. Her life experience and passion for Deaf accessibility and Gaming led her to a career position that makes notable impact for her community. Her contribution exemplifies that input from the Deaf community to improve Deaf accessibility remains vital for progress — in the gaming industry and well beyond.

A black and white image of a young girl, a close-up of her face and her sitting on a bed with a guitar. She has freckles and looks distraught. Text reads the titleof the game "The Last Part of Us Part II".

Source: Playstation

Smart game designers make accessibility for Deaf gamers—with partial or complete hearing loss—seamless. Players with any degree of hearing impairments, who perhaps use hearing aids or assistive listening devices should have equal access on par with hearing users for every game on the market. Smart technology that can retrofit existing technology—like with automated captions—increases the number of accessible game offerings.

Ava's live captions, which provide fast and accurate captions are designed for use across multiple platforms and have shown to be a beneficial tool for Deaf and hard-of-hearing players.

With web accessibility, digital accessibility and access in the gaming world on the rise, gaming companies like EA are staying on trend. Proactivity from the Deaf and hearing communities working together inspires critical motivation for accessibility wherever it does not currently exist.