There are a few key things that people think of when accounting for hearing accessibility in video games. The first, of course, is captions, so people can at least read the dialogue. The second is visual cues, like the screen flashing for gunfire, or visual indications of where a threat is coming from. But one thing people often forget is that, for a lot of deaf and hard of hearing people, English (and other spoken languages) is their second language. It was learning this piece of information that lead Forza Horizon 5 creative director, Mike Brown, on a journey to break new ground in AAA video games, and accidentally kind of create a casting studio.
“[Accessibility] is one of those areas where you have to have complete humility. You have to assume that you know nothing,” Brown said when I spoke to him last week.
To try and take the Playground Games’ team’s knowledge from ‘nothing’ to ‘something’, Tara Voelker from the Xbox Accessibility team brought over some subject matter experts for a two-day workshop with the developers at the start of the Horizon 5 development cycle. The developers were able to ask these passionate gamers about the challenges they faced when playing games to work out how best to address their accessibility needs.
It was a conversation with hard of hearing gamer, Cameron Akitt, that was particularly illuminating for Brown. “It was a light bulb moment for me, really. He explained to me how, for someone who is profoundly deaf, English is not their first language. It’s often not even their second language. Their first language is sign, and the second one might well be a different sign language, and then English could be a third language.”
Reading a lot of text in your third language and then translating it in your head can be exhausting for hearing people, but it’s even harder when you don’t have context and often can’t even see the characters who are speaking for body language to get tone of voice. “Further, people who are profoundly deaf have never heard English spoken aloud,” Brown said. “In video games, you often can’t rewind. You can almost never pause, skip back, rewind, play again, to have another chance of reading it. You’re also often being asked to do other things at the same time, although we do try not to do that generally.”
“It was in that moment that I realized how subtitles, which I had always just assumed were the solution to this exact problem, weren’t really a solution for it. Subtitles are great for great for people maybe playing a game, and the subtitles are in your main language while the dialogue is in a second language. They’re great if you’re hard of hearing, but you do still speak English, because even if you’re missing things the characters are saying, you can quickly check down there and that that works. But if you’re if you’re deaf or severely hard of hearing, such that sign language is your first language, it isn’t that accessible to ask them to read text in English.”
Normally, adding another language to a game is relatively easy. Brown and the team quickly discovered, however, that adding both American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) was a whole different ball game, thanks to decades of people who sign as a first language being ignored by popular media (disaster-related press conferences aside).
“I’ll say it was dramatically more challenging than I thought it was going to be when I had that conversation with Cameron. Because, obviously, I’ve seen it on TV; they’ll have a sign language interpreter or you go to an event, and there’ll be a sign language interpreter. I kind of just assumed that there’d be somebody I could call and they’d be able to provide this service to me,” Brown explained. “In February we added language support for Simplified Chinese. There are companies set up all over the world that can provide that service where you just go ‘hey, I’ve got all this stuff I need to be translated to Simplified Chinese’ and then they go ‘yes, here’s the price we’ll get back to you in three weeks’. It’s very low friction because companies are set up to provide that exact service to games, films, TV. There is nobody set up to provide sign language for games. So, we had to go and make all those connections, find the interpreters and the actors.”
The process for adding sign language interpretation to 150 scenes in a game has multiple steps. “The way that this works is you have a sign language interpreter, who probably is an English language first speaker, who will listen to the English language version of the script. They will then sign it to the profoundly deaf sign language actor. Then the actor will perform it and that performance brings back nuance for humour, sarcasm, and a lot of all the stuff that would get lost as it gets transitioned to text. That whole process is really complicated, and we had to operate that ourselves. We had to be the one who goes and finds the actors and we worked with a company called Deaf Talent Collective who typically provide actors for live performances and things like that.”
For a studio used to being able to call a business and just get a translation sorted, this was brand new territory. “Once they’ve connected us to those actors, we own that relationship thereafter. We have to bring them in, we have to find that second interpreter for both languages, we need to find a place where we can do all the recording. All the stuff that was kind of taken care of for all of our other language options.”
The reason to talk about what was involved in setting up those recordings is less to pat Playground Games on the back for organising an accessibility option, but to highlight the challenges studios have when trying to include new accessibility options. It also will hopefully inspire other studios and developers to look into including sign language so these services can become viable and it’ll be easier for future games and films.
“Now that we’ve built those connections and we’ve jumped over all those hurdles, when we’re doing expansions and things like that it’ll be a lot simpler for us [to include sign languages in the future].”
The thing with sign language is that we’re talking about it here as an accessibility option, but we wouldn’t ever consider talking about the inclusion of, say, Portuguese as accessibility option. It’s just including a group of people who speak a different language. This was one of the conclusions that Brown and the rest of the team came to during the process. “The other thing that I’ve realized, and this is a relatively recent realization: we started out on this and we talked about it as being an accessibility option. But soon after, I realised it’s not really accessibility, that’s why I mentioned the Simplified Chinese. [During the recording we thought about it as] a localization language option, and it should be treated the same as German, French, Portuguese,” Brown explained. “It’s only really recently that I’ve realized it’s not even a language option, but more than that It’s about inclusion and representation.”
“There’s an entire community of deaf and hard of hearing people that are excluded by the way that we’ve been using subtitles to communicate this stuff forever. It’s only as we started to talk about it over the last few months that we’ve heard people reaching out and saying how powerful it is and how much it makes it feel like the game is for them when the game is communicating to them in their first language.”
Forza Horizon 4 copped a lot of flack for the original, inadequate subtitles that were tiny and difficult to read. Whenever something goes wrong with a game, a studio has two main options of how to react: double down, or listen and learn from their mistakes. Thankfully, Playground Games chose the latter option. It was the reaction to the original subtitle issues in Horizon 4 that set the team on the path to making sure Horizon 5 did much better. “It was the reception to the improvements we made to Horizon 4, that I think showed us how important all these are, and how much it does open the game up to people,” Brown explained. “As much as I’ve said in this conversation how rubbish subtitles are, subtitles are still very, very important for a lot of gamers. The reaction when we did that update to Horizon 4 was really heartening and inspiring, and I think that probably is the start of that shift in philosophy for us as a team that that led to this point.”
It’s always important to remember that accessibility options never just benefit one group with one disability or need. Subtitles help people who are hard of hearing, need a different language to the spoken options, have cognitive difficulties, or have sensory issues. Similarly, not everyone who benefits from sign language support is deaf. Whenever a new, well-designed accessibility feature is added to games it’s incredible for the people it was designed for and also for people who have other, overlapping accessibility needs.
Of course, sign languages are quite regional. Different countries and even different localities within countries have completely different sign languages. So, including American Sign Language and British Sign Language isn’t likely to make much difference to people who speak Auslan (Australian sign language), for example. But what Playground Games has done here is set a precedent, which will hopefully become normalised across the gaming industry, eventually expanding into other sign languages. It’s not a perfect implementation, because it is only on cut scenes and not on things like ANNA directions or other in-game dialogue. But this is a major first step, one worthy of praise and constructive criticism.
The free update for Forza Horizon 5, including the new sign language options, should be available now.