As the attention given to gaming accessibility and representation has seen greater and greater exposure throughout 2018 and shows no sign of slowing down, former Courier Gaming editor Errol Kerr has recognised the opportunity to distill this rapid progress into a new series of multimedia content.
Working alongside Sara Khan, Liberation and Access Officer for University of Manchester Students’ Union, Errol successfully funded the project, titled Game Assist, on Kickstarter over December and January. With the launch date set for 22 February, he had plenty to share with the Courier regarding what has helped him prepare for this project as well as what he hopes to achieve moving forward.
George Boatfield: First of all, I just want to congratulate you on reaching your Kickstarter goal! Could you tell us a bit about what that funding is going to help you do with Game Assist?
Errol Kerr: Absolutely! Not only has it quite visibly gone into things like a polishing of the branding and merchandise - we already have mugs and badges planned and kitted out - but it’s also a lot of tech, mainly because obviously setting up a two person (potentially multi person) project on these lines, there’s a lot to think about. We’ve now got a potential website in the works - obviously hosting that is going to cost.
So there’s hosting of the website, there’s buying audio tech we’ve got new microphones, we’ve got soundproofing because I don’t want to deafen my flatmates with screaming! We’re looking into new camera setups because getting high quality footage is important to us. And for future, we’re looking into getting a standing microphone for going around and talking to people with.
GB: Vox pop style?
EK: A little bit, yes. If we got the chance to chat with game devs or other people interested in what we do, we could go out and take that with us. We want to make sure it’s not just about us talking and streaming - we do want to engage. Alongside that, it is just going towards regular maintenance, the potential to travel to events, some of which I haven’t yet mentioned!
GB: Sounds like that’s a scoop for the Courier there! Okay, so following on from your mention of the website, what kind of services and platforms are you planning on using for hosting any content you make, and what future sources of funding go along with that? Patreon, adverts, merchandise?
EK: So, platforms first: any videos will be YouTube and written content will be on the website. We’re still working out what website host we’re after, but that is where written content will be. And all the content we produce will be shared on our various social media. Because we do have a patreon going, we don’t want to hold accessibility features back. Say, if we released a script alongside a video, that won’t be held back via patreon.
All the content we produce will be shared on our various social media.
We might have entire bundles of script, video and other resources as separate patreon content, rather than monetising key features. And outside of that, we’re being very careful with potential adverts. We’re going to approach sponsored videos with caution because we do want to make sure that the individuals we partner up with do share the interests and views we have, rather than simply making money off each other. That’s not what this is about. Also, YouTube ads are an absolute pain! It can completely break the flow of content.
GB: I guess that means you want to make sure ads are relevant to your audience and not completely random.
EK: If there are ads, it will be something that applies… So heyy Gillette hit us up!
GB: Given that you’re creating a multimedia platform, has your past work on The Courier (and broader experiences at Newcastle University) helped you prepare for this?
EK: Absolutely. Editing for The Courier for a couple of years was a fantastic insight into journalism in general and specifically games journalism as I was gaming editor. So that was my little bubble, so the experience that I gathered, not only with connections with meeting people like Jordan and Jared who now do Quillstreak, and just getting into that field, into that bubble, really genuinely did help.
Also, the writing experience from the years beforehand where obviously people would pick apart and edit your work really helped in developing a standard voice, a way of communication - everything I like now sounds like me, whether I like it or not. Developing that voice was really something that The Courier helped create, not only as a writer but as an editor. The website side of things was definitely helpful, while Photoshop and InDesign experience has really easily and quickly translated over - it kind of just works.
GB: There are so many parallels with other forms of media - it’s surprising!
EK: Genuinely, yes there are! There are so many parallels with the skills you learn in The Courier and the skills you might use in a multimedia project.
GB: I get exactly what you mean. There’s something to be said for the structure and the repetition of it - having set times every week to write, edit, photoshop and layup quickly builds up experience and knowledge.
EK: That routine prepares you a lot for releasing content on the regular.
GB: So how about the other roles you had at uni?
EK: So being Disabled Students Officer way back when was the start of getting to grips with this. I did have a lot of conversations back in the day about gaming and accessibility, while obviously now accessibility has become quite a buzzword in the video game space. Chair of Council has helped most specifically with public engagement and having a public face for what we’re doing. It’s definitely my experiences with DaNSoc [Disability and Neurodiversity Society] and all the liberation societies that have framed my experience with this.
With Sara as Manchester University's Liberation and Access Officer, her experiences run parallel with mine in that regard.
That kind of engagement with lots of people with lots of different elements really brings that together. And with Sara as Manchester University's Liberation and Access Officer, her experiences run parallel with mine in that regard. So, what ground I don’t cover, she will which is great. So yes, my experience with Newcastle, mainly with Students’ Union orientated stuff , was invaluable and I couldn't do what I’m doing now without it.
GB: Fantastic! With the launch of Microsoft’s Adaptive controller and further flexibility added to accessibility options in games, what are some of your favourite examples of the ways in which accessibility is being addressed in video games currently?
EK: Let’s talk about Apex Legends! It’s literally just come out, it’s Respawn Entertainment’s new battle royale FPS. I never thought in my life I’d praise a battle royale, but here we are! So I downloaded it a few days ago, and basically the first thing that you see is a settings menu with accessibility features built right in without a seperate menu. It’s right there and there’s plenty of ways to modify the experience. People’s voice chat auto translates into text, and this is all on console so it does the same on PC! On-screen features are also read out as audio, so if you can’t pick something up visually there’s that there to assist. Swapping this the other way round, subtitles are there for everything.
I sat down and loaded up and just went “bloody hell!”
Voice chat isn’t necessary because the communication system, even with button emotes, is really really strong. There’s also text chat on console on the fly. Even just remembering little things like button toggles and changing the size of the heads-up display is brilliant. Apex Legends, whilst obviously there are some things it could improve, I sat down and loaded up and just went “bloody hell!”
GB: I would never have thought Apex Legends would be such a strong example of good game accessibility! How about the potential for hardware changes?
EK: Obviously the Xbox Adaptive Controller is the dream, but outside of that a lot of accessibility tools are in the individual, one person setups. The AbleGamers Charity and SpecialEffect go out and produce bespoke single-function setups, but I also see a lot of people online making things too. I’ve quite recently seen a single-handed dualshock controller!
GB: Yeah I remember seeing that too! It had a 3D-printed frame around it to make all the controls accessible from one side.
EK: It looks genuinely intuitive to use! It makes sense! Also, can I get two and play co-op games on my own? I would do that!
GB: That’s the secret objective of all these accessibility devices!
EK: Exactly! Who needs player two?
GB: How about the progression of accessibility in future? Do you have any feature requests for things that aren't in games at the moment?
EK: This past year, accessibility has gone from zero to one hundred - every game is including accessibility features. It’s phenomenal seeing that, and it’s just about moving onward and upward from there. One thing that I do want to see, other than text chat in Anthem, is better communication emote wheels. I’ve seen it done once and that’s on Monster Hunter World. What you can do is customise the text used for the emote wheel, meaning you can go into the emote wheel and quickly say what you want.
One thing that I do want to see, other than text chat in Anthem, is better communication emote wheels
For example, if you want your teammates to heal you, you can ask them. If you don’t want them to engage with a monster, you can ask them. Whether or not they listen is a different story, but it’s good that the option is there. You can change it all, and that’s far more useful than the generic “hi”, “thanks” and “enemy over there”. It’s simple, but personally it’d really improve multiplayer experiences.
GB: Like with the inclusion of accessibility options in games, the frequency of developed representation of marginalised identities is steadily increasing. Do you think representations such as these are at risk of becoming marketing ticks on a checklist rather than something that has genuine thought and care put into it?
EK: Without question, of course that could happen. Again, I’m going to sit and praise Apex Legends for a little bit, who have an incredibly diverse cast of heroes. One concern I’ve had and a concern I’ve got with Overwatch is “Hi, Soldier 76 is gay”.
GB: It’s all very J.K. Rowling.
EK: It doesn’t apply! It doesn’t apply to the story! Here’s a game where we can just slap these labels on them and you just go and shoot people and it doesn’t matter to the story. One difference with Apex Legends is that the casting is appropriate as well - representation comes from everything; it comes from the characters used; it comes from the casting of those characters; it comes from how you portray them throughout; it comes from not completely deviating from that story to make someone straight, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey! It’s something that needs to be more than just marketing, more than just ‘queerbaiting’ or forcing head-cannons on certain characters who may be X,Y,Z. It needs to be done, but it needs to be done well, and it needs to be done with the intent of actual representation and not just a bit of money-making on the side.
GB: And lastly, do you think the interactivity of video games lends any advantages to addressing the prejudices against marginalised groups, particularly in younger players, that other media may have a harder time doing?
EK: It genuinely really could! There are stories that can be told through interactive media that don’t really come across in the same way on single-watch TV or single-watch films which have the same story all the way through. In a game, like with the moral choices in Bioware games such as Mass Effect 2, or even Life is Strange where actually having to make big decisions might not result in a ‘win’ condition. There’s always going to be a loss, but it depends on which loss you want to take. But currently, gaming doesn’t seem to be doing that.
Gaming has a lot of potential to educate, and a lot of potential to expand throughout a much larger and much younger culture.
I think what can be done to increase diversity is to highlight the issues with a lot of the communities that it impacts. How many people would have stopped playing as Soldier 76 when Blizzard made him come out as gay, or when they realise certain characters’ backgrounds, or once something happens in-game that involve certain NPC’s that players don’t happen to like? The players immediately recoil from these things due to internalised bigotry or whatever you want to call it. Games have the potential of changing that, but it’s going to take time and it’s going to take a lot of effort from lots of different groups.
One thing that’s worth noting is that, even though those are things that are happening, games are doing it anyway. So, from a monetary standpoint, games are looking at bigots and saying “you’re not worth our time and money”. They’re looking at actually representing identities and going “this is worth doing, this is worth talking about”. They might not always be doing it right though! Find me an autistic character who isn’t a white guy and really smart - you can’t!
There are still a lot of stereotypes that gaming needs to overcome. Gaming has a lot of potential to educate, and a lot of potential to expand throughout a much larger and much younger culture. It’s just about getting past a lot of internalised bigotry that unfortunately exists within certain gaming circles. Game Assist would like to be a starting point to move away from that, to discuss it and tackle important questions regarding how representation is done and if it’s done well. The fact that game developers are aware of more widespread issues and are willing to tackle them, directly or indirectly, is a good sign.
Also, as a side-note, Sara and I are going down to London in March to speak with the National Autistic Society’s young ambassadors about representations of autism in video games! There’s your scoop!
GB: Cool! Thank you for talking to us! Congratulations with Game Assist and good luck with everything you have planned!
EK: Thank you very much!
To find out more about Game Assist and look at the content they produce moving forward, find their Kickstarter page at http://kck.st/2V9sXv1