“To me, accessible gaming, and accessible content in general, means that everybody should have the same experience no matter their situation.”
These words come from Sean McIntyre, whose career in entertainment has included helping to produce live events such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and serving as a producer on G4’s Attack of the Show. He’s now the accessibility lead for Xbox Marketing and distribution lead for programming and events. “They should be able to take away what the person next to them does regardless of vision, hearing or language,” McIntyre tells The Hollywood Reporter over email.
Toward one of these goals, Xbox recently partnered with Sorenson, a communications company with an expansive sign language interpreter base, to launch a dedicated channel on Twitch featuring American Sign Language interpretations, strategies and tips to help the community of Deaf and hard-of-hearing gamers actively participate in streams.
In addition to providing interpretations for approximately 25 hours of livestreams a week, the channel will include interviews with game developers, esports tournaments, event coverage, streamer takeovers and spotlights on independent games that never received captioning.
“At Xbox, we are committed to making gaming fun for the billions of people around the world that want to play and create,” Anita Mortaloni, director of accessibility at Xbox, tells THR. “This means continuing to identify barriers to play, making it easier for developers with disabilities to create and be part of the gaming community, and partnering with the disability community to bring their lived experiences into games and how they are built.”
Mortaloni got into accessibility through engineering and a particular interest in inclusive design. During the pandemic, she tells THR that she directly experienced the connection that gaming provided her family “and wanted to make that feasible for as many people as possible to do the same.” That prompted her to lead the accessibility effort at Xbox.
Such a task includes partnering with the disability community to create accessible and innovative experiences. One way that Xbox does this is through the Insiders League — anyone who self-identifies as a person with a disability, as well as allies of the community, can provide feedback directly to Xbox engineering and game development teams.
Another way is through Microsoft’s gaming accessibility testing service, where studios can seek feedback, guidance and support from members of the disability community during their development process. Xbox also offers learning resources for designing and validating the accessibility of a game, and an online course centered around the basics of gaming accessibility and best practices when it comes to hardware, software and assistive technology.
In creating the ASL channel, McIntyre explains that Xbox worked with a team of interpreters from Sorenson — gamers themselves, who understand the intricacies of gaming “lingo” and how its authenticity and accuracy is critical.
One of the features he is particularly excited about is the opportunity to dive into the archives of Xbox titles that predate when most titles started to receive captioning. “There are so many games that those who rely on interpretation have never gotten the chance to experience due to them being audio-only,” says McIntyre, “and it’s all the better that these titles are still fresh today due to so many being available via Xbox Game Pass.”
Game Pass is the brand’s subscription service, in which players can choose a certain plan and receive access to a vast number of studio and independent video games in genres ranging beyond the standard first-person shooters (DOOM Eternal) and racing titles (Forza Horizon 5) to include strategy games (Among Us) and story-driven puzzles (Unpacking), simulation (Stardew Valley), action role-playing (Death’s Door), cooperative cooking (Overcooked 2), seafaring epics (Sea of Thieves), episodic narratives (Tell Me Why), family-themed adventures (It Takes Two) all the way to a calming and charming mail delivery game called Lake.
“I’m really excited for the future and current gamers who are deaf,” Sorenson’s vp of brand marketing Ryan Commerson tells The Hollywood Reporter over Zoom, in a conversation conducted with the assistance of certified ASL interpreter Brad Holt, who serves as an exec at Sorenson. “Especially future generations, because I really know what this means. I understand the implication of something like this. This has huge implications, huge impact.”
Commerson was born into a hearing family, having only one distant cousin who is also deaf. He began learning ASL at 4 months old, with a mother who committed to teaching him and would emphasize the necessity of learning about the world directly through his eyes. “Whatever I saw, that was the information I got,” he recalls. “If it was not written down, if it was not signed to me, I didn’t know it. So, my mom would take time, put the effort in, sitting down and walking me through everything that was going on all the time so I could actually learn about human interaction, the rules of engagement, social cues, cultural norms, learn about pop culture.”
Video games were not a huge part of Commerson’s upbringing, which he partly attributes to the fact that few tools were available for him to communicate properly with other players. These days he’ll get online and play a few games with his young nieces and nephews, which he enjoys.
And he’s fully aware of the landscape: “Gaming in the ’80s and ’90s is not like gaming today,” says Commerson. Back then, he says, gamers were viewed as “weird people, social misfits maybe.” Today, he explains, it’s a way of life. “People learn social skills [through] playing games. They learn life lessons. They learn how money works. They learn how politics works. They learn the art of negotiating. All through gaming. Gaming is educational. And it’s a new way of educating the younger generations, babies as young as one or two years old. They pick up an iPad and start experiencing life through playing games.”
Before the ASL channel on Twitch, Deaf gamers would have to guess what streamers were saying during their streams (unless they were watching a streamer communicating in ASL themselves), which typically include commentary on gameplay. As a result, a lot of information and context would be lost. Commerson’s reaction to the new channel? “It’s like, we can finally participate.” He compares the response among the Deaf community to the Twitch channel to how he responded to some of the first TV shows (like Dynasty) that included closed captioning in the ’80s.
For Parker Holt, gaming culture is a staple. The 24-year-old part-time ASL teacher at Utah Valley University has been playing since the age of 4 and enjoys learning about different games from streamers on Twitch, so the channel’s introduction was a long time coming — but a welcome invitation. “Personally, I love watching people play games, [and] I’ve been very disappointed with streamers in general because they just talk,” he tells THR in a conversation conducted with the same interpreter, who is Parker’s father. “They sit there and they start laughing, obviously something’s funny, I have no idea what was funny, I have no idea what happened.”
But now that there’s a channel in ASL, Holt finally has access to the whole story. “I get what’s so funny or I get what’s going on or I understand why a character went this way or that way, and so actually having that information gives me all the access to what the streamer’s trying to portray.”
For McIntyre, his favorite comments since the launch of the channel have been ones from children or parents who were able to watch a live broadcast together for the first time with their Deaf family members. It’s hard not to wonder, already, what innovations will come next for these individuals and families.
Holt looks forward to a future when ASL interpretations reach even wider in the streaming world, not just on this particular channel. He usually doesn’t stream himself, pointing out an issue encountered by some deaf individuals who do: “The difficult thing about being deaf and streaming is, you either play or you communicate,” he says. “Because you’re using your hands to sign so you put the controller down, you sign, then you pick the controller back up, so when you actually have technology down the road, maybe more Deaf people will stream because you’re able to actually play and communicate at the same time.”
Holt also hopes game developers will build upon other existing capabilities such as auto-captioning and text-to-speech and introduce more accessible ways to communicate between people who are deaf — and want or need to use American Sign Language, the primary language of many in the U.S. Deaf community — and people who are hearing. He describes a situation, which he suggests is common for him, where he’ll join a multiplayer game online and begin participating in a discussion about how to win the game or the battle. When he says, “I’m deaf,” he gets automatically disconnected from the game. “I don’t even have a chance to play along,” he says of the abrupt ending.
There are numerous misconceptions about accessibility, one being the idea that its very expensive. Of course, it can be “if you want until the end of a game or design process to try to bolt it on,” says Mortaloni. “However, if you start with accessibility in mind from the start, partner with the community and intentionally focus on making your experience as inclusive as possible, it isn’t as costly as people think, and results in a game more people can play.”
Racing game Forza Horizon 5 recently launched in-game ASL and BSL (British Sign Language) for its cinematics, which McIntyre hopes is a level of support that will be adapted more widely as time goes on.
Mortaloni emphasizes that just because one may not need accessibility features today, doesn’t mean they won’t ever need them. “People use accessibility features for different reasons, from permanent or temporary disabilities, situational circumstances, or personal preference.”
The long-term goal of making gaming accessible for everyone continues with vigor. “We want to create worlds that represent the diversity and experiences of our global population, including people with disabilities, because when everyone can play and contribute, we all win,” says Mortaloni.
Speaking of winning, both Commerson and Holt both, separately, express to THR why deaf gamers tend to perform highly. “There’s some recent research that has actually shown how the deaf brain works,” Commerson says. “Imagine if the brain did not have any auditory stimulation. What’s the brain supposed to do? It rewires itself to become more spacial oriented. And because of that rewiring of the deaf brain, the Deaf community actually does better at gaming. Because games require spacial skills. The Deaf community are way ahead of that game.” Holt emphasizes that it’s the visual orientation. “You’re able to see things that other people don’t see.”
Looking back on some innovations in communication technology, Commerson recalls getting his first teletypewriter (TTY), which allowed him to have conversations on the phone. And then there’s the TTY-based relay service, that enabled him to call hearing people. It wasn’t until around 2002 that he recalls finally communicating on a video phone call using his native tongue, sign language. “The more that technology has enhanced or gotten better, the more we’re able to participate in society,” he says.
To determine where Xbox needs to put more attention and where to innovate, Mortaloni shares that the team continuously listens to and seeks feedback from the community to identify barriers they face, while also observing the needs of the all-up games industry and society in general.
“For us, putting the player at the center of everything we do naturally helps us identify what to do next.”