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  • Cindi Knapton

Core Design Principles: Accessibility & Sustainability

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

I've completed the biennial accessibility and sustainability continuing education requirements to maintain my California architecture license. I am thrilled that these topics align with game development design principles.

What do IRL accessibility and sustainability have to do with game design?

I keep my license up to date as a badge of honor. It represents my experience in understanding and implementing solutions to complex client needs; specifying materials, systems, and structures to optimize function & aesthetics; using critical thinking to meet budget & schedule parameters; complying with local, state, & federal building & planning codes; coordinating with consultants; project management; providing client emotional support; documentation; administering change orders & rectification methods, whew… sorry, I’ll stop now.

Most importantly, I keep my license because it reflects the passion that was instilled in me at Berkeley years ago. Accessibility and sustainability are core design principles for any project in any medium.

Accessibility and sustainability are core design principles for any project in any medium.

Here’s the story of how accessibility became an integral part of my life.

NSFW trigger warning, there’s nothing graphic… but the story has a spicy surprise.

My first architectural design studio was with Professor Ray Lifchez. I was randomly assigned to team of five women architecture students. FYI, the course cohort was 50/50 male & female. We were to design an artist’s housing complex on a strip of land left vacant after the construction of BART.

I was 19, my colleagues on the project were about the same age.

Each design team in the class was assigned a wheelchair-enabled design advisor. I believe the young man that advised us had multiple sclerosis. He was similar in age to us and had a lovely female attendant who accompanied him on his visits to our studio. He was a pro-active member of the disabled revolution at the Berkeley Center for Independent Living (CIL).

paper & cardboard model
Our team's Arch 101 Artist Warehouse Lofts Model: construction paper, cardboard, acetate, lettraset. twigs

Our team spent weeks designing and building our model. It was 15’ long x 4’ wide and able to be deconstructed to discuss & photograph the interior spaces. At our design review our team beamed with pride that we had put at least one bedroom on the ground floor of every artist’s living space. There were stairs to the upper floors, but we felt we had made big steps in accommodation on the ground floor.

Through his speech challenges, our disabled advisor told us very clearly that he wanted to be able to have sex in every room in the house… not just in rooms on the ground floor.

This didn’t just open my eyes… It blew my sheltered, middle-class, teenaged, SoCal-surfer-chick, taking-my-able-body-for-granted, mind!

Of course he wanted to have sex in every room. He was human! He wanted to do the same things that other humans do.

He was human! He wanted to do the same things that other humans do.

That’s when I saw myself in him.

That’s when I understood the user experience.

From then on, to anyone who has complained to me about the costs or difficulty in making design accessible, I have my speech ready.

We all are, or will be, disabled at some point. We will break an arm, or a leg. We will age with vision or hearing impairment. We will have a stroller with kids, packages, or baggage. Any one of us may require the assistance of a walker or wheelchair. Accommodation for the disabled is accommodation for all of us.

Accommodation for the disabled is accommodation for all of us.

BTW Professor Lifchez is still kicking it. He recently supported the momentous Sundance award-winning documentary Crip Camp. The film tracks early moments in the disabled rights movement and the founding of the CIL.

What does this have to do with games?

Games are facing the same issues of accessibility. Now, I'm the one facing accessibility hurdles. I have come to video games late in life. I do not have great controller skills. I want to play every game. Particularly games with great narratives.

But... There are games that I just can’t play. I’m looking at you The Walking Dead, and you The Last of Us, and even you, my beloved Psychonauts2. I cannot get past the darn bouncing bowling ball construction site in the Strike City level. It kills me! I love that game and I can’t finish it!

Psychonauts2 Strike City Level -- copyright DoubleFine

Offering “Easy Mode” on games just is not good enough. That does not solve the accessibility issue.

Supergiant does a great job of making Hades accessible with “God Mode”. I died 200 times before I turned it on. I died another 100 times before I leveled-up my powers and damage resistance to full God Mode, beat the game, and got to enjoy the full rich narrative of Zagreus and family.

I know not every game can be Hades. There must be other ways to fix this.

The simple solutions that I come up with are: If I fail at a level say... 25 times, then I get a magic key, or a tool, or a clue. Or if you don’t want to give me a free pass, let me buy the magic key, or the tool, or a clue with my loot. Give me a riddle, or some other not dexterous challenge. I’m sure that better minds can come up with millions of ways to solve this accessibility hurdle.

Offering “Easy Mode” on games just is not good enough. That does not solve the accessibility issue.

I want to enjoy the narrative just like every other player!

I’m not the only one. Game developers need to invite seniors and players with different abilities into their game parties. Include us. Let us share in the fun and challenges. Let us spend our money to play your games.

We’re a huge untapped market that wants more than just Match-3 time-wasters. No slam on Match-3, they are part of my game diet. But my passion is for narrative driven stories.

Want some inspiration? Check out Able Gamers. They are doing a great job of bringing players of all abilities into the game world.

And now, switching topics, what does IRL sustainability have to do with games?

On a practical level there are simple things that any IRL designer can do to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of a building.

While teaching at the Academy of Art University, one of my students’ favorite field trips was to the Solar Living Institute in Hopland California. There all the sustainability concepts were easy to see and understand. Due to the pandemic, the institute has closed the doors of its magnificent practical demonstration site. If you're interested, you can still take their classes online.

Hopland Solar Living Center copyright

A game that beautifully integrates sustainability into game mechanics with out being didactic is the sci-fi survival game Citizen Sleeper. It employs farming, recycling, water filtration, photosynthesis, bartering, and even fermenting. These tasks require player decision making, patience, and scheduling with the natural life cycles of terrestrial science. Life on The Eye works just like our real world sustainability. I loved the game. And I never felt I was being lectured.

Citizen Sleeper Greenhouse Area -- copyright FellowTraveler & Gareth Damian Martin

As I was studying for my Net ZerO exam I scribbled quick ideas about ways to integrate sustainable practices into game mechanics in 3-D puzzle games without being didactic.

  1. Add or extend a puzzle piece to block the thermal gain/light/heat of the sun. Cool that area to allow heated materials like lava to solidify and become a bridge.

  2. Remove a puzzle piece to utilize the thermal gain/light/heat of the sun. Warm that area and melt away ice to find a new puzzle piece.

  3. Remove puzzle pieces across volumes of space to allow cross ventilation/cooling/air travel. New chilled puzzle pieces blow through on the stream of air and form an ice staircase.

  4. Build forms from local materials to avoid expending transportation energy/reduction in health bar.

  5. Install solar power panels to create electrical power circuits to enable lighting in caverns or construction and manipulation of puzzle pieces.

  6. Install plant life to clean particulates out of the atmosphere and see hidden parts of the puzzle.

  7. Install plant life to moderate temperature variation and stabilize and align wobbly puzzle pieces.

Those are just quick ideas without a specific game context. I'm sure that there are a million more ways to use sustainable thinking in game mechanics.

But… is sustainability in games limited to incorporating sustainable environmental design concepts into the game mechanics? Or could it be a more holistic approach?

Does sustainability in games mean making games that you want to keep playing? This article states "Sustainable Game Design: Developing a game with the purpose to provide continued benefit and enjoyment either with the singular game or with a series. That's a definition of sustainable games that I hadn't occurred to me.

Or... does sustainability in games mean building a game industry that nurtures its talent so that they can sustain a career in games?

Or even... does sustainability in games mean a game industry that reduces its cradle-to-cradle carbon footprint to net zero carbon emissions?

I think sustainability can and should include all aspects of the life cycle of games.

I’d like to see them all on the table: games that include sustainable building practices, games that you want to keep playing, sustainable pipelines designed to nurture humans for long term careers, and even net zero carbon footprint.

Anything is possible. Are you interested in helping with any of these issues? Check out Facilitated by the UN Environment Programme, they have an excellent Climate Check tool There you can explore options to make your game studio more climate friendly.

I am excited to see how we move forward to accomplish accessibility and sustainability in the game industry.

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