This week's guest
Ian Hamilton and his family live in a port city called Bristol. He's an accessibility specialist working with studios to raise the bar on accessibility. When he first started to work in accessibility it was a part of his job. Gradually he started to work on it more and went independent.
Ian's story is more like an interview, he answered some questions that we prepared beforehand.
Who are you?
- Ian Hamilton
Where are you from?
- England, though I've moved around a lot.
Other info about yourself:
- My wife and I (and in a few weeks a daughter too) live in the outskirts of a port city called Bristol in the West of England, famous for cider, pirates, political activism and Victorian engineering.
I've been a vegetarian for 37 years and a gamer for 33 years, the first game I played was Galaxians on an Apple II in 1986. My tastes are pretty varied, some of the games that have had the biggest impact on me over that time include Joust, Julian Gollop's Chaos, Speedball II, Monkey Island, Lemmings, Populous, Killer Instinct, Dune 2, TIE Fighter, Tyrian, Doom, Diablo, Counterstrike, Burnout 3, Ridiculous Fishing, Morrowind, Battlefield 4, You Must Build A Boat, Shadow of Mordor, Assassin's Creed Origins, and To The Moon.
What do you do?
- I'm an accessibility specialist. I work with studios, publishers, platforms and industry bodies to raise the bar for accessibility in gaming.
What's your story, how did you get to this point?
- Moving across into accessibility was a gradual thing. Starting back in 2007 it was part of the required responsibilities of my day job. From there I gradually started chipping out bits and pieces of time to work on it in dedicated ways, to the point where I eventually had it written into my roles and responsibilities with a certain amount allocated out of my week. When going independent I essentially worked two full-time jobs; user experience for web & apps during the daytime to make sure that bills were paid, and accessibility advocacy in all my evenings and weekends. Eventually, it got to the point where amongst the advocacy there was just enough paid accessibility work to scrape by on and drop the UX work if I could cut my living costs... so, I moved out of London across the country to somewhere much cheaper. So now accessibility is all that I do.
What inspired you to start?
- It was a three-step process. First was seeing playtesting footage of preschool games that had been adapted to work with accessibility switches; simple on/off hardware for people who can't use traditional input devices, in this case usually a single button mounted on a wheelchair headrest. When at school myself we had an exchange program with a local special education school, so I'd already seen kids with this level of motor impairment who were pretty much just lying there being cared for, passive participants in the classroom. So, to see the impact that design can have, a relatively small tweak and I was watching these kids playing happily, doing the same things as all their classmates, equal participants in that small culture and society... it was pretty mind-blowing. I was working as a designer at the time on games for kids. Up to that point, the pinnacle of what I thought my job was about was if I could entertain people or affect their feelings. So, this really opened my eyes to just how much bigger games can be than that, how much more important our day to day design choices can be to the world. So that's the point at which I started carving out bits of my time to work on my own side projects for that specific audience.
Then once my career had advanced a bit more I was acting as design sign-off for all the various games that other companies published through us. I kept seeing time and time again developers who put tons of polish into some small area of gameplay only to accidentally make it a miserable experience for big swathes of their players through messing up things like contrast and colour use. Not for any good reason at all, just through lack of awareness. There's a misconception that designers are motivated through creativity. Designers are actually often motivated through frustration, having seen something that's clearly broken or could be done better and feeling compelled to fix it. So that's what happened here, it pushed me into working on internal guidelines and internal consulting, to try and fix some of this brokenness. That was the point at which I had accessibility assigned as an official part of my responsibilities. The third step was when the company I was working for (BBC) relocated to the other side of the country, and I couldn't move with them.
By this stage accessibility was the aspect of my work that I was most passionate about, so I looked around for which other companies I could carry on in the same role, naively assuming that like other industries such as construction or web, game accessibility was a standard role. I was wrong, the number of other companies that had roles like that was zero (this was quite a long time ago, there still isn't much but there are now about a dozen or so permanent in-house roles like that worldwide). So that was like being hit by a lightning bolt really, I had no idea that the entire industry was in such dire need of fixing. So that's the point at which I went independent and started working in advocacy. Accessibility became a calling rather than an aspect of my job I was passionate about. So I took up speaking and writing and all the rest, joining the people already fighting to change the industry for the better.
What other passions/hobbies do you have?
- When I'm not doing paid work, I'm usually doing advocacy - speaking at events, organizing events, advocating on social media, writing and so on, so I don't have a great deal of spare time. But when I do, I like rum, cooking, and animals. Before getting into design and games I was heading towards a career in animal behavior research.
Any final message to the community?
- Accessibility for blind & low vision gamers has been out in the wilds for a very long time, often the domain of hobbyist efforts and accidental accessibility (for iOS in particular). That's now changing. Developer attitudes are changing, developer tools are becoming more available, and there's now a legal imperative for text to speech in mainstream games (CVAA). The next few years are going to be a very exciting time for blind accessibility in games.
You can help with that. Speak to developers, speak to other gamers, share good experiences you've had with people who aren't yet [playing] games, bring more blind & low vision folk into the fold... as accessibility progresses that will become easier to do, and the more it happens the more momentum there is for devs considering accessibility, and so on.
You still need patience and goodwill, there's still a long way to go and often developers who want to do good things aren't able to, and often can't speak about the reasons why. But the tide has turned, change is coming, the future has never looked brighter.