Meet Samus Wolfe, a mentor for Springboard’s UI/UX Design Career Track.
Samus Wolfe is no ordinary UX designer. As a senior researcher at the AbleGamers charity, she trains UX design teams at game development studios to make games more accessible to players with physical and cognitive impairments. This involves everything from redesigning game controllers—Sony recently unveiled its first accessible controller at CES 2023 for players with limited motor control—to removing visual elements that might trigger or upset players with certain phobias or mental health disorders.
Accessibility can and should be baked into game design, but these changes are often made retroactively to make games more inclusive. Wolfe’s team at AbleGamers has trained Blizzard’s UX teams to create accessible experiences for disabled players.
“AbleGamers creates a gaming experience for people to combat social isolation,” says Samus. “People with disabilities are generally excluded from things because the world is not inclusive or accessible to them. Providing them h a way to connect with others through gameplay is huge.”
Tell me about your work in inclusive design, specifically with AbleGamers. How do you make games accessible and fun for everyone?
My background is primarily front-end web development for accessible software. I’ve always been a video game enthusiast. At AbleGamers, I focus on research. I work with video game studios daily. We’ve worked with Sony, EA, Blizzard, and tiny studios people have never heard of.
We sit down with game developers and discover how we can help them make their games more accessible. That might involve training employees, researching, or evaluating their products. Game developers are brilliant people, but accessibility is not fundamentally taught.
Are these changes incorporated into the base game or is there a special version of the game for people with disabilities?
Accessibility is about giving people options. Can I turn a certain function on or off? Can I adjust it? Can I toggle versus hold? Can I change the colors? Can I take things out of the game that might trigger or upset me? Some game studios have implemented these accessibility options retroactively.
Can you give one or two examples of ways games can be made more accessible?
There’s a survival game called Grounded where you’ve been shrunken down and have to navigate a world where the insects, grass, and leaves are gigantic. We gave players the option to remove spiders and add different visuals in case they have arachnophobia.
Some shooting games allow players to change human gore and body parts into robot bits, like metal screws. So people who have problems seeing blood don’t have to. Game designers are starting to recognize that cognitive barriers are significant.
How do you design for that without it being too disruptive? Say you’re entering a cave and a menu pops up, saying, “Do you like blood?” Or, “Are you afraid of spiders?” How does that work?
When the player enters the game, they’ll usually receive a warning of triggering things they might see, and they can approve or disapprove. However, triggers are integral to the plot for some games, so you can’t take them out. If that’s the case, you’ll see a generic warning advising you not to play if those triggers apply to you.
Fortnite and Call of Duty start with a tutorial where players can customize the game to their preferences. If you’re colorblind and need a certain colorblind setting or need to increase text size, you have that option.
So game developers must be trained by a UX designer who understands inclusive design. Is that because they haven’t learned about accessibility?
This stuff is not fundamentally taught. Also, game developers might be reluctant to make accommodations. They want their vision to be seen. They don’t want to disrupt their creative process because somebody says, “I can’t play your game.”
Nobody’s saying you have to change the game entirely. Just give people the option to customize it.
I imagine this makes business sense for game developers because it widens their player base.
Yes. You make more money by making things accessible, period. People with disabilities have expendable income that they want to spend on games.
There’s currently no formal training in inclusive design. How does one break into this field?
By having an interest in it. I have dyslexia and OCD. Certain games are not accessible to me. When I started working as a front-end developer, I realized how much goes into making a website accessible. If you don’t incorporate accessibility from the start, you’re slapping a Band-Aid on it later to meet compliance regulations.
I was excited about becoming a Springboard mentor because I got to tell all my students about it. I sit them down and I give them the accessibility talk.
It sounds like, at the moment, the only options are self-guided learning or being lucky enough to have someone like you as a mentor who works in inclusive design.
Yes. It’s even hard to find a bachelor’s degree in UX design. Most people study human-computer interaction or behavioral design. A lot of people enter the UX field through graphic design.
What about alternative credentials for learning about UX design and accessibility?
I love bootcamps. I went through a bootcamp for web development. That was a game changer because I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, which didn’t help me much. But when it comes to bootcamps, you have to find them. You don’t hear about them in high school. People aren’t taught about UX design as a career path, either.
Students often come to me and say, “I heard about UX design from my brother’s third cousin’s dog groomer.”
Even in 2023, UX design is still not very well known. You have to hear about it through the grapevine.
No. it’s one of those things you discover by knowing someone in the tech industry. And then you don’t hear about accessibility until you land a design job and learn your users’ needs.
What is the most rewarding part of being a Springboard mentor?
I love working hands-on with students and watching them experience those “aha” moments. I’ve seen students go from being unsure if they were in the right place to confidently showing me their presentations and research. It’s so rewarding to share my passion for UX design and using software for good. We’re here to defend the users of various products and bring their pain points to light, and then to use our skills for the betterment of humans. It’s just so exciting.