Pokémon Go – or no go – the access implications of augmented reality

Pokémon Go offers a gaming experience unlike any other for most players. However, as an accessibility specialist, my first interest in the game wasn’t so much in terms of how good it was as a game, but whether or not people with disabilities would actually be able to play it.

I was recently in Japan for a holiday with the family when Pokémon Go was first launched. While the launch didn’t initially include Japan (and it’s worth noting that technically the game was developed by Niantic) there was much excitement in the air and its launch signalled Nintendo’s march back to relevance with its first major game on a non-Nintendo device since arguably the ColecoVision in the early-1980s.

The instant success of the Pokémon Go game was the talk of the town in Tokyo and while we finished our family holiday just before McDonalds offered Pokémon toys in happy meals, much to the disappointment of my two children, the game became a hit there and has pretty much succeeded in every country it launched in.


Why all the fuss about Augmented Reality (AR)?

For many people, the barrage of news items relating to kids falling into lakes, stumbling across criminal activity or stampeding through busy streets due to a lack of concentration on their surroundings, is interesting and more than a little concerning. But it doesn’t really answer the question ‘what exactly is all the fuss about?’. To answer this question we need to step back ten years and consider Nintendo’s approach to gaming with the Nintendo Wii.

The Wii was a revolutionary game console, primarily because it got people playing games in a new way after the console was released. The Wii effectively took people away from the traditional mode of playing games such as sitting on the couch or playing in an arcade, and instead got them standing up and moving around. Indeed, the implications were enormous with people everywhere, from kids to seniors, finding new ways to play tennis and go bowling thanks to the pack-in game Wii Sports which for many was seen as the only game they needed. Fast forward to today, and Nintendo is again leading the charge in a game concept largely unfamiliar to many – taking the gaming experience outdoors and blurring the lines of the real world with the virtual one.


Is Augmented Reality new?

While Pokémon Go represents a new experience for most people, AR is not a new concept. Online retailers have been providing AR for years in the retail space allowing us, for example, to take a picture of ourselves to try on virtual glasses or look at how a virtual piece of Ikea furniture would look in our home before buying it. In the game space, AR has also been around for a while with creative uses of our camera phones and QR codes to find virtual things in real life. While a little dated in the Pokémon Go context, there’s a good article from early 2015 that discusses 11 helpful AR apps for Android which highlights that AR isn’t new in itself, but Pokémon Go does new things with it.

But back to the big question. Is this game for everyone?


The hunt for Pokémon – and accessibility 

With excitement all around me and constant news footage of people doing crazy things to find rare Pokémon, I decided upon returning to Perth that I must find out two important things. Was the game fun? And was the game accessible?

To find out I took my two children for a walk around our local neighbourhood to give the game a go. From the fun perspective, it was great. My children had a lot of fun finding several Pokémon as we worked our way to the stops and both kids managed to successfully catch a number of Pokémon along the way. While we were limited to stops within walking distance of my home, the game worked well for us in terms of gameplay and it was a great shared experience.

However, from an accessibity point of view, it was very challenging. Being vision impaired, there was little support for my needs, with AR mode and non-R modes being difficult to use, no audio feedback from the Talkback screen reader on my Android phone, and while the game would make various sound effects to indicate changes in gameplay, the map was completely inaccessible to me.


AR has huge potential – let’s use it

While the implementation of AR in Pokémon GO was disappointing for people with disabilities, its important to stress that AR in general has massive implications for people with disabilities As I’ve mentioned in this column previously, one of the biggest attractions is the promise of a device I can wear such as a HoloLens, Google Glasses or perhaps an adaptation of Intel’s Project Alloy – whereby I can view the world in a high-contrast-optimised view. This delivers important things that I need, like being able to locate someone in a crowd, as it can be highlighted in my view for my eyes only, or allow a screen reader to be able to process visual information to then provide discrete information to provide assistance to me. These are just a couple of examples of what’s possible now, let alone what’s possible in the future.

Moving back to entertainment… what Pokémon Go highlights well is that gaming is not locked to our home or even a specific platform, but all people of all abilities can be supported – if developers choose to do so.


Fixing the AR accessibility issues

In the case of Pokémon Go specifically, there’s a few simple things that could make a real difference for people with disabilities. Firstly, when Pokémon do appear, it wouldn’t be too difficult to provide audio cues, or at least text that could be picked up by a screen reader, to encourage you to move your phone into the right position – similar to turn-by-turn instructions by a GPS to give people who are vision impaired a fighting chance to find the Pokémon that has appeared. Secondly, a high-contrast mode for the app would be helpful for people with low vision, and providing text-based instruction to stops that screen readers could pick up would also be helpful.

Looking to AR gaming development more broadly, the frustration here is that there’s already lots of great information for developers as to what needs to be done to make gaming accessible. As mentioned in my August 2014 article Accessible gaming: is there any help out there? and the AbleGamers Foundation provides Includification game accessibility guidelines. These guidelines are divided into mobile, hearing, vision, and cognitive, and have been created to ensure that accessibility can be implemented without any impact on gameplay. Examples in the mobility area include alternative configurations and remapping keys, hearing focuses on closed caption support, vision examples include high-contrast mode and enemy marking, while cognitive focuses on the provision of difficulty levels and game tutorials.

While on the W3C front there’s still no specific standard relating to accessible gaming, there’s an increasing amount of documentation relating to the applicability of WCAG 2.0 in a mobile context. In my view, if Pokémon Go’s developers just spent a little bit of time around the key aspects of WCAG for screen reader compatibility, button labelling and addressing sensory characteristic issues, there’s a good chance the app would be available for assistive technology users as well.


Save a seat for me at the virtual table

With Nintendo announcing the upcoming launch of Super Mario Run at the end of the year, it’s clear that new and innovative gaming is here – and that’s a good thing. However, it’s important for developers to consider that the implications of AR stretch far beyond gaming, and with a little bit of consideration to the standards and recommendations available around making apps accessible, there’s a good chance that the future of gaming will be available to everyone. And I look forward to having a seat at the table – virtual or otherwise – when the next hit game comes around.