‘Accessibility isn’t just about the player’: A Q&A with gaming accessibility and sensitivity designer Joanna Blackhart

During their time as an accessibility and sensitivity designer in gaming, Joanna Blackhart has seen the best and worst sides of the industry. The writer and consultant started their career as a gaming quality assurance and customer service specialist, working for Blizzard Entertainment between 2005 and 2008 before leaving due to the company’s notoriously toxic work culture.

After a stint as an activist advocating for trans and nonbinary people, Blackhart re-entered the gaming industry as a consultant helping both AAA (that is, mid-to-high-budget) and independent publishers keep their titles accessible and accountable to marginalized players. Last year, the developers of the popular indie role-playing game Ikenfell brought Blackhart on to ensure their portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters was accurate, leading them to effectively rewrite and rescript the game (which went on to garner praise for its compassionate depiction of the queer community). 

As brands expand their presence in gaming and in-game activations become increasingly elaborate, the demographics of the video game community are widening as well. Accessibility and sensitivity work is crucial to ensure that advertisers can continue to play in the space without getting burned by tone-deaf games and non-inclusive themes and character development.

Digiday reached out to Blackhart for a frank discussion about the ins and outs of their work as an accessibility and sensitivity designer in gaming — and the ways in which the space can still be relatively unwelcoming to marginalized workers and gamers.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

What exactly does an accessibility and sensitivity designer do?

A lot of my work includes editing, writing, game design and that sort of thing. Often it comes down to sitting down and working with the lead programmers, or whomever is in charge of writing story content, and basically rewriting what they’re doing. So “sensitivity and accessibility consultant” is a general term, but it covers so many parts of the job. It’s a very large job.

I think a lot of people, whenever they hear accessibility and consulting, they think, ‘oh, you just test out the game a little bit, and you point out one or two things that are inaccessible.’ Like, there’s not a colorblind mode, and that’s the end. But no — that is hardly touching on anything I do. 

Accessibility isn’t just about the player, it’s also about making sure that the people who make the game literally aren’t dying. It’s such a vast title because it goes outside of just what to do for the player; accessibility starts from the ground. And I don’t just end up working in games: I work in books, I work in movies and short films and in general tech as well. I do my job pretty much everywhere, because unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that’s terribly accessible.

Do the major games publishers have accessibility designers on staff?

So, I know for a fact that two or three major AAA companies have a single accessibility person, and that’s basically their whole designation of the role. But the thing is, that’s not how this job works. Because I’m working on accessibility and sensitivity stuff, I can’t cover everything on my own — that is absolutely impossible. 

My job is often just assessing what needs to be done, and then also figuring out how to approach it. And sometimes that means bringing on several people that are capable of doing that. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’m the arbiter of anti-Black racism, because I’m not Black, right? In cases like that, what I do is go and find other accessibility consultants. 

Disabilities are not all the same. You cannot have one person covering for everything. So for companies to have one person on board is really unfair to that person — and also totally not getting the job done, no matter how good they are. 

I will say that Microsoft has gone above and beyond any other company; they’re always talking about their accessibility, and they’re actually doing a lot more than any other company in the industry.

Can you flag any recent AAA titles that could’ve used more attention on the accessibility and sensitivity side?

Sure, I can give you a pretty recent one: Forza Horizon 5. It’s not a title I worked on, but I was reading on Twitter yesterday that a user whose name is Osama — the team had blacklisted his name, with a word filter saying that it was a bad word. 

The thing is, I have worked in multiple AAA companies, and I have no idea who to go to for something as small as the blacklist — like, word filters are just such a tiny job among hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. Word filters and that sort of thing are almost invisible, in terms of how you can change them, because that’s not something that’s on top of the list in most places, and it’s an entire mission to track down the one person who has control of that list. 

Most of the time, they’re just generic word filters that are made by whatever standard the company has, and then they just go and throw it into every game they make. We’ve just got this word filter list, let’s just go and put it in there, and the job’s done.

That being said, since I called Forza out for doing something messed up, I also want to call out something really good they did, because it’s something I haven’t seen in games before that I’d love to see more often. They are actually adding a sign-language interpreter in-game, though I don’t know if that feature is live yet.

How is the pay for accessibility and sensitivity professionals in gaming?

I make no money; I am so poor. But a lot of that comes not from the fact that there isn’t money to be made in what I do, but rather that I’m not really in it for the money — I end up working with a lot of indie devs, who are like one or two people working out of a garage, and don’t have AAA budgets and stuff. I’m not going to say, ‘oh, you can’t make your game more accessible, you’re SOL.” And so I end up working for pennies, or not anywhere near what my standard consulting fees are. Sometimes that will mean 200 bucks for working an hour, sometimes that will mean 100 bucks for working on something for a couple months.

I rarely do actually get stuff that’s at market rates, and those jobs are the ones that really keep me afloat. My work can easily be worth at least $100 an hour. But those are a little harder to come by, and a major part of my job is looking for jobs.

Can work in the accessibility and sensitivity space act as an escape route for marginalized folks elsewhere in the industry?

Make no mistake: it is an escape route, but I only got here because I’m lucky enough that one of my industry friends saw my work that was not gaming-related and gave me a shot.

That brings me to my next endeavor: I’m in the process of building an accessibility and sensitivity consulting firm that is a worker co-op, specifically so that I can find a lot of BIPOC kids that are interested in gaming, but are maybe burned out or didn’t fit in because of corporate culture, or disabilities, or they’re too queer or whatever.

I know for a fact that there are a lot of people that have the exact same story as I do , and just didn’t have the luck. So I’m trying to find them and give them the luck that they deserve.

If any BIPOC, disabled or queer folks in gaming are reading this and interested in joining this kind of endeavor, please feel free to reach out via Twitter.


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