The Game Lawyer Blog

Game Dev Alert – New games must provide Accessibility Options

Listen up, game devs:

As of January 1, 2019, any new game released is required by law to have certain accessibility options under US law.

Failure to do this could potentially lead to fines and other legal trouble from the FCC.

In this post, I’ll show you where these requirements come from, what they entail, and how you can get compliant.

Video game accessibility rules - what do you need to do?

The CVAA: A short history

Here’s the deal:

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). This law required companies to provide accessibility options in media and communications services, for those with disabilities.

Among other things, it applies to ““playable games on any hardware or online platform, including game applications that are built into operating system software.”

If your game is playable, you’d better pay attention.

The specific portion of the game that we’re dealing with is what the FCC refers to as “advanced communications services.” This means any of the following built into a game:

  • interconnected voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service;
  • non-interconnected VoIP service;
  • electronic messaging service, such as e-mail, instant messaging, and SMS text messaging; and
  • interoperable video conferencing service

While there is no specific standard that must be followed, the law contains certain objectives that must be met by the provider of those media services. The Federal Communications Commission was charged with enforcing the CVAA.

At first, the FCC waived the requirement that video game companies follow the rules of the CVAA back in 2012. This waiver was extended by the FCC a few times, and lasted until December 31, 2018.

Now that it’s 2019, if you release a new game this year and in the future (or substantially upgrade your pre-2019 game), you need to be compliant.

Let’s look at how we can do that.

What are the CVAA requirements for game developers?

At a high level, the CVAA requires that certain parts of video games are “operable without vision.” That’s the high-level objective of the rule.

The law directs developers to “[p]rovide at least one mode that does not require user vision.”

Remember, however, that this only deals with the communications and UI portions of the game – the game in its entirety does not have to be accessible in this way.

As the ESA has argued in its waiver requests, video games present particular problems in implementing this. That’s the reason that the need for compliance has been delayed for so long – we’ve been waiting for technology to catch up.

Well, that time is now.

Time to comply with the CVAA

What do you need to do to get compliant?

The law requires games to not only provide accessibility options within in-game chat functionality, it also requires that UI elements are accessible to those with disabilities.

Specifically, the in-game chat and UI “must be accessible to people of varying sight, motor, speech, cognitive, and hearing ability.”

You also need to keep records of your compliance activities, including consultations with those with disabilities, your implementation and the effectiveness of your accessibility options.

Note: These options should also be part of the design of the game early on, rather than just being tacked on at the end. While this may be unavoidable at this point, it’s worth keeping in mind for current and future game projects (much like “privacy by design” is a core tenet of the GDPR regulations).

What are some examples of compliance?

The industry is moving toward better tools and more examples of compliance. Hopefully these can give you some inspiration on implementing your own compliance methods.

Here are a few:

  • Splatoon 2 introduces a companion app that uses the mobile device’s accessibility options to enable in-game communication for disabled players.
  • Minecraft has added accessibility features, not just for vision impairment, but for a number of disabilities. These include text-to-speech functionality and and options for those with diminished motor control and dexterity.
  • Unity released the Unity Accessibility Plugin, which lets certain Unity Engine-developed games provide screen reader functionality in conjunction with the user’s OS. It also implements navigation controls that work via gestures rather than traditional input methods.
  • Microsoft has updated its Narrator accessibility software for Xbox to provide more functionality, including the ability to verbalize button presses.
  • EA has implemented text-to-speech into its Origin platform software, so that chat can be read aloud by the device.

As you can see, the industry is moving toward creating more methods to implement these requirements and increase accessibility for all players.

It’s worth investigating the options available for your own game.

How can game developers be compliant with CVAA?

What if you can’t get compliant?

There’s some good and some bad news.

Obviously, you want to get compliant as quickly as possible, if not prior to release (as required). But what if you aren’t?

First, before someone can file a complaint with the FCC, they need to file what’s called a “Request for Dispute Assistance” (RDA). This is basically asking the FCC for help to get the issue resolved informally. The FCC requires that the parties then try to work it out amongst themselves, a process which can be extended for additional 30-day periods.

The CVAA dispute process

If that doesn’t work out, the following process starts:

  • A consumer files an “informal complaint” with the FCC
  • The FCC forwards that informal complaint on to you
  • You need to file an answer to the complaint within 20 days, responding to the allegations
  • The FCC then has 180 days to investigate the issue based on the complaint and the response
  • If they find non-compliance, the FCC will then most likely just direct you to get compliant or the “formal” complaint process begins (which can result in fines and damages)

These fines can be up to $100,000 for each violation or for each day that you’re in violation, up to $1,000,000.

Yikes.

Will your average game developer get hit with $1,000,000 in fines if they don’t comply?

Probably not.

Why you probably won’t get $100,000 fines

First, someone needs to get to the point where they can file a complaint. According to the FCC, the RDA process “has achieved the resolution of the vast majority of accessibility concerns raised by consumers through dialogue and negotiation with [companies].” There were only 16 service-related RDAs filed during 2017.

Adding video games to the list of things covered by the law may increase this, but the process above still remains in place.

If you get to the point where a complaint is filed and you need to respond, after the process is over you will most likely just be directed to fix the issue. So then you fix it.

The big numbers are understandably scary, but the actual implementation of these measures in reality is not quite as bad.

If it’s truly unreasonable for you to get your game in compliance with the CVAA requirements, you can make the case to the FCC and potentially get the requirements waived. This requires that you show:

  1. The nature and costs of steps for compliance are too much
  2. The technical and economic impact of adding accessibility would be too much for the developer (often related to the size of the developer)
  3. The type of operation your company is, and whether that lends itself to achieving accessibility
  4. The extent to which the developer is offering accessibility options

There was an exemption for small businesses in the initial implementation of the law, but that expired back in 2013.

Video game accessibility requirements under the CVAA

What do I think?

This is important, and is a good thing.

As video games become more of a cultural touchstone, it’s vital that everyone is able to enjoy them, regardless of any disability they may have.

While there are certainly technical hurdles to be overcome, the ESA and other industry groups are working towards removing these barriers and making it easier to implement in games. The 2018 Mid-Year Report delivered by the ESA to the FCC is worth a read to see where things are headed.

Many argue that adding hurdles like these will lead to indie and other small devs just removing chat from their games. While this may be true (at least at first), I believe that the industry will push toward more easily-implemented solutions so that everyone can be compliant and have the features they want.

For further info, check out this great Reddit thread where expert Ian Hamiton is answering user questions.

Are you a developer?

I’d love to know your thoughts. Let me know in the comments below!

Need help making sure you’re compliant? Contact me for a free consultation by clicking here.

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California game lawyer focused on providing end-to-end legal protection and legal services for video game and board game developers, as well as software and mobile app developers.
California game lawyer focused on providing end-to-end legal protection and legal services for video game and board game developers, as well as software and mobile app developers.