Panicking About CVAA? I Spoke to Game Accessibility Specialist Ian Hamilton to Find Out What it Means

Panicking About CVAA? I Spoke to Game Accessibility Specialist Ian Hamilton to Find Out What it Means

Speaking with Ian Hamilton, I asked some questions regarding CVAA that I've seen being asked across the internet.

Earlier this week I covered the news about how games from the start of January 2019 onwards must now ensure that their communications systems are accessible to people with disabilities. At the initial time of writing the article, I had assumed the mentions of communications a few times made it clear that the CVAA was about communications such as text-chat in games, and voice chat.

It appears I was wrong, however, as some people are still confused about the legislation. Not just about the scope, I’ve seen lots of other questions being asked by developers relating to how this will impact smaller indie developers. In order to clarify this legislation further for you all, I reached out to  Game Accessibility Specialist and Advocate Ian Hamilton and cleared up some of these questions.

Before I jump in, let’s make it clear that CVAA is not a new thing. Communication providers in other industries have had to comply with CVAA since 2012. CVAA has applied to the games industry for this period too, but with extra time granted for research and development and implementation through a series of temporary waivers.

The last waiver, specifically for game software, expired on December 31, 2018. Failure to comply with CVAA gives consumers the opportunity to raise accessibility concerns with the FCC, ultimately leading to potential  fines for developers if the issues aren’t resolved. Hopefully, Ian Hamilton’s answer below will give you some more clarification on what exactly CVAA entails.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A is purely informational and not qualified legal advice. For legal advice specific to your game or rights as a consumer please speak to a lawyer.

Ben Bayliss: Does this CVAA legislation affect single-player games or just multiplayer games?

Ian Hamilton: It doesn’t affect games directly. It affects advanced communication services (text chat, voice chat, video chat) across all industries, including those in games. So it is only relevant to games that include chat functionality, and only relevant to the chat functionality, not to gameplay.

It must be possible to locate, navigate to, and operate the chat functionality, so any UI/info needed to do this is also covered. This technically includes accessibility of manuals, help websites etc that relate to comms functionality, but those are pretty unlikely to exist.

BB: Will this force all developers to ensure that all disabilities are catered to? Will failing to do so leave them open to complaints?

IH: There’s a specific set; blind, deaf, HoH no speech, no color perception, limited dexterity, limited reach & strength, limited learning/memory/language, prosthesis, low vision, and hearing loss. There are a couple of extras that are specific to UI and info – avoiding common epilepsy triggers and allowing moving text to be viewed in a static format.

Developers are free to choose whichever implementation works for their own product, but it must be considered from early in development and tested with people with disabilities, with records kept of both things.

BB: Does CVAA apply to both AAA and small indie developers?

IH: Yes. Some accessibility laws have blanket exemptions for small companies; sadly CVAA does not. But it does at least have a concession for achievability, i.e. you’re only required to implement what’s within reasonable effort or expense. This breaks down to four equally weighted factors: nature and cost of the work, impact on the product and company (including financial), and also what other accessible products you provide.

Though the last point isn’t really relevant to games, it’s more for for example if a phone company offers two similar handsets one of which is more accessible than the other. If you want to claim lack of achievability you need to make an assessment based on the above and keep it on record, which FCC will want to see if a consumer makes a complaint. But it’s FCC who make the call on whether your assessment was correct, so it carries a degree of risk, you need to be pretty certain.

BB: What regions does this impact? Will developers outside the US be at risk if their game is not compliant but available to purchase and play within the US?

IH: As with any other domestic legislation (e.g. GDPR) it affects you if you’re making your game available in that market. US developers working for the Korean market aren’t affected, Korean developers working for the US market are affected.

BB: What are the communication systems impact within a multiplayer game? Text chat? Voice Chat? Emotes? In-game maps with social elements?

IH: Only text, voice, video. Emotes and other visual cues are not.

BB: Regarding UI being made compliant, what would be an example of this? Scaleable text chat? Voice volume control?

IH: The biggie for chat-related UI is text to speech. Also size, contrast, no flicker, etc.

Will these changes to communications have an impact on abled players’ experiences when playing online titles with communication-based features?

IH: Yes; they mean greater choice and ability to communicate with more people. As always accessibility features have broad use. Large text is great for small screens and big viewing distance, being able to communicate by text is great when you don’t want to wake your baby.

BB: Are there resources easily available for smaller developers to allow them to easily ensure they meet these various critrea?

IH: Over the past year or so some new tools have become available. The Xbox SDK supports text to speech for UI and realtime transcription between text and speech. And Michelle Martin released an accessibility plugin to support text to speech in mobile Unity games. There are cloud services for speech to text, although unless you’re using Xbox’s service those come with a price tag.

There could and should be more support, there’s plenty that makes no sense at all to have to be developed bespoke for each game. People have been asking engine developers for many years to support things like text to speech for UI out of the box, but ultimately it isn’t going to happen unless enough developers tell them it’s a priority. Maybe now is the time for that to happen.

BB: Should a consumer want to issue a complaint, what would they need to inform the FCC of in order to start an investigation and what evidence would they need?

IH: “Complaint” is a specific thing in FCC terms, consumers cannot directly issue CVAA complaints. They can request dispute assistance through the FCC portal. The first step is communication; ACS providers are required to keep contact details on file with the FCC so the FCC can put consumers in touch with companies. This kicks off a mediation process for the two to work together to get the issue fixed. The endpoint is decided by the consumer, after 30 days they have three choices; close the case, extend mediation by another increment, or escalate the issue to a complaint, which is a full investigation that carries a cost to the consumer and has a 6-month resolution timeframe.

Most industries have had to comply with CVAA since 2012, in that time there have been around 70 dispute assistance requests. So far none of these have progressed to a full complaint, all have been resolved during mediation. FCC has authority to issue hefty fines, but ultimately their goal is not to fine developers, it is to ensure access.

BB: Will this open up developers to attacks from consumers with malicious intent? E.g. Filing a complaint just to cause additional stress.

IH: The FCC is always involved as a buffer, I’d hope they would be able to spot a frivolous or malicious claim. And for consumers to be really belligerent and trigger a full investigation they have to have gone through mediation and then pay a fee.

BB: Bioware last year mentioned that they were cutting out text chat with speculation pointing to the FCC and CVAA being the cause. Would cutting out text chat functions in this way allow them to be exempt? Or are they still affected due to it containing online features and would it only affect them if they included the text feature?

IH: What they said was that they “may” cut out text chat due to text to speech provision and that they were in the process of looking into it. But text to speech applies to voice chat too, people who can’t see the UI text (but still may be able to play the game fine, due to having residual vision) still need to be able to navigate to and operate voice chat functionality, and people who can’t speak or hear need to be able to use it too. Bioware’s most recent reply about text chat in mid-December was “anything is possible”

BB: If a game launched before 2019 but is still heavily updated, will it need to ensure it is compliant, or does this just affect games that launch after 2018?

Games that receive substantial updates are covered. Again it comes down to “achievability” – whether the update would offer an opportunity to make changes within reasonable effort and expense.

So, there’s some more information on the CVAA, if you’re interested in reading the full list of requirements you can visit The Paciello Group article and head down to sections B1 and B2. Additionally, the requirements themselves can be found in the full legislation specifically in section 14.21 through a PDF document available on Gamasutra in the third paragraph.