I started bringing home landscape drawings from primary school, complete with purple skies. It wasn’t long before I was diagnosed with red and green color blindness.

At 16, I toyed with joining the army. I was worried the condition would affect my options, and recall the careers officer making a quip about not going into bomb disposal... cut the green wire, indeed.

Red and green color blindness isn’t exclusive to those primary colors, however. Purple looks blue to me, hence that sky – I can’t see purple’s red tones. I perceive the world differently – unless you’re one of the 250,000,000 people also affected.

That’s no small number, which is why it’s so surprising so few video games cater for affected people. The first I came across was Battlefield 3 in which, with its default setting, I found it difficult to distinguish between the orange enemies and my green squad members. On occasion, I’d happily skip past an enemy, handing them our flag, only to get knifed in the back. Other times, I’d be blasting teammates in the face... just in case.

Ian Hamilton, a UX designer and accessibility specialist, cites Burnout Paradise as an example of how not to do it. “Burnout uses different colored circles, whereas Grand Theft Auto uses icons,” says Hamilton. “Even people with full color vision have to go through extra work to try to remember which color corresponds to which event - using symbols would have made the game better for everyone.”

One thing I’ve found, is it’s not just map information that can be problematic in today’s games. Call of Duty – which has had color blind modes since Black Ops II – is inadvertently color blind friendly with its ridiculous customization options: I find it much easier to blast fools with a yellow dot sight. Due to the way I perceive red (it's really dark), it only has to move over a shadow, or a patch of dark khaki on a camo outfit, to disappear completely. Most games only have red dots.

“There have been widely covered stories of big name games including color blind modes over the past year, such as Battlefield 4, Borderlands 2, and Sim City,” continues Hamilton. “This has done wonders for raising awareness.”

Ocean Quigley, Creative Director on Sim City came across the problem by fluke. “I was working on different color look up tables (CLUTs) – for aesthetic purposes – and our lead tester mentioned he was color blind,” recalls Quigley. “I chatted with him and realized a bunch of the color cues I was relying on were completely undifferentiated for him. He had to do a lot of trial-and-error just to play.

“I decided it’d be interesting to make a CLUT to emulate color blindness, so people could empathize with his play experience. So I played around for a few hours, before realizing that smarter people than I had already dealt with this problem.

“I discovered Daltonization, and found the color transforms for all the standard forms of color deficiency, and simply applied them to CLUTs to test out. We had enough color blind people on the team that we could actually see if they worked. Once you've got a CLUT in place, making the game accessible to color blind people is pretty easy.”

It’s easy to solve, and affects a large portion of consumers, yet it’s still an afterthought for many games – it’s “women are hard to animate” all over again… Well, not exactly. You see, most people are unaware of the issue.

People like me, who are born with this genetic quirk, don’t know what it’s like any other way, so we’re accustomed to the little annoyances that crop up – I mostly rock black clothes, like a boring ninja. Like Quigley, most designers encounter the problem by chance.

Des Gayle, founder of Altered Gene, also stumbled upon the issue. “Whilst working in Oxford I had the good fortune to be introduced to a charity called SpecialEffect,” remembers Gayle. “I visited their offices and they showed me the work they were doing to help people with physical disabilities to enjoy games. This prompted me to alter my thinking.”

Lynsey Graham, a games designer at Sega, who also helped Hamilton write this guideline, agrees: “It's a matter of awareness - if you're aware of the color combinations that cause issues, you can think of ways to work around them. This can involve simply using a different color scheme, or adding additional visual cues such as shape or pattern.”

Graham, however, was already aware of the issue, growing up with a brother who’s color blind. “I was always confused at how terrible he was at certain games – I thought it was because he had no patience and was inept, and smelled a bit, but he was red and green color blind,” says Graham. “Many games use red and green as a visual shortcut for bad and good in their UI. I’ve used this to my advantage in the past - I waited three weeks before telling him that Super Puzzle Fighter had four colors, not three.”

That last confession gives me terrible flashbacks.

Once levels of awareness raise, we’ll likely see more color blind options crop up in video games. However, there is a better solution: instead of adding in a color blind mode, design your game with it in mind from the outset.

“It's important to take into consideration at the start – then you can incorporate it into the art style, rather than trying to shoehorn fixes in later,” continues Graham. “Publishers, console manufacturers and store holders need to start pushing for games to be color blind accessible as standard. It's important, because it's such an easy thing to work around, but it’s something that, if done wrong, can render a game nigh on unplayable.”

It's not only bad for gamers, but it's bad for developers, shrinking their audience.

“I think the industry needs bravery, and by that I mean those with the resources to take an initial increase in dev costs to either add inclusive modes or come out the blocks with an inclusive design from the start,” says Des Gayle. “The issue is numbers. There should be an increased market to sell to, but does that offset the costs enough? And to play devil’s advocate: is there actually a market, or have people with vision deficiencies already written games off as an entertainment medium?”

Hamilton believes there's a simple solution to this: games already gather statistics on data related to gameplay, so all it would take is a big company to put hooks in the UI to extract the data for how many people use color blind modes. If the demand's there, companies can start thinking of accessibility off the bat.

There’s potentially plenty of money floating out there for developers brave enough to embrace this reality. It might not seem worth it to you, but like color itself, and like most social issues, it’s just a matter of perspective.


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