Anyone who has joined an online game knows chat can be a fun, engaging, and useful tool in teaming up, but it can also be an intimidating, cumbersome mechanism to utilize when there are many things on screen vying for your attention. Sometimes you want to turn chat off, mute certain players, or it may be too difficult to read what others are typing in a busy game. The simple concept of making in-game chat more customizable can dramatically improve your game experience. That’s exactly what a Microsoft Garage intern team set out to do for their winter 2018 Garage internship project in Vancouver: they built features to make Minecraft accessible to more audiences, like the autism community.
“We focused on features that would help people with autism especially, but anybody who plays the game in the future would also benefit.” Michaela Olsakova was a Software Engineer intern during her Garage internship. Stemming from the initial project pitch by the project sponsors, the Minecraft Education team, the philosophy of inclusive design was at the core of the project idea. “Even though we designed for one customer profile, there are multiple other customers who would find value.”
The interns handed their project off to their sponsors on the Minecraft Education team last year and the features were added to Minecraft: Education Edition. Now the team is ready to release the project’s chat-features to the Bedrock version of Minecraft as a suite of chat settings allowing players to customize font, line spacing, font size, and chat colors for all chat and player mentions. These new additions complement existing accessibility features like speech-to-text chat, making Minecraft an even more collaborative and socially connective environment with over 112 million players per month across all versions of the platform.
Arnaud Paré-Vogt, Henry Li, Joy Zhang, Michaela Olsakova, Rose Hirigoyen, Riad Gahlouz, Charmaine Lee
“At the beginning of our internship, we attended a conference on inclusive design, it was always at the center of everything we did.” Riad Gahlouz was a Software Engineer intern. He explained how the idea of accessibility for the autism community resonated deeply with him. “I have a few family friends that are on the autism spectrum. I’ve always been inclined to help them achieve stuff, things that may seem simple for others but can be difficult for them.” That, coupled with a childhood dream to work on Minecraft, sealed the deal for Riad when it came time for the Garage intern team to give their input about which projects to work on. “When I saw the pitch from the Minecraft Education sponsors, I thought this is the perfect match. I got Arnaud interested in the project and then everyone else kind of followed.”
Arnaud Pare-Vogt was a Software Engineer intern on the project. He shared a simple but important message that guided their approach to accessibility. “Having accessibility features doesn’t have to impact the difficulty of the game.” While working on the project, Arnaud and team encountered the misconception that making games more accessible meant making them easier. The interns demonstrated that simply was not true and that these features are independent from what makes a game difficult. “Designing a game for inclusivity and accessibility doesn’t mean you have to make it easy.”
Rose Hirigoyen was a Software Engineer and quality co-champion along with Riad on the project. “This project taught us to really learn about the customer first – in our case it was meeting and talking with people of varying abilities, understanding how it feels for them when they’re gaming, what challenges they face, and what we can do to help not just in Minecraft but in general, to have a deeper understanding of their experience.”
Rose explained how sensory overload, when a person might experience sounds, visual signals, or colors that can be extremely overwhelming, can dramatically affect their ability to play. “Usually the chat was one big, white wall of text. When you see that, it can be hard to read, hard to make out the different people that are speaking. We wanted to give options like making the text bigger, and adding spacing and color, so when you’re playing with friends it will be easier to communicate with them.” Not only text, but colors, objects, shapes, and patterns are all potential culprits.
As part of making Minecraft more accessible and enjoyable, people like Melissa Boone, a Research Manager at Xbox, explores how to design better game experiences. Melissa was one of three social and behavioral scientists who provided customer research guidance to the interns. She has been closely involved with the Minecraft team for several years, watching people playing games and talking with players to uncover what they love as well as what can be improved.
“Minecraft is one of those teams that’s super progressive and inclusive, with one of the most diverse game audiences out there. We want to continue that tradition.”
“Everyone was excited for the opportunity to bring more accessibility into the game.” Melissa guided the interns on how to conduct user research studies, including how to recruit people for the study, having the right kind of audience to participate, determining what questions to ask, and how to have productive conversations. “Because there is a large existing community of Minecraft players with autism, it made a lot of sense to focus the project efforts there and meet the players where they are.” User research was a key component that informed what features should be built. “It was pretty cool to have the opportunity to teach the interns the research process so they could conduct actual studies themselves, analyze the results and uncover insights. It’s a skill they can use in other contexts no matter what they’re working on.”
Stéphane Morichere-Matte is Principal Program Manager for The Garage and runs the Vancouver Garage Internship. Over the years, a customer-focused approach remains an important pillar for each project, and as a result, he has cultivated relationships with diverse groups and communities all over Canada. “Our interns were very fortunate to be hosted by the Pacific Family Autism Network, where we got to work with the community to find out how to make games more inclusive. The game enhancements are not very difficult to do, but it can make such a positive impact.”
Communication can be difficult for people on the autism spectrum, which is why the interns decided to focus on developing chat features. “While visiting the Pacific Family Autism Network, we witnessed a lot of people who bonded over these games,” Program Manager intern Charmaine Lee explained. “People are making meaningful connections through gaming, so it’s very rewarding when they have a game experience that fits their needs.”
Another thriving Minecraft community of players of all ages is found on Autcraft, a whitelisted Minecraft Java Edition server. Teachers also have been using Minecraft to support special education classes and engage students in custom lesson plans with Minecraft: Education Edition.
Henry Li, the Designer intern on the project, recounted how it was his first internship experience and one that he won’t soon forget. “I worked with these really talented interns, my peers, on one of the biggest IP’s in the world. It was an honor to work on such a hugely impactful project.” The practice of embracing new ideas and continually learning was something he acquired along the journey. “A lot of the growth mindset I absorbed from everyone around me. Each day you get to learn something new and there’s plenty of things to do. In those four months I learned so much. Once you have a growth mindset, your life will be different.” The interns pushed each other’s limits and accelerated productivity, helping each other grow, learn from failure, and celebrate the moments of success. “Even though the pressure you have is from your peers – everyone has dependencies and ownership of the project, we get to decide what to do and what to work on – it’s having that great teamwork that helps foster growth.”
Echoing this sentiment was Michaela. “Somehow we all got really lucky and had the most amazing team to work on this. You succeed together and fail together. I think that’s rare. I’ll never forget it.”
Each day, gaming is becoming more accessible to people from all walks of life. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, games like Ear Hockey, and game-dev tools like Responsive Spatial Audio for Immersive Gaming, are only a few of the ways Microsoft is practicing thoughtful, human-centric design for technology that connects people. The interns can now add Minecraft accessible chat-features to the expanding list, with high hopes that everyone can benefit from easier to read, customizable chat, tailored by you, to enhance your Minecraft experience.