Accessibility in online gathering spaces like Gather and Kumospace

I’m seeing reactions that I think are worth signal-boosting regarding conventions held in virtual spaces like Gather (aka GatherTown) and Kumospace.

The core of the issue is that although those kinds of spaces may be really useful and accessible for some people, they’re really inaccessible and hard to use for a lot of other people.

(In this post, I’m going to talk about some of the good things about those systems as well as some of the bad things.)

For anyone who doesn’t know about these kinds of spaces (I hadn’t heard of them ’til a couple months ago), here’s a simplified description: attendees visit a website and see an overhead view of a 2D room. Within that room, each attendee has an avatar of some sort, which they can move around in the room. It looks a lot like playing a certain kind of video game. When your avatar is near other avatars, you and the owners of the other avatars can hear live audio of each other and see live video of each other. (For anyone who doesn’t have their mic or camera turned off, of course.)

The idea is to simulate a physical space. People can gather in small groups in the same larger room, and their conversations don’t interfere with each other. You can “sit” at a “table” (by moving your avatar next to the image of the table) and other people who are wandering through can “sit” there too and chat with you. You can fairly easily drift in and out of group conversations. It lets you have the freeform and serendipitous social interactions of a physical space.

For me, this is much more psychologically comfortable than something like a Zoom breakout room, which I still haven’t used in this kind of context. I feel like it’s analogous to the difference between a big open physical space and a physical space that’s separated into small rooms, each with a closed opaque door. For me, having to open a door to peek into a conversation on the other side of it, without knowing who’s there or what they’re talking about, is anxiety-provoking. Whereas being able to linger unobtrusively at the edge of a conversation, and then join in gradually if I want to and if there’s conversational space for me to do so, is a lot more comfortable for me.

However, the Gather/Kumospace paradigm is really inaccessible for a lot of people.

For one thing, the whole metaphor is designed around looking at a space and using relatively fine motor control to navigate through it. The spaces are filled with images of physical stuff—walls, tables, chairs, plants, etc. (Those items are mostly just decoration rather than functional things or obstacles, but they’re a very prominent aspect of the virtual space.) Navigation generally involves looking at the image of the space and moving your avatar around in that space, using keyboard keys or a mouse pointer. There are some kinds of workarounds—Gather, for example, suggests using their Follow feature to have someone else guide you around the space—but the paradigm of the system is not friendly to people who have visual or fine-motor-control disabilities.

Those problems are exacerbated when a convention tries to make the virtual space even more like a physical space. For example, this year’s Eastercon used Gather, and if I understand right, they laid things out in the virtual space in such a way that you had to move your avatar a very long way down a virtual hallway to get from one room to another. I imagine that facilitated serendipitous hallway meetings, but it also made the space a lot harder (and more time-consuming) for a lot of people to navigate.

And the issues with these kinds of spaces go beyond the visual and movement issues. For example:

  • The idea that you can only hear people near you, and that volume drops off with distance, is in some ways really clever—but it also causes big problems for anyone who doesn’t hear well. And it means that you can easily find yourself hearing only half of a conversation, or talking into what you think is a silence but is really just someone talking who’s just out of your hearing distance.
  • As a result of the volume-attenuation thing, you may need to overlap your avatar with other people’s avatars, or even put yours completely on top of theirs, in order to be close enough to other avatars in the group to hear them. This feels really socially awkward to me, especially when the other people who I’m virtually sitting on top of are strangers to me. (This is more of a problem in Kumospace than in Gather, for me.)
  • It can be really easy to accidentally give the impression that you’re following someone around. (This happens much more easily than in a physical space.) I suspect that it can also be really easy for someone who you don’t want following you to follow you. Gather has a blocking system that could help with unwanted contact, but even so, it feels like there’s strong potential for creepiness here.
  • To interact in these spaces, you have to be able to speak. (Or have good text-to-speech, and type fast.) And you don’t have to have video turned on, but the norm (in my limited experience) does appear to be to keep video on. For a lot of people, those kinds of things are physical and/or psychological and/or social barriers to participation in this kind of space.

  • I’m sure there are plenty of other issues; this is just a sampling.

Of course, all available options for gathering online have some accessibility drawbacks (as do gatherings in physical spaces). For example, some people love Discord for this kind of thing; it’s great in some ways, and avoids a lot of the problems that I mention above by not being focused on a visual interface or a physical-space metaphor, but it does mean that you sometimes have to be able to type fast (or have good speech-to-text) to be able to participate in a conversation. And in my experience, even joining a Discord space requires jumping through a lot of technical hoops.

But even so, if you’re considering using a system like Kumospace or Gather for an online gathering, please spend time thinking about accessibility, and whether this kind of system is a good idea given the accessibility issues.

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