Being a legally blind PC gamer, I have a choice of Text Based Games, Audio Games or the more typical, mainstream video games. I mention this choice as my mind has been drifting back towards gaming of late. Having taken a bit of a break from it recently. The tweet below caught my eye and it’s corresponding article got me thinking.
— Media Access Aus (@mediaaccessaus) 22 August 2016
Ignoring text based games and audio games for a moment, mainstream video gaming, for blind and partially sighted people, is more often than not a game of trial and error. Going over the same level over and over again, remembering where the enemies, power ups and pit falls are all located. @BGMisadventures mentioned something similar to this in her #MyBlindStory article (which can be found here), on Blind New World. She also mentions that we have to rely heavily on others. But I feel, with the current programming knowledge and tools at developers disposal, this situation could be vastly improved.
— BlindNewWorld (@BlindNewWorld) 19 August 2016
Although peoples levels of sight obviously vary widely, Terry demonstrates perfectly in his popular YouTube video, how he copes with a mainstream game, using stereo sound and in game audio indicators to navigate the game. This is a great demonstration of the current state of affairs for blind gamers.
I want to be clear, I’m not belittling blind gamers achievements for playing mainstream games in this way. On the contrary, I congratulate them, It shows an outstanding level of determination and love for the game they’re playing. It’s just my dream, as a legally blind gamer myself, to have a more immersive gaming experience, similar to that of my sighted peers and I doubt I am alone in this.
Don’t get me wrong, there are video games out there that are, for the most part, completely accessible for blind and partially sighted players, especially on the iOS and Android platforms, such as Dice World, a very popular game in the blind community. These games can hardly be considered action packed however. On the graphics heavy end of the game spectrum there are games, that, once your vision drops below a given level, playing that game just becomes untenable.
Does that have to be the case? Would it be possible to introduce a game mechanic, like the one that is central to Deep Echo. In this game, you can make your way through each game level, locating objects of danger and exit points all through sound. Although once again, the game play is not graphically stimulating for the fully sighted player and can hardly be considered a mainstream game, that’s not the point. What I want to focus on here is the way in which players navigate the game levels.
Mainstream games could integrate such a mechanic where, upon selecting an accessibility option, the player can navigate the game world using an echo location aid. This way, rather than trusting to luck and an awesome memory. Blind players can play reactionary game play, like our sighted counterparts. Once again, or maybe for the first time, having that on the edge of your seat game play, where you’re lost in the moment, not knowing what’s going to come next and loving it.
As demonstrated by Terry in the video linked to earlier in the post, visually impaired gamers, even more so than sighted players, are used to using audio queues that the game developers introduce into the game. Using audio to provide even more accurate navigational information is just the natural evolution in my mind.
Adding to the echo location, developers could also provide visually impaired gamers with tactile feedback, using today’s console controllers. Or maybe, through a wearable peripheral that has yet to be invented. These additions would increase the immersion into the game for visually impaired gamers as well as increasing game accessibility.
These feedback adaptations may require the game play to be paired down in some cases, in order to avoid overwhelming a blind player. For example, slowing down the speed at which an enemy attacks you, or maybe a reduction in the number of attackers, so that you are able to identify the direction at which you are being attacked.
In my layman’s opinion, I would think this could be relatively easy to implement in single player games. I would have imagined the challenge would present itself when playing along side sighted players in team based, co-operative game play, in terms of balancing the play between sighted and visually impaired players. But I’m sure this challenge could be overcome, given enough thought.
The question is, would blind and partially sighted people be willing to accept that they, we, would possibly be playing an altered version of the game compared to a fully sighted player, in exchange for a more immersive and accessible gaming experience, or do they prefer the current trial and error state of affairs.
Speaking from my own experience, I currently have to make sacrifices in game play compared to my sighted friends and family, in order to experience a given game. I would often run games on my PC in windowed mode, at a reduced screen resolution, so that in game objects would appear larger or so that I could use screen magnification software when required. This is less than ideal and for the most part doesn’t work at all, leaving me frustrated and either asking for help or abandoning the experience. I would much rather have a version of a game that I can access using a modified game mechanic.
Another accessibility modification that could, quite easily in my opinion, be made to video games would be audio description. This is a feature that has been available on DVD’s Blu-Ray and even TV programs for some time. Why not bring this to the world of Video Games. There are often cinematic cut scenes in video games, the introduction of audio description to these would be great for the visually impaired.
Game accessibility has taken several steps forward recently, especially with the advent of text to speech and zoom functionality on the PS4, XBOX One and the Wii U but there is still a long way to go. It’s great that the console manufacturers have picked up the baton of accessibility but it’s now the turn of the game developers to take hold of that baton and run with it.
It’s one thing to make things larger on screen, or make on screen menus accessible but we deserve more. Blind and partially sighted people deserve to be drawn into the games action. Fully immersed in everything the game has to offer. Not left squinting at the screen as we try to identify friend from foe. Nor do we deserve to be repeatedly presented with the game over music and splash screen as we unceremoniously fall to our deaths, while we try determinedly, but unsuccessfully, to negotiate a cliff side obstacle course.
When you look at the World Health Organisation Statistics, approximately 285 million people are visually impaired world wide. That is a statistic and a segment of the market that should not be ignored or undervalued by mainstream game developers, those developers that have the resources at their disposal to make a game changing impact in the lives of literally millions of blind and partially sighted people.
These are just a few of my thoughts on how mainstream games could be changed to make them more accessible for the visually impaired. They are obviously just my opinions, what are your thoughts on the matter? What games do you currently play and how would you like to see them changed to improve your gaming experience? Do you think they are fine as they are and we should just make the best of it?
If you’re a visually impaired gamer I’d love to hear your story. What are your experiences of trying to play mainstream video games, or have you switched to more accessible games such as text based or audio games. What adaptations have you made to your gaming environment to make it more accessible, do you use adapted peripherals, large screens etc, I want to hear it all.
I’m equally interested in hearing the thoughts of game developers large or small. What are the challenges you face when developing a game and trying to ensure you cater for the wide verity of accessibility needs that are out there today. Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter or Facebook. . I would also appreciate it if you could share this post using the social media buttons below so that I can gather peoples opinions.