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Accessibility, audio, games, Linux and other things, from a visually impaired person's point of view.

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A Basic Introduction to Game Accessibility

Accessibility is an important subject for people with various kinds of disabilities, but here the focus will be on accessibility of games for the visually impaired. Keep reading and know how a game can be played by those who cannot see.

Game Accessibility for Visually Impaired: a Basic Introduction

After completing 100% of your favorite game, unlocking all weapons, items and levels with the best score possible, you think you know everything about how to play it, there are no more challenges. Yes, there are. Let's do a little meditation exercise:

put your favorite game into your video game console. Turn the TV and/or console on. Now, close your eyes. Breath deeply and relax... Try to play the game and DO NOT open your eyes no matter what happens.

Some moments later...

What? Game over? If yes, it's okay. If not, congratulations to you.

Well, right. Not really a "meditation exercise". But if you tried it, you should have an idea about how a visually impaired would play video games, and you probably noticed that doing it without sight is not so easy. If you had good results and not a game over, it can mean two things: you are really good at it and/or this game is considerably accessible to visually impaired.

What Makes a Game Accessible to Non-Sighted Players?

Mostly, sound. It may be obvious, maybe you already have used the sounds to orient yourself, to know where the enemy was coming from even before it appeared on the screen. If the game has stereo audio (which most of them have nowadays) and different sounds for each event (like footsteps, ambient noise, enemy movement, shots etc.), playing like this is possible and doing that may become natural even to some sighted people.

Other Things That Make Games More Accessible to Visually Impaired

Though sound is the most important factor, there are other things to consider. These mostly work in conjunction with the audio and are related to interface and controls. Some of them are:

  • Spoken dialogue during the game's story and/or orienting the player on his/her journey (spoken game tutorials, alerts about approaching enemies, etc.). (it is hard to find games with 100% spoken dialogue)
  • Different music for different places. (quite common)
  • Changes in music when entering a battle. (more common in RPGs)
  • Controller vibration on certain actions (for example, when the main character is hit). (very common)
  • Audible alerts indicating that your characters are almost dying (visually speaking, when the life bar is "in the red zone"). (not so common)
  • Menu controls that follow logical patterns. (not so common)
  • When walking into a wall, or a sound plays indicating the character bumped into something solid, or he/she stops moving. (very rare. In most games, when trying to walk and there is something solid ahead, or the character walks "rubbing" the wall, or he/she gets stuck and keeps trying to go forward without moving, while the footstep sounds continue playing as if he/she was still walking on a normal path)

One problem is that most games only implements one or other of the mentioned items, but rarely all of them. For example, the Zelda games (from Nintendo 64 onward) have stereo audio, different music and sounds for each environment, the music changes when entering battle, alert sounds when the character is almost dying, but have no spoken dialogue.

Which Games are Accessible?

It may not seem like it, but many visually impaired people like games. Unfortunately, really (100%) accessible games are few and this is not likely to change so easily, because demand and the number of players with disabilities (visual or otherwise) are considered too smal and not a priority for most game companies, and/or because the developers don't know how to implement the accessibility features. To avoid these problems and give the visually impaired something to play, some games were created specially for them. They are mostly audio based, games with only sound and without images. but the gameplay of such games tends to be limited, making blind gamers want more. Many of them want to play the "normal" mainstream games, the ones that everyone else play. With this, the inaccessibility problems come back, forcing visually impaired gamers to struggle by trial and error to discover ways to play.

The most accessible mainstream games where, for a long time (and still are), fighting games. Some advantages of this kind of games are: - There are only two ways to go (left and right). - the characters are usually big, so visually impaired (not totally blind) players can orient themselves more easily. - Most of these games have stereo sound, making it possible to know if your opponent is on your left or on your right. - Each blow/technique has a different sound (for example a different battle cry for each blow/character), so it's possible to know what is coming.

There is even a blind gamer that beat many sighted foes in Mortal Combat (read this article).

Other games that end up being accessible are the ones that revolve around music, such as Wii Music and Rock Band. The former is easier because it is a matter of swinging the Wiimote at the right time, while on the later, however, the blind player must know the music beforehand and know which buttons do what in each specific situation/instrument/music, which can be achieved only by trial and error, but it is possible to do.

Lastly, I don't know if other visually impaired gamers have interest or already tried these options, but I say that the Pokemon series games are the most accessible ones I know, with most of the features mentioned (and others not mentioned) above and they deserve a separate article (I plan to write more about them on a future post). They are the only games I know that give "warnings" when bumping into walls.

In Closing

This was only a basic introduction. As a visually impaired player myself, I intend to write more about this subject on the future as well as post demos and accessibility tips for specific games. If you are one too, or even if you aren't but have some tips to share, you may tell me, and I'll post them here on the blog.