Games for the Blind and Deaf

This is a picture of the Braille Star 40. I was struck after reading this article about videogame accessibility just how difficult it would be to adapt popular videogame genres for play by the blind and/or deaf. I say "difficult," but certainly not impossible--indeed, my videogame friends and I have often discussed the possibilities mentioned in the article, namely, a strategic use of audio (for the blind) and vibrations (for the deaf). The technology is already out there, even though most games aren't taking advantage of it in ways that would enhance the differently abled videogamer's experience. Unfortunately, none of the big game developers seem the least bit interested in making their games more accessible. The authors of the article suggest that maybe it's time something was done about it:

Paul Silva is more cynical when questioned on the state of the commercial side of disabled gaming, and isn't sure change will come quickly. "The game industry is a highly volatile industry primarily led by extremely conservative publishing companies," he says. "These companies will not take interest in the BVI community's need until one of two things happen: someone proves that this market is very sizeable, or someone sues the game companies and insists that they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar legislation. But this does not look seem likely to happen any time soon."

I would wonder what the equivalent of handicapped parking laws would be for videogames? Perhaps it will simply mean providing some sensible options to allow differently abled players to get the most of existing technology, but I suppose it could also present a forbidding obstacle for small-time developers.

I was also surprised to learn that there are videogames out there that let blind players drive vehicles and perform activities they could not perform otherwise. I don't know about you, but I think it might be fun to play some of these games even though I do have sight. That would be the key, I think, to really tapping into this market--make accessible games that would be fun for everyone. Apparently BSC Games is having some success at this, although they admit that many of their games make no sense to sighted players. A better strategy seems to be that of All in Play, which stresses that these games ought to level the playing field rather than exclude sighted players. Here's their spiel:

Welcome to All inPlay -- the only place on the Internet where the blind, low vision, and fully sighted can play games together as equals. All inPlay levels the playing field by creating completely accessible online games. No special accommodations. No special rules. No special handicapping. Just elegant, well-designed games providing fun, community, and friendship, worldwide.

Indeed, why is that videogames must rely so heavily on graphics? Several popular handheld games that were immensely popular relied on sound, such as the Simon--though I suppose a deaf person could play it by following the colors. I noticed that this online accessible games store features mostly titles in this genre--Accessible Battleship, Simon, and Memory.

I wish I had some blind or deaf friends that I could talk to about this topic. I'd love to know what kind of videogames they'd most like to play. This blind gamer discusses how boardgames could be modified to accommodate the blind; perhaps we could take some of his ideas and adapt them for use in making videogames more accessible.

It's also interesting to contemplate the screen layout of the accessible gaming web sites. I'd like to make my own website more friendly to non-sighted and deaf people! Perhaps a good place to start might be to run it through a free "bobby test." Hmm....!


I ran Kairosnews through the Bobby Test and was a bit surprised at how poorly we faired. :-(

Matt, I hope you don't mind my bringing up this blog entry from the past, but as a deaf person, I found it very interesting. My gaming experience began with a TRS-80 and Space Invaders. I enjoyed text-based adventure games, such as Zork, Pyramid, and (later) Another Lifeless Planet and Me With No Beer.

Time went by, and audio systems for computers improved. King's Quest and similar adventure games from Sierra had, I think, some kind of sound effects, but they weren't necessary to follow the game. I enjoyed them, as well.

My deafness didn't become an issue with computers until 1997, when I applied for a job writing text for online training systems. My interviewer (and soon-to-be boss) explained that after I wrote the material, someone would read it out loud, then I would attach the sound file to the page. "But what if the learner is deaf?" I asked.

My interviewer stared at me. "You know," she said, "we never thought of that." The issue was fixed before my first day on the job.

Getting back to games, I didn't find them a huge problem until my kids started playing them (in about 1998 or so). They'd call me over and ask for help, and I wouldn't have a clue what was going on. These games were intended for children who couldn't yet read--so all of the instructions were given in audio. I was no help at all. On the bright side, my kids learned very quickly to listen carefully.

I think it's still possible to play most games without being able to hear them. My only real problem, once I understand the directions, is knowing when the bad guys are coming (or, sometimes, when they're shooting). I think Wolfenstein, to give one example, allows users to hear when they're being shot at, and I generally find this out when I get hit.

On the other hand, as slow as my reactions are, I'm not sure I'd play it any better if I could hear.