Listen Up: Taking the "Video" out of "Video Game"

Advances in technology are increasing accessibility for visually impaired game players, but it requires dedicated development and design descisions.

Super Mario 64 was the first game that won Kevin Satizabal’s heart. Racing around the virtual course, Satizabal was as competitive as his friends, but used different cues to dominate the track.

“I used to use a lot of the musical cues in the actual game to play it, so for example you’d hear the sound of a star when you got it or you’d hear kind of the ding-ding of the coins that you had to collect,” he says. “Using those musical cues was sort of an introduction into the gaming world for me.”

Satizabal is blind and can only competitively play the limited number of traditional games that have the right sound design to make them accessible to the visually impaired community. He, like many others in the visually impaired demographic, often gets his gaming fix from audio games.

“A lot of these guys do it kind of out of their own pocket,” Satizabal says. “These aren’t hugely funded games so there isn’t any [audio] game that’s really epic, really ambitious…There’s a real gap in the market for that.”

Satizabal is working with the development team at Incus Games in the UK to create a potential remedy. Three Monkeys, a role-playing audio game from Incus that’s due out in fall of 2015, seeks to not only offer a bigger game experience for visually impaired players; it also aims to bring a sighted audience in as well.

“What we’re trying to do is create more accessible platforms to gaming for the visually impaired, but we’re also looking at ways that we can bring visually and visually impaired gamers together,” says Incus producer Stephen Willey. “…This is a real opportunity to try something out that’s new and fresh but at the same time sort of challenge the social norm of these platforms that haven’t always been as accessible as they probably could be.”

Three Monkeys is one of several audio games that will hit the market in 2015. Following on the heels of popular audio games like BlindSide and the Papa Sangre series, Three Monkeys is joined by DOWiNO studios’ much-heralded action-adventure indie, A Blind Legend. DOWiNO co-founder and manager, Pierre-Alain Gagne, says that video-less games come with their own distinct set of design challenges.

“If the sounds are not precise enough, you will not be able to have an interesting experience of gaming,” he says. “So artistically and in a game point of view, it’s the sound design that makes the difference.” 

That sound design has to be purposeful adds Willey. While traditional video games have visual indicators that an object needs to be manipulated or that an enemy is near, audio games rely on sound cues. That constraint can dramatically impact design and storyline choices.

“If there’s a room and in the middle of the room there’s a box that you need to pick up, a box doesn’t normally emit sound,” he says. “It’s kind of thinking, ‘How can we be creative about this to make sure that our objectives would naturally emit sound?’…Actually that can often bring out a much more interesting answer than if you had just stuck with the box.”

Michael T. Astolfi, co-creator of the 2012 audio game Blindside, says that there are also benefits to developing for ears only.

“One of the nice things is that you don’t have to worry about wrangling art,” he says. “…It allowed us to move faster in that sense. At the same time, it’s a lot more challenging because as a sighted user, you’re always spoiled about the gameplay experience. Both as a user and a developer, you always know what the game looks like so it’s very hard for you to test the game at all.” 

For the disabled community, design decisions on either audio or traditional games can make a huge impact. Even small considerations like adding closed captioning or creating keyboard alternatives to mouse movements can open up access to gamers who wouldn’t be able to play otherwise says Steve Spohn, a former professional Starsiege: Tribes player born with spinal muscular atrophy who dropped out of the pro circuit after disability limited his movements.

“If you’re disabled to the point where getting out of the house or participating in the activities you would like to be participating in is hard to do, video games can level the playing field,” he says. “…If you’re playing a video game and I’m playing a video game, you might have no idea that I’m disabled because in that environment, running, jumping, flying, jumping on unicorns, it’s all the same thing and we’re equal in that respect…That sort of environment is amazing inspiration for someone who is in need of social input.”

Game accessibility is more than just a social concern for development studios; it’s also an economic one. Though exact numbers on the buying power of disabled gamers isn’t available, 2008 research from Popcap Games shows that disabled players—including those with mental, physical, and developmental disabilities—account for more than 20 percent of the casual games market. Among that demographic, nearly two-thirds report that they play casual games daily. Spohn, who is currently the chief operating officer of The AbleGamers Charity , a nonprofit that promotes game accessibility, says that the number of disabled players across all genres of games hovers between 70 and 100 million in the US and Canada. AbleGamers alone boasts between 25,000 and 30,000 members. A major challenge is simply getting the industry to take notice.

“This [demographic] of people who are desperately wanting games to play have disposable income,” he says. “Really the struggle is to make the industry understand that you should move forward and you should do these things while it’s cost-effective and cheap early in the development cycle because in the end, you will get more people buying your product.”

Progress has been made in some areas, and lost in others. In the last few years, several games including SimCity and League of Legends have added a color blind mode. Closed captioning has become more prevalent, as it appeals to all types of gamers, and several studios have added separate accessibility functions specifically for disabled players. Since publishing a 50-page “includification” guide[6]  to accessible game development three years ago, AbleGamers has worked with several studios to make accessibility a core game function. 

“It used to be that Ablegamers was badgering developers to make these adjustments in games and now we have at least two to three, maybe even a dozen people who come to us to say, ‘This is my game. This is what I want it to do. What do I have to do to make it more accessible?,’” says Spohn. “I think as those people continue to rise through the ranks of game development and become the heads of studios, I think we’re going to see that the grassroots efforts of game accessibility really did affect something long down the road.”

Accessibility still has a ways to go. Some games aren’t accessible at all to disabled players. Other franchises have reduced their accessibility over time. 

“For example, I [used to] play FIFA 98 because it was pretty easy to navigate the console and shoot the ball, but now it’s become very visual,” says Kevin Satizabal. “It’s all very graphical and it’s a lot more complicated to manipulate. As the technology has improved, as things have become more visual, it’s definitely become a lot harder to play those kinds of games.”

Ian Hamilton says that for developers, creating a game that’s completely accessible to everyone is “pretty much impossible.” An accessibility specialist and user experience designer, Hamilton is also one of several contributors to the Game Accessibility Guidelines, a resource launched in 2012 that helps developers open up their games to the disabled community. Dividing adaptations into “basic,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” functions, the guidelines weren’t created to make all games universally accessible to everyone Hamilton says.

“It’s about avoiding unnecessary exclusion or things that unnecessarily make a game less enjoyable,” he says by e-mail. “…it’s a case of being aware of what barriers there are in your game, being aware of which of those are actually an important part of the mechanic and which are unnecessary, and doing what you can do reduce the barriers that are unnecessary for that particular game.”

Increasing accessibility from a development standpoint can be tough. Easy fixes on one game may be challenging, even impossible, on another Hamilton adds. Still, there are some easy things designers can do to increase accessibility such as giving players as much time as they need to read text, allowing players to configure their own button setups, placing symbols in spots where color is a central cue for gameplay, and telling gamers that these features exist. Building interfaces to be compatible with screen-reading software that visually-impaired gamers use and creating controls that are simple enough to work with devices such as sip-puff tubes and wheelchair headrest switches are more difficult adaptations that can be “of absolutely huge benefit for the people in those niches,” Hamilton says.

“It does all come down to where in the process you think about it,” Hamilton says. “Retrofitting is difficult and expensive but making a design decision at the start is cheap, or can even be free.”

Raising awareness and encouraging developers to think beyond their own abilities is a first step says Kevin Satizabal. Bringing abled and disabled gamers together through experiences they can both enjoy is a second.

“That’s one thing, as a visually impaired person, that I’d love to be able to do, to play a game with friends whether they’re blind or not and talk about it,” he says. “That would be really great.”

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