Video and computer games for people with vision impairment

Post date: 
Monday, 15 February 2016

Radhika Holmstrom explores accessible gaming for people with vision impairment.

 
“Until I went to college, I didn’t even know how to use a computer properly,” says gamer Ian McNamara. “Then when my friends introduced me computer games for blind people, I thought they were having a laugh at first. That’s how underground it was. If I hadn’t gone to the Royal National College for the Blind, I’d never have found the blind gaming community.”
 
According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, well over half of us in the UK play some sort of video game fairly often.  Puzzles and word games are the most popular, with action, adventure and/or shooter games coming up next. “The internet and mobile devices have changed the gaming landscape forever,” says Steve Chester of the bureau. “In the past you needed to go out and buy an expensive console and the discs on top to get a decent experience. Now you can just download a free app.” And indeed, that changed landscape is rather different from the one many of us imagine. The ‘hardcore gamer’ is still a young man, but overall women add up to more video gamers than men – and the age range goes right up to 70 plus (though this is a very small percentage of the market).
 
It’s fair to assume, then, that quite a lot of people who lose their sight – including in later life – feel that computer games are one of the many things they used to enjoy and cannot take part in any more. Added to that, there are the people who, like McNamara, have been blind since birth and don’t have access to something which many other people their age enjoy doing. Most games still depend on the user having fairly good sight and visually impaired gamers are still very much in the minority.

General games

Some of the mainstream games are possible for visually impaired players, using audio commands or pressing buttons – though even so, it’s often necessary to get some basic instructions from a sighted person first.
 
“If you’ve got a games console, like a PlayStation or Xbox, you can play fighting games like Mortal Kombat – it’s just an issue of knowing the combination of buttons to make the right move,” says McNamara. “Fighting games are pretty accessible. Or iPhone games like Zombies Run. It’s quite frustrating, though, because with a lot of more sophisticated games you can’t join in because of the graphics and the visuals – you have to walk around, and you don’t have a clue where you are.”
 
There have been some moves to get beyond this, building sound cues into the design. But most of the time it is still the case that blind gamers can’t play without some kind of assistance from a sighted person, or from an organisation like RNIB, at least at the start.

Inclusive options

Alongside this, there’s also a growing if niche market in games developed specifically to include players with various different impairments. Recently, the new company Audazzle has had quite a bit of publicity, with its crowd funding for ‘games for inclusive mainstream social games where blind and visually impaired people can independently join the fun’. In fact, though, this is far from the first product in video gaming market for blind and partially sighted people. 
 
Some are developed by companies wanting an all-inclusive experience; because even if the market overall is not paying much attention to inclusion there is in fact a drive to get this recognised. The BBC’s Head of Accessibility Gareth Ford Williams is one of a group of people who have developed ‘game accessibility guidelines’, which has gained quite a lot of recognition (and cites the statistic that 20.5 per cent of gamers would describe themselves as disabled). There are several other, smaller, ventures which do much the same thing. 
 
Then there are the games developed specifically with blind users in mind (though they’re not necessarily restricted to this client group). Some of these (like the Papa Sangre game developed by company Somethin’ Else) also involved RNIB and/or other groups of blind and partially sighted people in the design process. 

Sound all around

Many (though not all) of the new games take advantage of the huge technological advance which is starting to transform audio games, in the form of ‘3D’ or ‘binaural’ audio. Traditional stereo sound, however good, still sounds different from sound actually processed by the ear. Binaural recordings are made using two microphones in ear-like cavities either side of a device which recreates the density and shape of a human head. When the sound is played back through headphones, each ear picks up sound separately – and, most importantly, the sound changes as the listener moves their own head. This makes it possible to make sound ‘come from’ in front of, or above, or behind, or below the listener – not just either side. As a result, it can sound as if a horse, or a river, or anything else, is actually present. 
 
From horror to quest
Significantly, though, games like Papa Sangre and The Nightjar (developed by the same company, and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) use the idea of being in the dark as a way to ramp up the horror experience. This is not necessarily what blind people really want to feel about blindness – especially people who are still coming to terms with losing their sight. 
 
However, some companies are now are developing accessible adventure/questing games. A Blind Legend from French company DOWNiNO and co-produced with radio station France Culture, takes the player through ‘a chivalric adventure, set in a familiar world – inspired by the medieval era and its literature (King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) – with a touch of fantasy’. The protagonist is blind by design: a knight who has to rescue his kidnapped wife, with the help of his daughter. “I love A Blind Legend and I’m actually struggling with it at the moment,” says gamer William Lomas, who has extremely high standards. “I’m caught between geysers running water round my body. It’s designed for everyone.”
 
He and McNamara are also impressed by the Italian company TiconBlu, which has developed a series called The Inquisitor set in Carcassonne in 1364 (there are even texts in Latin). There are, confusingly, several games going by the name of Inquistor: this one is based on the real-life Inquisitor Nicolas Eymerich (though it presents him as a fictionalised protagonist rather than the historical figure who enthusiastically tortured Jews and heretics as frequently as he could). “The games are brilliant,” Lomas enthuses.
 
New horizons
If you know where to look, it’s clear that there are games for blind and partially sighted players, far beyond the one or two that have had a fair amount of publicity. But it is, as both Lomas and McNamara stress, a question of knowing the right people, and/or getting onto sites such as www.applevis.com and www.audiogames.net, to find recommendations and advice.
 
Even so, serious gamers don’t feel that the bar has been set high enough for visually impaired players. “Audio games are just too simple at the moment,” says Lomas. “I’d like to see a game like Tomb Raider, where you have to investigate clues, speak to people, jump levels, and so on. Ones that’ll keep you playing for hours or even weeks. When I watch my sighted friends play games, they take hours. For us, it’s a quick 10 minutes once you know what you’re doing and you don’t want to play them again." The standards have risen dramatically – but if blind and partially sighted gamers are genuinely to have the same opportunities as sighted ones, there’s still some way to go.

Further information 

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