Audiogames, Audiogame Jam and playing videogames without sight

Post date: 
Tuesday, 20 December 2016
Image shows a boy wearing headphones playing an audio game
By James Kyle 

Videogames are software applications designed for interactive entertainment. They are available for home computers, dedicated games consoles, smartphones and tablets, and are an increasingly significant part of modern culture. They are also in most cases inaccessible to those with sight loss due to game designs that require the player to react to visual elements and on-screen feedback.

Enter audiogames

 
Videogames rely on visual elements for some if not all of their game design and player feedback. Audiogames instead rely on audio elements to fulfil these functions. This switch to reliance on audio over visual enables players with any level of vision to participate. In an audiogame, graphics are unnecessary and optional, providing no extra information or assistance over that which can be received by sound.

The story of audiogames 

Until recently audiogames remained several steps behind their visually oriented cousins. Videogames have been available since the 1970’s. During this time games like Pong, Asteroids and Space Invaders were massive hits that became cultural touchstones. People with sight loss, unable to play these games without difficulty, if at all, had to make do with simple electronic games that had audio cues to accompany visual ones, games like Atari’s Touch Me and Milton Bradley Company’s Simon. The development of text-to-speech software for personal computers in the 1980’s gave access to many of the text adventures and interactive fiction created for the format. Those hoping for audiogame equivalents of popular games during the 1980’s and 1990’s would be disappointed however, as audiogames remained limited mainly to screen-reader accessible text games and the small number of blind-accessible card and board audiogames.

 
In recent years many game developers have been working to reverse this trend and bring audiogames closer to videogames. Advancements in computing technology to allow binaural recording, the recording and rendering of three dimensional positional audio, allows players to experience 3D worlds in audio only. The lower cost of entry to game development has also led to more audiogame development, as software that would have cost thousands of pounds to purchase is now cheaper and in some cases even free. The ever improving access to computers for people with sight loss is another factor in the growth of audiogames, as developers respond to a growing yet largely untapped market of customers looking for games to play. Finally, greater awareness of game accessibility (or the lack thereof,) has led many to experiment and create new games for blind players. Communities of audiogame players with sight loss have formed online, allowing blind and partially sighted people to find and discuss new audiogames, audiogame development and issues about access to technology.
 

Why is access to videogames important to people with sight loss?

 
Videogames are a uniquely interactive form of art, entertainment and culture. Moreover, spending time playing videogames alone or with friends is increasingly a part of peoples lives. Failure to take even simple measures to improve accessibility for people with sight loss or provide blind-accessible alternatives acts to deny blind and visually impaired people the opportunity to participate and excludes them from the medium as a whole.
 
Thankfully discussion on this cultural exclusion and the need to address it has grown greatly in recent years. Greater awareness of accessibility issues experienced by people with a wide array of sensory and physical impairments is leading many developers to adapt their games to be more inclusive. Others have recognised a clear gap in the games market and are developing accessible games of greater complexity and sophistication than ever before.
 

What to play?

 
So where should you begin when seeking audiogames to play? The answer depends on the device you have available to you.
 
Users of screen-reader software on Windows or Apple Mac computers have access to a large library of audiogames at Audiogames.net. Many of these games are free to download and play, though some may require screen-reader modes to be enabled. A good place to start is Audio Game Hub, a set of 8 simple audiogames with great production and tutorials. Other popular games include the action role-playng game Bokurano Daiboukenn, rhythm and timing game Rhythm Rage and adventure game A Blind Legend.
 
iOS users have many great audiogames to play. A good place to start is with the Blindfold series of games. These take many popular games and adapt them to be playable in audio only. Also worth considering are the iOS version of Audio Game Hub, The Nightjar, Papa Sangre 2 and the iOS version of A Blind Legend. iOS users may also find the website AppleVis.com useful. It has an active online forum for discussing new apps games released for Apple smartphones and tablets, including new game releases. Android users are less well served for audiogames but some of iOS and Windows/Mac OSX games do make their way to the platform, including the aforementioned Audio Game Hub and A Blind Legend.
 

Audiogame Jam

 
Audiogame Jam is a games development event to raise money for RNIB that ran between August 26th and September 5th of this year. The event followed the game jam format, which challenges participants to design, plan and create games during the period of the event. Often game jam events have other conditions attached, such as a theme that the submitted games should reflect or a technical challenge to meet. In the case of Audiogame Jam all entries were to be playable by audio only.
 
Audiogame Jam saw 16 game submissions. While many were not entirely accessible to blind players all used audio as the basis for their games. A wide variety of game genres were represented. Some games were timing or sound location challenges such as Avoidance, Ninjas in the Dark or Countdown. Others sought to create audiogame equivalents of popular videogame styles. Rest Your Eyes creates a Super Mario style platform world explored by sound alone, while Blind Arena Tournament strives to capture the online first person shooter genre in audiogame form. One developer’s submission, Twinkle, took the opposite approach, rejecting conventional game design and instead creating an audio-art creation tool where players build soundscapes through sound-emitting nodes positioned in three dimensional space. Some developers chose to use game design as a tool to tell stories as in the case of The Last Case of Detective Nomansky and A Walk Through the Forest, two games that ask the player to accomplish tasks, navigate dangers or make decisions to advance the story.
 
While many of the games have basic accessibility issues the enthusiasm from the games development community for the event was incredibly encouraging. It was far more successful than expected and this could not have been achieved without the contributions of so many talented programmers, artists and sound engineers. It is clear that many in the videogame development community see accessibility issues as a major problem for the games industry and are eager to take steps to address it. Plans are being made for next year’s Audiogame Jam but there is nothing to announce just yet. If you want to support Audiogame Jam you can do so by playing the submitted games and offering feedback to the creators, spreading the word online and of course by donating to the Audiogame Jam JustGiving page. All money raised by Audiogame Jam goes to RNIB to provide essential services and support to people with sight loss.
 

References/further reading:

 
Taking up the responsibility of making games for the visually impaired / Chris Priestman, 22/11/16
The neglected history of videogames for the blind / Andrew Campana, 26/0916
Cultural Integration and the Accessibility of Gaming / Michael James Heron, 03/11/16
 
 
You can read James' original post and explore his site here.
 
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