175: The Silent Majority

The Silent Majority

Developers are increasingly aware of the disabled in their audiences, but deaf gamers are still being left out in the cold. Robert Ashley looks at how game developers are slowly improving the experience for deaf players.

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Kimball's mod solution certainly sounds like it should become at least the baseline for a new industry standard. I'm not hearing impaired, but I'd use a feature like that regularly, since I often play games while listening to other stuff, like the news, sporting events, podcasts, or music. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Excellent article!

Oh my God!

"The article brought tears to my eyes".
*sarcasm*

BULLSHIT!

Most major players in the gaming scene are aware of this and I can name at least one publisher other than the ones mentioned in the article that has a very firm internal rule to subtitle games to the best extent possible as well as check for visual effects that can trigger epilepsy problems and so on.

Can we now have an article on the kids of Somalia who are unable to game properly ?
*sarcasm* 2: reloaded

MookieFL:
Kimball's mod solution certainly sounds like it should become at least the baseline for a new industry standard. I'm not hearing impaired, but I'd use a feature like that regularly, since I often play games while listening to other stuff, like the news, sporting events, podcasts, or music. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Excellent article!

You are not the only one. I would also use that feature a lot, since my best PC is kind of in the same room as the family TV, so I would also use this feature a lot.

...They can be blind entirely. How can game developers ever hope to make games truly accessible to all? Kimball believes it's possible...

I'm just curious, but what solutions are they thinking of for this? I can kind of get the gaming without hands thing, since I know they are researching into using active motion tracking for game "controllers". But gaming for the blind?! How?

I can't argue about the need for subtitles. It's a pretty simple request and they should be included in every game. Even still, Dead Space, Silent Hill etc. lose alot without sound and I pitty the deaf gamers of the world for not being able to experience them. However sound is an important part of the gaming experience these days and that probably won't change, hence the deaf and partially deaf gamers of the world will gradually become phased out. I feel sorry for them, but I do not believe we should all suffer because of a disabled minority. Subtitles however can be helpful for those of us without hearing problems as well, since I don't want to miss some storyline/dialogue when there's an exhuberant conversation going on in the same room.

Gaming blind could be solved partially through more accurate sound reproduction for echolocation, but that still doesn't solve the fact that many blind people use touch to move around. So... I am curious as well. How could they possibly solve the problem for blind gamers?

I actually use subtitles (not closed captioning, mind you) almost all the time, whether I'm watching movies, TV, or playing games. I'm not deaf or anything; my mom, however, is not a native English speaker, so we use subtitles always, and now I'm so used to it that whenever it's not an option, I feel like I'm missing something.

Oh, and "Reid Kimball, currently a game designer with Buzz Monkey Software in Eugene, Oregon"

Go, Eugene! I knew us hippies would be good for something.

I've never really felt compelled to comment on any of the articles here though I've been reading The Escapist since its inception but that has just changed. I'm a visually impaired gamer. I've got 20/800 in my left eye and 20/1000 in my right. Though, most visually impaired people will tell you that acuity statistics are all BS, which they are. Everyone's got a unique set of circumstances and everyone perceives differently. Since there seems to be a great deal if ignorance and downright mystification as to how someone lacking any degree of vision can play a videogame, I figure I should dispel some of those assumptions straight away. I'm not trying to be harsh, caustic, or critical, for the record. But this is one sector of the gamer populous that is so utterly small and so completely under-represented that I figure it's time someone said something.

I've been gaming since I was five years old. My sister received and NES for Christmas and didn't care for it too much. I took up the mantle, and have been gaming ever since. My games of choice have typically been RPGs, but I've been known to throw down the gauntlet on some Soulcalibur (what's with that ridiculous compounding of the word anyway?) or Tekken. I regularly play Rock Band/Guitar Hero on expert without incident. So here's the thing when it comes to visually impaired gamers. Abstraction is good. When Mario was pixelated, the colors simple, the detail low, and everything painted out in broad, chunky strokes, it was easy to play. There simply weren't enough details to muddle the eye. The components were threefold; foreground, background, and moveable elements on the foreground (i.e. the PC and his enemies). Most retro games were like this. When we made the jump to 16 bit, those elements only got more detailed, but it was still an abstraction. When 3D and 32 bit rolled around textures were so uniformly bad, so dithered, dull, and simplistic that abstraction still reigned supreme. But the more realistic games become, the more like reality they appear to be. The nice thing about an impression of reality, or an interpretation broadly painted and simply executed is that visually impaired players could excel here. Unlike reality, it's uncluttered, uncomplicated, and made of simple building blocks not too much unlike lego. What I'm driving at is that gaming has become a lot like (in the mainstream anyway) the reality from which the visually impaired gamer is trying to escape. But simplistic games (simplistic in terms of presentation, not ruleset) will always reign supreme in our eyes because the eye can digest it without cumbersome shadows, realistic lighting, a billion particle effects, bump mapping, normal mapping, high poly counts, etc. etc. This is why Rock Band and Guitar Hero are so fantastic. We're back to that magic word abstraction again. Five buttons, whose colors are moot points because their order on the guitar neck/drum pads coincides with their order onscreen make it a billion times easier to interface with the game.

I'm not suggesting that developers need to dumb down their visuals to cater to the visually impaired crowd. What I am suggesting is that some kind of visual queue exist to guide the visually impaired player in such a way that the realistic nature of the world does not interfere with his enjoyment of the game. Fable 2 has already done this. The golden trail was a complete boon to me. It made a game which could have been marginally more difficult for me less so. I wonder if Lionhead even realized that their little trick would benefit others than thecasual market at whom they were so adamantly aimed.

This has already run far too long as is, so I'm just going to let the dog go back to sleep, unless someone wants to take up the torch from here and inquire. I think it's important that people know about the existence of VI and blind gamers. I do feel marginalized in games sometimes, but I've never abandoned the industry that gave me so many great memories. I don't intend to, accessibility be damned. Just know that we're out there, and we might draw back and strike with a page's worth of forum ramble at a moment's notice.

Thanks to all the great feedback.

BurningBeard, I'm glad you posted your thoughts on your experiences. You are exactly right. Do what you can to keep talking about the issues you face and possible solutions, such as higher contrast video modes in games that strip out extra detail.

Part of this whole fight for accessibility features is simply talking about it, educating others and making people know a problem exists where they didn't know existed.

If anyone wants to get involved or keep tabs on the IGDA Game Accessibility group, we have an info portal here: http://www.igda.org/wiki/Game_Accessibility_SIG

Mailing list here: http://seven.pairlist.net/mailman/listinfo/games_access

-Reid

Reminds me of the "colour blind" option in peggle - the green and purple pegs used for "magic" and "points bonus" could be supplemented with additional symbols marking out their function. Likewise, a lot of major 3D games have the options to disable minor aesthetic features like particles and other graphics-card heavy aspects; it's possible to use these to create a more visually streamlined game for the visually impaired. It'd be nice if more options were presented.

PedroSteckecilo:
However sound is an important part of the gaming experience these days and that probably won't change, hence the deaf and partially deaf gamers of the world will gradually become phased out.

Ah, but if we work to alert the developers to issues such as lack of non-stereotyped black characters (an excellent article last issue) and how deaf people would find the aurally rich, atmospheric games of today worthless, this "probably won't" can turn into a probably will. As this article and the one last week pointed out, developers aren't intentionally giving minorities the shaft; they just create things filtered through a white male's perspective, a white male that can see and hear well.

PedroSteckecilo:
I feel sorry for them, but I do not believe we should all suffer because of a disabled minority.

And making more changes to accommodate deaf gamers makes you suffer how? I'd never heard of the Doom 3 mod, but that's awesome! I wouldn't mind giving that mod a try to see what it's like. It's all about options, right? You don't want visual cues? Simply turn them off.

An excellent article (and post by BurningBeard).

Mass Effect was pretty good in this respect, it had subtitles similar to those in the Source games. Gears, not so much, but it did feature the "rumbling controller, press Y to look at what's going on" mechanic. Actually, I think the added cues from rumble make a lot of genres which might be unplayable to someone deaf much more so. I've played Forza with the sound off, and while nigh-crippling when I wasn't used to it, without rumble it would have been unthinkable. Should the deaf show preference for console gaming? It's food for thought.

I am glad I made sure to read the entire article and these posts too, or what I would have said might have been very jerk sounding. Actually, trying to make gaming available to those who lack certain things used for gaming (sight, hearing, e.t.c) would only make things better, even for us not limited. I bet this will only quicken more interactive gaming.

Even though I have normal hearing, I prefer to turn on subtitles and closed captioning if available. Sometimes there's a lot going on, and having subtitles on helps me focus my attention where it's needed. For example, in Half-Life 2 I can focus on combat sounds and still not miss anything that Breen or Kleiner are telling me via the various screens and loudspeakers scattered around the levels.

My only gripe with subtitles and closed captions is that they're too good. In many games, whispers that should be hard to hear are displayed the same way as shouts. AFAIR, it was Metal Gear Solid 3, Assassin's Creed or one of the Thief games that adjusted the font size according to volume. I'd like to see that in other games as well.

I am not sure how you are going to remove the visual element of the game. (aka make it so that blind people can play it).

If anyone here has more interest in the Deaf gaming community, or what games scored - you can check out the following link.

As of last year, I know ORANGE BOX was the only game ever to score a 10.
http://www.deafgamers.com/dgclassificationtable08.html
http://www.deafgamers.com/dgclassificationtable07.html

There's also a ton of articles about how to make a game more appealing to the Deaf and hard of hearing.

I had actually never thought about this problem, but I can see how it would really matter to folks who possess some sort of perception impairment. I think subtitles are only really the tip of the iceberg, seeing as how text popping up on screen in the middle of a scary game kind of ruins the ambience the sound is meant to create. And for blind gaming, I honestly cannot think of a way with modern technology to make this fully possible unless we include a narration for everything going on in the game, but even then, action based games would be out of the question.

Zyrusticae:
Gaming blind could be solved partially through more accurate sound reproduction for echolocation, but that still doesn't solve the fact that many blind people use touch to move around. So... I am curious as well. How could they possibly solve the problem for blind gamers?

I have friends who are completely blind who play entirely sound-based games--that's generally how "games for the blind" are made. Alternatively, text-based games work because screenreaders will interact with them.

Most popular games these days aren't going to be playable by a zero-vision person even with modification--the emphasis on visuals are too strong. Many interfaces are entirely visual, and it would be difficult in somecases to swap with text and sound where need be (think, say, most FPSes, or puzzle games).

There are exceptions though. One of my friends played amazingly well on Wii Tennis because he could react based on the ball bouncing and time his swing appropriately.

I think in some cases, some games aren't going to be able to be modded for accessibility--but I think that 1) if a game CAN be modded, it SHOULD--especially for the case of deaf gamers as outlined in the article, where it's easy to add in visual cues to what are largely already visual games and 2) Games should be developed for those with accessibility issues where other games cannot be enjoyed by them, such as the sound-based games for the blind above. What would be revolutionary would be a major publisher taking on making some of these accessibility-enabled games.

This is all well and good, as long as it doesn't become 'required by law,' or otherwise forcibly instituted.

xitel:
I had actually never thought about this problem, but I can see how it would really matter to folks who possess some sort of perception impairment. I think subtitles are only really the tip of the iceberg, seeing as how text popping up on screen in the middle of a scary game kind of ruins the ambience the sound is meant to create. And for blind gaming, I honestly cannot think of a way with modern technology to make this fully possible unless we include a narration for everything going on in the game, but even then, action based games would be out of the question.

Quite accurate, and quite true. That's an unfortunate reality of the problem, but considering the sort of budgetary hurdles that full-on narration would require I don't see this ever happening. Not to mention the high degree of permutations possible in action-based games... when I say high, I mean near infinite.

Also, I forgot to mention the roguelike and interactive fiction based platforms, whose barrier to entry is much lower. Both act upon simple plain text which is easily workable with a screen reader. Nethack has been, and will remain to be a personal favorite of mine... though once you've ascended every role it does kind of lose its appeal. Heh.

In regards to the subtitles, I don't see how they hinder immersion, especially considering the fact that in a sane design draft they'd be toggleable. If you want them, take them. Variable font sizes for variable noise levels is an excellent idea. Also, and this is a bit more expensive in regards to developmental resources, The Night Watch... or whatever it was called, did some innovative and creative things with subs that I think contemporary games could take a clue from. Just a thought. Here's what I'm talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTWTR64wqsg

Again, I don't know how willing devs would be to try that, but it'd be pretty awesome regardless.

BurningBeard:

Quite accurate, and quite true. That's an unfortunate reality of the problem, but considering the sort of budgetary hurdles that full-on narration would require I don't see this ever happening. Not to mention the high degree of permutations possible in action-based games... when I say high, I mean near infinite.

Also, I forgot to mention the roguelike and interactive fiction based platforms, whose barrier to entry is much lower. Both act upon simple plain text which is easily workable with a screen reader. Nethack has been, and will remain to be a personal favorite of mine... though once you've ascended every role it does kind of lose its appeal. Heh.

In regards to the subtitles, I don't see how they hinder immersion, especially considering the fact that in a sane design draft they'd be toggleable. If you want them, take them. Variable font sizes for variable noise levels is an excellent idea. Also, and this is a bit more expensive in regards to developmental resources, The Night Watch... or whatever it was called, did some innovative and creative things with subs that I think contemporary games could take a clue from. Just a thought. Here's what I'm talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTWTR64wqsg

Again, I don't know how willing devs would be to try that, but it'd be pretty awesome regardless.

I was saying that it would break immersion because if you're in a dark area with just your flashlight, and all of a sudden the text "Bang" pops up, I would personally be less scared than actually hearing it. I realize that deaf players obviously would be unable to experince the latter, but still.

Also, my Dad is actually on the Nethack dev team, just thought I would put that out there.

I'm all for inclusive gaming; it's one way to sell more copies so it makes sense in business terms, just like regionalisation does so long as the costs stay reasonable.

What does worry me, though, is the possibility that making the game accessable will damage the experience for others, as did regionalisation in the Japanese release of Fallout 3... some games do depend upon colour effects to influence mood, or audio to set the tone, and removing those to assist vision- or hearing-impaired people would weaken the result. Imagine BioShock without the soundtrack and ambient noise; much lessened impact emotionally, and emotional impact is where story-driven games have to hit players hard. Or to dig back into a retro title, I find it much less satisfying playing X-Com without the sound; I can't imagine seeing a caption of [creek] evoking the same dread as hearing a door's rusty hinges open out of your line of sight. And, of course, there's the time-honoured tradition of marking NPC "ranks" by modifying the colour scheme... I'd hate to see those titles sacrificed on the altar of a faulty understanding of "inclusiveness" that can be more exclusionary in the end by forcing content cuts. That would be, in my opinion, leaving everybody out of the original game concept in the name of not leaving anybody out.

So long as these changes are user-selectable options, like closed-captioning on TV, I have no difficulties at all accepting accessable settings; but if the choice is between making a title accessable or retaining the dramatic or visceral impact of the game, I personally hope that developers will err to the side of impact.

-- Steve

Summarizing Anton P. Nym's post into my own agreement:

I'm all for features to include more people in gaming, provided they don't come at a cost to my own. Don't cut corners and cues so that we're all equal in that sense: provide other cues for those that can't recognize colour or sound cues.

The blind gaming is really quite the concept: I can't even get my head around how you'd design a game with *no* visual whatsoever.

Edited: I'm also kind of fond of subtitling at times for my own use. I'm a bit hard of hearing, and games that have a lot of quiet dialogue usually piss me off because I can't hear it.

Actually, our small company, 7-128 Software, in Salem, MA makes accessible computer games. And Reid has been very helpful with making them accessible to gamers who are deaf.

As a result, the 7 educational PizzaGames we just shipped for children 2 - 7 all include Closed Captioning, as well as being playable by kids who are either blind or motion-impaired.

Making software accessible adds about as much time and cost as internationalization and localization. But it makes your stuff playable by more people.

John Bannick
CTO
7-128 Software

I kind of have to agree with the person who said the game is about atmosphere, which includes sound. Even with those hacks/subtitles they are missing 90% of the game. Hell, it removes the horror element almost altogether.

The Dead Space developers devoted a ton of time on audio, I've read interviews with the guy who handled the audio. They probably would take it as an insult to be told "hey remove all that, and do it visually" as it removes the effect they were aiming for (a sign saying 'be afraid' doesnt have the same effect as their beautiful audio engine). This simply isn't a game that can be enjoyed without audio. Radar would have made it far too easy.

I agree 99% of games should have this functionality (and support for the color blind), but not at the expense of delays or anything else that would be a negsative to 99% of the rest of gamers. But Dead Space and any other game with that much emphasis on audio really has no point.

I love my audio, I bought a surround sound system just for games. I'd hate if this caused devs to ignore audio cues.

i fear progress will be slow for your cause due to sound playing a vital role in some games and the fact that your a minority

Forthe completely blind, they could have puzzle and text based games conveyed through audio.

but if an individual is blind AND deaf... O.o uhhhmm..

Hmm... i understand the article and i see the point of view but allot of the time game designers just don't see it or forget about the certain groups who need these aid. some other times they are just in a limitation, so they are unable to even think about such help for those who need them in staid they just try to get the product to the market. I personally like to make my creations colorful and visually informative to help the experience. But i know that gamers that are hard of hearing are in a tough spot since games without sound are kind of boring, and games like HAWX who rely on a Beeping sound to tell your that youre about to get screwed by a missile will be almost all guess work. Personally dough i think that the focus should be in helping these people overcome their handicaps with technology that changeing technology to acomodate their handicap. a good example would be hearing aids.

Ther

Zyrusticae:
Gaming blind could be solved partially through more accurate sound reproduction for echolocation, but that still doesn't solve the fact that many blind people use touch to move around. So... I am curious as well. How could they possibly solve the problem for blind gamers?

Ah! There is a game that is perfect for blind gamers Zoip (which stands for Zork over IP, but should really be ZOVOIP, Zork Over Voice Over IP.)

http://unitycode.org/read/ZoIP

This article contains a good description of the technology:

http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/article.php/3675741

You would think that someone would port this to all the Z-Machine games. However, you should be able to play with a braille keyboard and the text read by the screen, which is how I suspect most blind people play.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_game

Fantasy RPG games are deaf friendly, that with all the reading. I've played a few with such horrid or repetitive "abiance" that I've turned the volume off completely.

 

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