With all of the fuss made about constantly improving video game graphics, it may be surprising that there is a sizeable demographic of game fans for whom graphics are literally meaningless: blind gamers.
Video games are generally considered to be such a visually oriented medium that most would consider them to be problematic for players with vision impairment and inaccessible for those who are blind. However, this is not always the case.
Quentin Christensen is a Victoria-based IT trainer and part-time video game designer. He is also legally blind, having been born with congenital cataracts, and has only a fraction of a fully sighted person’s vision. Despite the obvious challenges, it has not prevented him from being an avid video game player for two decades.
Christensen recently released his debut game, RapiTap!.
He describes it as a game that is “for everyone, but which happen to be accessible to blind and vision impaired users”.
“It’s a reaction-based game,” he explains. “The screen is divided into a grid, and as images appear, you tap them as quickly as possible. What makes it playable for blind players is that the location of the images to tap is announced, and as you touch the screen it also tells you where you are currently tapping.”
Christensen explains there are many ways to make a game more accessible for vision impaired people and audio is a major component.
“If anything which visually indicates a need for action by the player is accompanied by an audio cue, then that’s a big help,” he says.
He gives the example of an “endless runner” game, such as Canabalt or Temple Run.
“If a noise indicates you need to jump, that’s easy to make accessible.”
Even a 3D shooter game can be made accessible for blind players if there are clear audio cues and good use of surround sound.
“You could encourage the player to wear good headphones, and perhaps have an audio cue when the player is aiming at the target and ready to fire,” he suggests.
However, there are other considerations which are less obvious for those not familiar with the tools people with vision impairments use to access their technology. One of the most common tools is text-to-speech software, which reads text aloud with a computer-generated voice. These tools are only usable in games that make allowances for them.
“Text which is rendered as images won’t be accessible to users relying on speech; for instance menu text or character dialogue,” Christensen says.
Many games store text in an image format, which means that text-to-speech software cannot recognise it as text that needs to be read out. Making the simple choice to use actual text in menus and game interfaces makes life much easier for blind users. Another simple change is to let players indicate when they have finished reading and are ready to move on, rather than clearing text from the screen after a set period.
Despite the inherent challenges, Christensen says there are many game fans with vision impairments who are eager for new content.
“The blind and vision impaired community are very quick to embrace new technology, and love games,” he says. “Smartphones particularly, with their integrated accessibility features, have meant that with exactly the same technology as everyone else, not only blind and vision impaired, but also deaf, physically disabled and those with intellectual or learning difficulties are able to access mainstream content.”
Perhaps most surprising, blind players will often find that games never designed with their needs in mind are still playable.
Even Christensen’s wife, who is also blind, learnt to play Frogger on the Atari 2600 because of its clear, simple audio design.
More broadly, Christensen says adhering to accessibility principles in game design benefits everyone, not just gamers with disabilities.
“A game which is easy to play without squinting at the screen is going to be easier for a fully sighted user in the park or sitting on the bus with the sun in their eyes,” he says, “and it will enable them to turn the brightness down on their device, making their battery last even longer.
“There are benefits for everyone in making content accessible.”
RapiTap! can be purchased for $2.99 on the Google Play store.