Getting Blind-Sighted: Games For All Levels Of Visual Ability

One hobby my visually impaired friend Charlene and I share is a love for games of practically every sort. We've wiled away many a glorious breezy afternoon at the cabin playing card games like Kaiser, 500, Euchre, and Pinochle using my friend's special pack of brailled cards. To this day I'm still trying to figure out how she cheats using that deck.

We've also played several classic tabletop diversions, like Monopoly and Scrabble, using boards that feature raised surfaces that allow Char to feel (in the tactile sense) where to place a playing piece on the game grid. In the case of Monopoly, the Community Chest, Chance, and property cards are brailled so that Char can read them without assistance from a sighted person. Similarly, the letter tiles used in Char's version of Scrabble are brailled, so you can imagine that I watch very closely when she puts her hand inside the bag to draw out new tiles. She's a slippery one, I tell you.

Unfortunately, the realm of video games stretches the limits of how far technology can make games accessible to the low vision community. Sighted people may very well wonder how it's even possible for blind people to play video games in the first place. After all, the word video is Latin for "I see." How can those unable to see play games in a genre that is so clearly geared toward the sighted player?

Graphical screen reader technology

There are many ways that technology can render computer games accessible to blind people, but in my opinion, the most exciting technique uses what is called screen reader technology. Many blind people employ screen readers like JAWS for Windows (JFW) or Window-Eyes to navigate text on websites, word-processing documents, and e-mail files. The program's scanner searches the computer monitor for text and reads aloud what is written on the screen using a speech synthesizer (think of the computer network on Star Trek). Alternatively, the scanner can send the on-screen information to what is called a refreshable braille display - a flat surface that sits underneath the computer's keyboard through which braille "dots" may be raised and retracted.

Of course, this technology is amazing, as far as it goes. The difficulty arises, however, when the graphics variable enters into the equation. As luck would have it, Dutch technologist Peter Meijer believes he may have found a solution to this problem.

Dr. Meijer has invented a computer program (available for free download) called "the vOICe", that he hopes will allow people with visual impairment to navigate their own homes and even city streets without relying on assistance from sighted people or seeing-eye dogs. The blind person wears a "spy" camera in his or her sunglasses, and the image captured (1 per second) by the recorder is then sent to the vOICe processor program installed in a notebook PC (usually carried around in the person's backpack). Audio cues are subsequently relayed via stereo earbuds worn by the blind person, giving him or her an aural representation of what is actually going on visually.

Astonishingly, this technology can also be used to enable the visually disabled person to play unmodified, so-called "inaccessible" games originally developed for the sighted consumer on PC! As you can imagine, however, it's logistically impossible to test every PC game in existence to check if it's compatible with vOICe application technology. Nevertheless, program creator Peter Meijer's best advice is the very practical suggestion to just "give it a try and find out if it works with your 3D game."

Furthermore, what's wonderful about using the vOICe application to play games on a PC is that no external camera is required, as all game images are scanned and processed internally using the installed vOICe software. Click here to check out how a blind user might play Sierra's highly successful first-person shooter Half-Life using screen reader technology. Amazing, isn't it?

Games marketed for both the blind and sighted player

The next best thing to blind people playing games originally developed for sighted players is creating titles accessible for both visually disabled and mainstream gamers. The offerings found in this category feature all the splashy graphical effects sighted gamers have grown to expect from software developers, yet are fully accessible to the blind player via the usual gameplay aural cues and feedback.

It's great to note that a lot of the games that belong in this category are children's educational titles. The fact that these games allow blind children and their sighted siblings and friends to play together is a very hopeful sign, indeed. Some adorable titles that fit into this genre include the cute Froggy Hop, where the object of the game is guide your frog from lilypad to lilypad by correctly answering preschool-level trivia questions. The similarly reptilian-themed Flies By Night directs players to control the ravenous Prince Polywog Frog as he tries to catch and swallow twenty flies.

Action gamers of all ages and visual acuity may be interested in a captivating title called Time Adventures. According to the developer, the "beautiful graphics [in the game] are described as the mouse is moved over each section of the screen." Gameplay consists of solving puzzles and exploring the nooks and crannies of the game's mysterious sci-fi environment.

More seasoned (read: older) action gamers may find an adventure game called Terraformers to their liking. This futuristic shooter takes place on the fictitious planet Tellus 2 and requires the player to rescue the brilliant Professor von Lange who has been imprisoned by robots too smart for their own good. The voice feedback system in this game was apparently impressive enough to earn Swedish developers PiN Interactive the Innovation in Audio award at the 2003 Independent Games Festival. Click here to download the demo and judge for yourself.

There are also some cool online multiplayer options for those of us who have a mixture of sighted and low vision gamers in our social circle. AllInPlay.com allows gamers of every imaginable visual ability to come together to play classic card games like poker and crazy eights. Additionally, text-based multi-user dimensions (MUDs) are still quick, easy, and cheap ways for the blind and sighted to get together just to chat or engage in some serious RPG levelling-up exercises. Those interested may want to check out MudConnector.com for links to popular MUDs as well as a very helpful FAQ section.

Games marketed specifically for blind people

The games described below will unfortunately have little appeal for sighted gamers, as the only graphical touch used in these titles is a splash screen. Moreover, many sighted gamers will become irritated at having to rely on the memory tricks, seemingly excessive narrative details, and "blippy" audio cues required to play these games.

On a positive note, practically every video game genre imaginable has been made accessible to visually impaired gamers. A list of links to miscellaneous puzzle games, sports titles, racing games, role-playing offerings, etc. for low vision players can be found at PCSGames.com.

I do, however, wish to highlight briefly some of the more interesting and sophisticated offerings available specifically for blind gamers.

As a music game aficionado, I just had to try InspiredCode's rhythm action title for the blind called Metris (short for Musical Tetris). Like every Tetris game, the object is to clear as many rows of debris as possible using the garbage that falls onto the play field from the top of the "screen." In the case of Metris, the falling garbage consists of musical notes instead of multi-colored blocks. My challenge to all the rhythm action gamers out there is to download the free demo of Metris and give it a shot!

Blind gamers jealous over their sighted friends' opportunity to play fragfests like Doom need not be envious anymore. The title of the game Shades of Doom (GMA Games) leaves little doubt that this FPS was more than just a little inspired by the famous shooter of a similar name. Your mission this time around is to shut down a top-secret military research facility and abort an ill-fated science experiment gone awry. Game designers boast that players will be treated to ambient ear candy such as the echo of footsteps and the hum of adjacent machinery. Click here to listen to the introduction to the game on mp3 format. This game even has cheat codes, for crying out loud!

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that a suspense title would be the perfect type of game to publish for blind players. In Bavisoft's aptly titled thriller Chillingham, the player ventures into the eponymous haunted village to save a friend who has just sent the player a mysterious letter. If all of this sounds very frightening and serious, keep in mind that the game is recommended for players aged 10 and up and contains some scenes of "silly, cartoonish violence." Interestingly, this game is featured in a current exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The "Game On" exhibit runs until September 5, 2005.

Conclusion

All in all, I believe that both blind and sighted gamers have good reason to feel optimistic regarding the issue of accessibility. Day by day, advances in assistive technology are making it possible for gamers of every visual acumen to compete with each other on a level playing field.

Now if I could only download a program that would prevent Char from cheating...