Spot On: The blind gaming the blind

Largely invisible to the mainstream, sightless gamers help each other tackle titles like Rock Band and Left 4 Dead, while others focus on games made for--and by--the blind.

Brandon Cole can still remember the first time he picked up a game controller.

"My first ever gaming experience was actually a cruel, cruel joke played on me by my brother," the blind 23-year-old told GameSpot. "One fine day, he popped in the Mario Bros. game cartridge, handed me a controller, and said 'OK, go ahead and press some buttons, and we'll see what happens.' So I started pressing some buttons, and I was listening to Mario jumping through all these levels, killing all these bad guys, winning each level, and so on. It was fantastic! It was wonderful! He was complimenting me, you know. 'Awesome, you just did this; you just did that; you just got an extra life; good for you!'"

An unforeseen ruse.

However, Cole soon learned he was the victim of a sibling's prank.

"What he had actually done was hand me the second player controller, and he had the first player controller. He had fooled me into thinking I was playing the game, and he had a good laugh," Cole said. "To him, that's all it was, a joke. He wasn't trying to inspire me, but, little did he know, he did."

Although he never beat Super Mario Bros., Cole has thrown himself time and again into games that are anything but blind-friendly.

"Rock Band is a fun challenge for blind people," Cole said. "Developers don't place the button sequences randomly as far as the instrument controllers go. It makes sense; they do it in a logical way. We have learned that if the next note in the song is a higher note, then more than likely the fret on the guitar that you're going to press is a higher fret than what you're on right now. With that in mind, and a few other tips and tricks I've picked up--like certain ways long streaks of constantly rising notes are handled in these games--I can learn a song just by listening to it."

Playing it by ear and touch.

Cole said he has learned to play about 100 songs on guitar in Rock Band, from relatively tame tracks like Radiohead's "Creep" to Metallica's five-star difficulty "Enter Sandman." While the guitar is much harder for Cole than singing or drumming, it's his instrument of choice.

Even in genres that traditionally aren't very accessible to blind gamers, the advent of surround sound in games has lowered the walls to entry.

"My fiancée handed me the controller one day, and I plugged in a pair of headphones because she wanted me to play Left 4 Dead. With those headphones on and whatever technology they use for the audio, it basically has a 3D audio," he said. "I was able to tell her pretty accurately where the zombies were and where they were coming from."

Cole said side-scrolling beat-'em-ups and 2D fighting games are the easiest because "you only have two directions to go, and you'll be just fine attacking." 3D role-playing and sports games are much more difficult to beat, though it has been done. One blind man even recorded himself playing--and winning--an entire game of Madden NFL 07.

Riviera: The Promised Land also features fully voiced dialogue, which is always a boon to blind gamers.

Oftentimes, the challenges blind gamers face start even before the first level. Even if a game is playable, it is often inaccessible because blind gamers cannot get past the maze of menu options to start up a game. To combat this problem, Cole has made a Web site that helps blind gamers navigate these otherwise inaccessible games, with audio tutorials that address both gameplay and interface issues. Other times, blind gamers will use a screen reader--software that reads text aloud--to access the same sources used by their sighted counterparts.

"It's playable if you use one specific guide from GameFAQS," Cole said of the PSP role-playing game Riviera: The Promised Land. "[The author] probably didn't know he wrote it so well that it works for blind people, but the reason that it works is that the movement system in the game isn't step-by-step based but room-by-room based. So he can tell you, 'OK, to get to the next area, move up twice and right once, and that's all you need to know. However, the very reason it's playable by the blind is probably also the reason why it got poor reviews...because it's very simplistic."

Gamers like Cole have reached out to publishers with suggestions on making their titles more accessible, but they frequently find their blind-friendly requests ignored.

Mainstream publishers don't even tailor their dismissive form letters to blind gamers, much less their games.

"I wrote THQ a letter once suggesting things they could add to their WWE Smackdown games to make them more accessible to the blind," Cole told GameSpot, "I got a letter back thanking me for my appreciation of their cutting-edge graphics."

A number of major game publishers and developers--including THQ, Harmonix, Namco Bandai, and Microsoft--did not respond to GameSpot's inquiries on game accessibility as of press time.

Introducing the Audio Game

As a developer of games for the blind, Blind Adrenaline owner Che Martin believes he knows why companies like THQ are so unresponsive to requests from the sightless gaming community.

"There's not enough money in it for the mainstream developers to make their games blind-accessible, so they don't even worry about it," Martin said. "I've got a friend working in LA doing graphics for a video game company, and I had him run it up the flagpole with the folks he knew there about putting in some accessible features. They weren't even interested."

Although Martin's online audio game Rail Racer has made money, his stake in blind gaming is more than financial. Martin lost his sight to diabetes, ending his incipient career as a visual effects producer in Los Angeles.

3D headphones, like these, are a prized item for blind audio gamers. This pair costs $160 at a major retailer.

Even though the audio games market may seem financially bleak, it's significantly larger than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Before the Internet connected blind gamers together, they were too thinly spread across the world to congregate. According to Thomas Ward--a 31-year-old blind administrator for Audyssey, a long-standing audio games mailing list--early blind gaming consisted of using screen readers with text-based games.

"Accessible gaming started in the late '80s, early '90s, with text games. There was a football game, a Monopoly game. And for a time, that's really all there was, except for mainstream text games that happened to be blind accessible," Ward told GameSpot. "Around the mid '90s, when Microsoft Direct X came out, it not only revolutionized mainstream games, it also opened up new avenues for what we now call audio games. With Direct X, what was revolutionary was that Microsoft added a lot of High-level features; you could pan sound left and right. You could put sound in 3D, and many game developers said, 'Hey, if we can play it back in 3D, we could hear where the sounds were.' So they began experimenting."

One of the most successful products of that experimentation was Shades of Doom. The first full audio first-person shooter took advantage of 3D sound and drew its inspiration from another breakthrough first-person shooter.

Since Shades of Doom is primarily an audio game, its graphics took a back seat. The square and circle are characters.

"It was a Doom clone, and it really was the first full audio game. If you had a good set of headphones you could hear where the sounds were. Even now audio games are an ongoing experiment," Ward said.

For example, Martin is building on the innovations of Rail Racer and looking to push blind gaming into more genres. He is now considering an Apache helicopter sim and is working on making a PC audio football game that's compatible with the motion-sensing Wii Remote.

"When you make a pass, you'll actually make a pass. The possibility for action games and fitness games is phenomenal, with the motion-sensitivity device there," Martin said. "From what I can tell, it's completely possible. It's just a matter of programming."

The audio games market has at least seen fledgling attempts at nearly every genre, with AudioGames.net listing over 330 games currently available online. As the selection of blind-friendly games grows, Luke Hewitt--who helps manage the blind gaming hub--believes the audience to enjoy them could more than keep pace.

"There are people who have grown up in the 1970s and the 1980s, and people don't tend to go blind until their 50's," Hewitt said, "which means in probably 10 years time, there are going to be a lot of people who grew up in the 1970s and '80s playing games who are going blind."

(A video of one audio racing game, Drive, is shown below. A free demo is also available.)

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, over 20 million Americans report significant vision loss, with Americans age 45-64 more than twice as likely to report vision loss than those age 18 to 44. The foundation's most recent statistics (from a 1994 survey) put the number of legally blind Americans around 1.3 million.

"Looking" to the Future

Cole hopes that the "Next Big Thing" in mainstream gaming crosses over into blind gaming. After hearing about Microsoft's motion-sensing Project Natal, Cole said he hopes that the technology's voice command features will make game interfaces more accessible to blind users (see demo video below).

However, Martin believes that an interface can only go so far.

"You're controlling the game, but is the game giving you [feedback]? It needs to be programmed to do it. It's going to have to be coded for the blind, and there's the rub. As far as making main interfaces accessible, for instance on the Wii, when you run over a menu, it will talk to you. That might come. I would like to think companies like Nintendo and EA would think, 'It wouldn't take too much,' but they don't really seem to care at this point."

The biggest megapublishers might not make concessions for blind customers, but at least one indie developer has taken notice. With encouragement from Hewitt, Niels Bauer created the sci-fi space trading games Smugglers 3 and Smugglers 4 for the PC with some key alterations for blind audiences.

"I have to admit that before I was contacted by Luke Hewitt, I wasn't aware that there is something like a blind player community," Bauer said. "Soon, I realized that it would be a very worthwhile project to create a blind compatibility mode...not financially, but it was just the right thing to do."

For Smugglers 4, Bauer developed a special blind compatibility mode that took advantage of existing screen-reading software. To accommodate the mode, Bauer had to ensure that all the dialogue, menu options, and similar cues in the game were displayed as Windows text labels instead of graphic files, and he had to put text labels on each icon and picture in the game.

The screen reader, along with descriptive text, imparts essential game information to blind gamers in Smugglers 4.

While that was feasible for Smugglers 4, Bauer admits he runs a small company where his desires can easily materialize into a game, whereas large corporate developers have a much more restrictive process.

Pending any breakthrough, blind gaming will continue to be low key, dependent on altruistic amateurs and small-time companies. As such, gamers like Brandon Cole will continue to map out and play mainstream games that were never intended for the blind.

"It really comes down to the general message that it is possible," Cole said. "You'd be surprised. I used to play Mortal Kombat: Deception online on the PS2 all the time. I made it a point via voice chat to tell people I was blind. Out of all the people I told--which had to be at least 30--only one of them believed me. We're out here, and we're willing to play the games."

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Discussion

173 comments
Smugz
Smugz

This is really intresting. I'm actually half blind and I just sit close to the TV... and saty away from things that are tiny or far away (I.e. DS, Wii) I have a friend who was born totally blind and he plays GTA and DBZ, and resident Evil with some help. I'm sure he plays more than that, but that's what I remember him playing.

thedemon44
thedemon44

Definitely one of the more interesting, and slightly bizarre articles I've read on Gamespot.

shani_boy101
shani_boy101

@Freakin-Gamer people who are born blind can't even visualise things in their head or see dreams, probably because they haven't experienced colour. it'd work for people who became blind during their lives though.

shani_boy101
shani_boy101

good for them. it's quite impressive to hear that a blind person can play Rock Band and even L4D simply through sound alone. Everyone has the right to enjoy games.

XenoLair
XenoLair

Its nice. A world without games is strange :/ So im glad to hear that the blind can also have some form of gameplay entertainment.

Freakin-Gamer
Freakin-Gamer

I've heard about this technology about sending images to a person's head so he can visualize it in his mind...They should incorporate that into video games...Now even people who could see would want that...dreaming and gaming!

Blade8Aus
Blade8Aus

@neuroboy obviously something in 2d would be easier than 3d but i guess its how you use it

neuroboy
neuroboy

Best article I've ever read on Gamespot. Very inspiring and thought-provoking... I've been messing about with the Source SDK and also working on a few little homebrew games for the DS for my own amusement... perhaps I'll take up the worthy creative challenge of producing something interesting for the visually impaired...

TQ_NintyNoE
TQ_NintyNoE

I can understand visually impaired people wanting to play games, however although it is something which has very rarely happened, on the basic of luck and skill, it isn't something which any games- making company have thought about. The ratio of people who are blind compared to those who are not is minimal, and it's assumed that only a tiny percentage of these people will bother playing games anyway. I don't see any way people can make Wrestling any better for visually impaired people. All you do is mash buttons anyway, and I can see where developers might halt this inclusion = money. if I was disabled, I wouldn't sue a robotics company for not being able to make me moving legs, or I wouldn't sue a pole jumping expert for not making the sport more accessible to handicapped people either. It's just unrealistic.

DDR_Midian
DDR_Midian

It's odd how people voted down the eye transplant comment as though it's a bad thing when research has been going on trying to make it a reality for a long time now. I'm not blind so it won't affect me personally, but the day they succeed will be an amazing one.

fillup0
fillup0

I think that everyone should enjoy games, no matter what is wrong with them. But if you have all your senses, the game is going to be much better, no matter what. A great audio game is the pitt on Xbox Live.

Bonzeemer
Bonzeemer

Everybody has a right to enjoy games. Good article.

geoff-uk123
geoff-uk123

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

chaosbrigade
chaosbrigade

This is how capitalism works. As long as the blind are not the majority customers, game developers aiming for profit maximization will not be interested in their demands.

Bowser05
Bowser05

That was a fantastic article. It is too bad some companies are ridiculous enough where they can't even bother to give an appropriate response to a letter. It is also freaking amazing how visually-impaired and blind people manage to find enjoyment out of these games like this. In many ways, they are far more skilled than most of us who are able to see fine. Amazing indeed. I hope companies, no matter how big or small, continue to have accomodations like some are.

frogman666
frogman666

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

JOKER677
JOKER677

hey hes a gamer to but its a shame that developers dont appeal to them at all

Zallomallo
Zallomallo

I'm still waiting for eye transplants.

GamerPatrick
GamerPatrick

It's great to see some companies, even if they're just small ones, taking this into consideration. As a blind gamer myself I understand where Cole is coming from, unfortunately I don't have the patience and determination to learn to play most games sightless. One series I have however been fond of since I was quite young is the Pokemon series. I actually first heard about it from a friend who is also blind, and discovered a couple others who played it. There are sounds for most actions; each individual creature in the game, for instance, has its own unique sound or "cry", each attack has a unique sound, there is a sound for when you run into a wall, talk to a person, different music for different places to go. I'm not sure how many blind individuals around the world play it, but at my school for the blind it's one of the more commonly played games, apart from audio specific games.

Cricket_Sloat
Cricket_Sloat

mind blowing... what I really liked about the article was that it went into his methods a little bit. like how he learns to play. I had heard of something like this but they didnt say how the guy (in the other story) did it.

funnyman2004
funnyman2004

The blind guy who was in the news for his aptitude with fighting games, at least the one mentioned here, was probably Brice Mellon. When I first heard of him, and especially his G4 TV appearance, I was outraged at his refusal to acknowledge the entire blind gaming community, sticking strictly to himself. He has since told me he had no idea at the time that he wasn't the only one. And I should also clear up some confusion about Left 4 Dead. I didn't play it all that successfully. I did kill one zombie, and I was able to tell Misty, my fiance, where the zombies were while she was playing, but other than that, the only thing I can say is that I didn't die.

SuperSoraKH2
SuperSoraKH2

It's great they're making video or should I say audio games for the blind!:))

madSomnambulist
madSomnambulist

Sony has "interactive art" available on PSN for the Eyetoy, so I can't see why someone couldn't event the complete opposite-- an essentially blank audio template. It could use either a camera device to grab motion, motion sensing, or even just controller buttons. Things like open symphony conducting or realtime DJ sample mixing would be basic starts. I hate saying it in the face of such awesomeness of overcoming adversity, but development into these titles will obviously never be in the forefront... but it doesn't mean games can't be made that fit the bill that are enjoyable for all audiences. Even if it's a optional feature to turn the game into "audio mode", it'd be a challenge a lot of other players would enjoy. With 5.1, motion sensing and force feedback it's certainly possible.

aaronobst
aaronobst

at least they're not all that into graphic comparisons

Conanfan1
Conanfan1

"... he never beat Super Mario Bros." The story should have just ended there. Hilarious.

DaGamer444
DaGamer444

thats pretty sick. it's good to see that they aren't being sceluded from a good hobby. :)

-Pred-Alien-
-Pred-Alien-

Pretty cool stuff, nice to see blind people arent left out either!

tomcat51
tomcat51

thats one of the strangest and most impressive thing ive read in ages, I never even even occured to me they would bother trying to play.

charlie_chan_88
charlie_chan_88

Insipiring indeed.... good on these people! In fact, Id like to see games developed that put disabled people and 'able-bodied' people on an equal footing. For instance a game that is ENTIRELY audio and motion based. These would work well on both Wii as well as mobile platforms like android and the iphone, and possibly the upcoming project natal.

indiannoob
indiannoob

inspiring :) gaming is truly magical in its weird ways :D

starduke
starduke

Cool, blind gamers, good for them. It just shows that anyone can game. There should be a lot more games for them, though.

Darkman2007
Darkman2007

I have to admire any gamer who can play a game without seeing it. I certainly couldnt (I probably couldnt get far past the main menu), so well done to anyone who can.

StarvingPoet
StarvingPoet

I have lots of respect for blind gamers. As absolutely petty as this is - I remember when I accidentally turned my PS2 to RGB component instead of the CYB - you had to navigate through the playstation system menus by memory because there is no other way to reset the settings. And that little 5 minutes of black screen took me 4-5 tries to go through 3 menus before I could see again. I couldn't imagine the patience it takes to even attempt a game in dark.

gigarisch
gigarisch

@thekodaman: Epic fail indeed.

dunnowhathuh
dunnowhathuh

Good on ya GS for posting this article. It really is an unfortunate aspect of life that the world revolves around money. Big corporations love to ignore that little voice in their head that tells em to play nice but unfortunately karma never seems to roll the right way - you'd think with the ridiculous profit margins some games make that they'd at least be nice enough to patch something afterwards for the blind. I hope that more indie developers will have a go at making games more accessible in the future. I wonder though, just how much money would need to be spent to make a game more accessible?

eccentricwizard
eccentricwizard

I find it kind of sad how people are so surprised to hear that the blind are really good at rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, when they pretty much use their ears to see. Of course, that shouldn't limit their selection of games, even if the key word for developers is *video* games. And by the way, I'd just like to take some credit for being the first to mention the idea of using the brain as a platform for 'intercranial' gaming :P I've always thought/dreamed about it ever since an old buddy and fellow gamer predicted that by the time the PS5 comes out, TVs/monitors will no longer be required. Then it'll be people like Brandon's turn to play cruel jokes on us sighted people.

Dima2000
Dima2000

That Project Natal thing is amazing!

rhoxthebeast
rhoxthebeast

I have to say, I honestly had no idea that blind gamers were able to play anything other than text games, but it is definitely a pleasant surprise. I hope that support from 'up-there' publishers comes through; I can not begin to imagine being unable to visually process game information, let alone play the game regardless of the fact that I can't see. Kudos to the developers that try to help them out! I used to hate Game Spot news stories ever since the orginal Xbox power supply issues where they basically denied they were bad.. but this. I think this story may have made up for it.

Savvy30039
Savvy30039

Interesting. I remember reading about a blind man that was good at fighting games, but to play Rock Band is just amazing. I wouldn't expect gaming companies to acknowledge blind gamers though, they can barely even comprehend that there's a market outside of the 18-30 year old white male demographic.

thekodaman
thekodaman

All I can say is epic fail on behalf of THQ.

ChampionOfLight
ChampionOfLight

Thanks Gamespot, for bringing this one to the front. Myself being one who's visually impaired and into the JRPG genre, it is nice that technology has advanced to such a point where there's full voice-acting during long cutscenes. This is nice, since reading onscreen text can sometimes be a burden, depending on the sort of font / style used, and how small it is. I can still get by in older games with no voiceovers since I have a larger TV now than I used to, but it's not without some strain at times. For those games and their publishers who refuse, due to costs and other reasons, to make games more accessible to those whose vision isn't as great or they're wholly blind, it shows in this article and in some of the comments, that even gamers with visual impairment or unable to see at all......they still get by and are able to enjoy what we do and have fun.

mightEone
mightEone

I hate to say it but developers trying to make games that are "blind friendly" just seems impossible. Yes Natal may make it easier but let's face it. Video games are visual entertainment. I understand a blind man may be able to play Left 4 Dead by listening to 3D audio, but this makes me wonder if he knows where to shoot. For example, he hears a zombie behind him, he turns around but the gun is aiming above the zombies head so really all he is shooting is air. Playing mario is fun, but hows does one know when the turtle is going to eat you if you can't see it? The Koopas don't make stepping sounds

robgam3r
robgam3r

wow that is punk rock i hope they make games more avaible for the blind

funnyman2004
funnyman2004

Firstly, believe me when I say that I understand the problems creating a new mode of gaming presents to large developers. There's research to be done, and research costs money. Any additional voice actors required to narrate menus or what have you also brings a price, and so on. But on the other side of that, things are already improving for us blind gamers as they are. We have hope for things like Natal, and continuing audio improvements in games are helping us along without the knowledge of the developers. There are also lucky strikes, too. For instance, DBZ Tenkaichi 3 happens to have fully narrated menus. When you're highlighting an option, one of the characters says something about that option. Was this done just for the blind? Probably not, as it turns out. It was probably done to give the game just a little extra flare, but regardless, that increases accessibility ten fold. Virtua Fighter 4, I believe, also has talking menus for no apparent reason.

rykh
rykh

This is a pretty inspiring story. I enjoyed it.

NuKkU
NuKkU

thats pretty cool man great cause man and everyone says gaming is a bad thing