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.

Super Mario Bros.

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 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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