By Thomas Westin
There is an estimated 180 million people worldwide who have a visual impairment. Of these, between 40 and 45 million persons are blind (World Health Organization, 2001). Add to these people with hearing impairment or deafness, motoric disability and many more, and you realise that accessibility is big business.
More than 40 years has passed since the first computer game was developed (referring to the general assumption that Spacewar from 1962 was the first computer game). Yet you still have the same implied prerequisites to play a game, i.e. full sight, hearing, cognitive, motoric et cetera functions. In short the game industry excludes many (or most) disabled, potential gamers. Compared with the web industry (only about 10 years old), the game industry has done very little (if anything) in the accessibility area.
With this article we want to change this. After winning the “Innovation in Audio Award” at the 2003 Independent Games Festival with Terraformers, we feel confident that virtually any game can be made accessible. However, we also know it is a huge task for any game developer to make games (and especially 3D games) accessible. By collaborating with the rest of the community we think it is possible to develop methods of making all game genres accessible.
Definition of terms
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined the following terms which you should be aware of when discussing accessibility, in the International classification of impairments, disabilities and handicaps (ICIDH)
Any temporary or permanent loss or abnormality of a body structure or function, whether physiological or psychological. An impairment is a disturbance affecting functions that are essentially mental (memory, consciousness) or sensory, internal organs (heart, kidney), the head, the trunk or the limbs.
A restriction or inability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being, mostly resulting from impairment.
This is the result of an impairment or disability that limits or prevents the fulfilment of one or several roles regarded as normal, depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors.
What is out there already?
Compared to the billion dollar game industry there is almost nothing out there. However, there are some companies and individuals who have done great efforts with very limited budgets (if any). The following are the accessible game designs we know of, and we encourage everyone to help us fill this list with more examples.
- Multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and similar text-based adventures/RPGs are accessible for sight disabled.
- Braille games; home-made games programmed by innovative, sight disabled programmers. These games are made especially for braille displays using the tactile display as game interface.
- Audio only games (or combined with symbolic graphics); from simple, linear stories with a few choices along the way to interactive games. The most known example of these kinds of games is Shades of Doom. Another one is an online version of poker at ZForm.com.
- Games with software accessibility, like the first 3D game Terraformers and games from ESP Softworks. There is also one 3D game being developed with the Quake engine as described at Gamasutra.
- Games accessible through specialized hardware. Games like Motocross Madness has been made accessible with special hardware for controlling the game with head movement. Another innovative game is using a breathing interface. Yet another interface is using a Cyberlink (or Mind Mouse), using brain wave input for playing Tetris and other games/applications. Also, the Wild Divine Project using biofeedback.
- And, an exploration of the potential of computer games for education and disability support.
What can be done today?
The easy answer would be “A lot!”. However, when considering budgets and technology, as well as know-how in this area, things get more complicated. As you will realise though, many of the basic considerations to make are similar to making any game.
The first thing to consider is your potential target group. The easiest way to reach as many as possible is to go for standard hardware – if your game can be played on a standard PC you can reach a lot of gamers. This means you have to make your accessibility interface with software and content design. If you really need some special hardware, try to go for off the shelf hardware, i.e. stuff you can buy in any regular computer store. A force feedback joystick is quite expensive, but very cheap compared to specialized hardware made for disabled.
The second thing, related to the above is to target the mainstream gamers. Make your game design enjoyable by not only the disabled community, but by everyone. We could have made Terraformers a game for sight disabled only with just an audio interface, but then we would probably have missed many of their friends and relatives.
The third thing is to really think out of the box (you soon have to anyway if you follow my advice about standard hardware). This is just a start to get you going:
- Turn off the screen or blind fold yourself (the later implies that you know the keyboard layout if your game uses the keyboard). Now try to play your game. Is it playable? Is it still a good game?
- Put your hands behind your back (you may look at your screen again). Try to play your game. Is it playable? Is it still a good game?
- Keep your hands behind your back and put your feet on the ground in case you tried to use them in the previous step. In any case, keep your feet grounded. At this point, unless you are an alien from outer space with telekinetic abilities, you are probably left with using your head (literally) by hacking the keyboard with your nose. Of course, another possibility except from being an alien is to really redesign your game interface to work with speech recognition, text-to-speech, motion trackers, brainwave input, and specialized hardware for disabled. Also consider using speech and 3D sounds to create a second interface like in Terraformers.
- After redesigning your interface, now try to do some advanced math in your head while playing. If you still win, choose some harder math problem (or another subject; math works as a distraction for me since I'm no good at it). Now you may consider implementing a setting of difficulty levels in your game, if you have not already. This is actually an accessibility feature that the game industry has developed, which is very seldom replicated in other kinds of software! I would love an advanced 3D modelling program to be cleaned from all the super-user features leaving only the basic functions for modelling lamers like me, so I can gradually learn using the software.
All the above restrictions on yourself simulates to some extent different kinds of disabilities. Of course, I don't imply that these simple experiments can be completely compared to “real” disabilities, they just works to illustrate some problems that may occur for the disabled gamer.
Let's take a look at Terraformers as an example. The game was made with the standard hardware design in mind. We figured if we can make it accessible with simple hardware, we will reach a broader audience but we will also have to focus on making the interface very concise. Basically you need a standard PC (800 Mhz recommended) with a good consumer sound card (SB Live or equivalent recommended). If you want to play with sound as the primary interface, a pair of headphones is strongly recommended. If you want to play with sound only you can choose to play in a “No 3D-rendering mode”, which allows you to skip a 3D-graphics card, which you will need otherwise.
Except from the interface, you should also consider the content. Easy-read text, localized versions of speech, speech with a synchronized text cursor, selectable speech without accents or effects, text as text (not images), high contrast, control of speed and much more.
The game design should also be reconsidered, like proposed by Earnest Adams in Dogma 2001. In Terraformers there are visual illusions to make some game objects more easy to spot for sight disabled. In a fantasy game, you can make magicians blind, effectingly blacking out the game screen (or at least the viewport) but giving the magician a cool accessibility feature like teleportation. You can think of accessibility design as a possibility to force yourself to invent completely new kinds of features or even new kinds of games, without making the game design too far out which won't work – a tough balancing act.
My dream accessibility interface is something like The Matrix, bypassing our sensory organs and body entirely. Until we get there (if ever), I think the following examples would be something to consider:
- Imagine nanotech clay. Apart from being an artist's dream interface for 3D-modelling, it can be used to form 3D-shapes of objects in a game. The clay could also deform itself with some game AI communicated with the clay. If representing an NPC it can shake your hand and as such work as a highly tactile and interactive game interface.
- Imagine a transformer joystick. By constructing interconnectable modules you could let the user design his or her specially designed input tool.
Developing the hardware needed for the Matrix or even a transformer joystick, and making it ubiquitious are of cause big tasks. Perhaps too big for any company ever. However, I think hardware is the way to go to make games accessible for many with motoric disabilities. Also note that a lot can probably be done with standard hardware used in new, creative ways. As always, keep your design as close to standard hardware as possible. If it can be solved with software, that is what you should do it.
Software accessibility solutions for the future should include physical modelling. If you are simulating physics in your game world, which most games do to some extent, how do you make that accessibile? For sight disabled there are no or little audio feedback from the physics. The physics engine must be connected with a sound engine like Staccato that can synthezise the physics with realtime audio.
Realtime processing of sounds, like Creative Labs EAX technology is important for accessible games on the web. Sounds are the heaviest part to download. If you can have just one sound for each type of object and make realtime effects on the local machine, you can minimize download.
The game industry can't afford missing such a big target group as the disabled community. There are millions of potential gamers out there.
The game industry must also learn to be part of society and take social responsibility towards everyone seriously. If you can't go to a cinema with your friends just because you use a wheel chair, would that not upset you?
Accessibility is tough to accomplish but as there are simple tricks to make web pages accessible, I believe there are similar easy methods to make games accessible. If we help each other, I'm sure we will get there quite soon.
I would like to propose a game accessibility "initiative”, something like the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C. Below are some proposed goals of such a initiative:
- Work together as a community to make great games accessible.
- Develop accessibility methods and share this knowledge within the community.
- Define the needs raised by different disabilities and game genres.
- Push the current technology to its limits from an accessibility perspective.
- Learn from accessibility design in other areas, like the Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C.
- Develop a “road map” to what accessibility designs are possible today and in the future.
- Develop the above goals further together.
The IGDA's online forum will be a good place to get discussions started...
- Discuss game accessibility in the discussion forum
- Web Accessibility Initiative at W3C
- Independent Games Festival
- Shades of Doom
- ESP Softworks
- Teaching Partners
- Dogma 2001
Thomas Westin is Lead Programmer of the Terraformers team at the independent game studio Pin Interactive AB, Stockholm, Sweden. Recently, the team received the “Innovation in Audio Award 2003” for Terraformers at the Independent Games Festival during GDC 2003. He is also a teacher at the “Multimedia Education & Technology” programme at Stockholm University in web 3D programming, and tutor in accessibility issues. Beyond video games, Thomas' interests include watching movies and painting. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the IGDA.