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Dragging accessible computer games into the 21st century

by Adrian Higginbotham

5th August 2010

Over the last 3 months, Ouch! technology correspondent Adrian Higginbotham has drawn attention to recent developments in technology and ease of access. Though practical and employmnet access have been addressed, has the same effort been put in to designing accessible digital leisure time pursuits?
A person playing a computer game using a switch control
They provide the opportunity to blast the life out of every sort of life form, excel at sports you’re not brave enough to even try out for real, or rule over worlds that only a mind as fiendishly intelligent as yours could possibly create. In short, computer games are the ultimate escape from reality, the chance to reign supreme for a few hours over your family, friends, total strangers, or if needs must, just the humble machine. But how do they stack up for accessibility?

What if you don’t have the full complement of senses, or if your motor skills and reaction times don’t fit the parameters of the game’s design? Can you still find titles to enjoy? Is there anything available which puts you on a par with your peers in terms of exhilaration and that you can easily play in harmony with your friends and family?

This month I’ll be spending hours locked alone in a darkened cell in the name of research, so that you don’t have to.
Two people playing a computer game.
Here I am at the controls of my world war II submarine, off the coast of an occupied island. I've threaded my way through a minefield to get here and am sitting, torpedoes at the ready, awaiting the enemy troop carrier that two days ago, a radio transmission alerted me to.

Navigating through this 3D sea-scape, keeping track of compass bearings, radar scans, on-board sonar, periscope views, and target acquisition systems, takes as much concentration as any simulation game you’d find in your local computer store.

With up to 32 sounds playing at any one time, no one could accuse GMA Games Lone Wolf of not being exciting and challenging, even with zero graphics. For this is an ‘audio game’, Made with blind and visually impaired people like me in mind and based exclusively on complex stereo sound.

Sadly, scanning through several excellent websites which pull together details and reviews of accessible games - including OneSwitch.org.uk, GameBase.info, AudioGames.net and AbleGamers.com - it becomes immediately obvious that, disappointingly, this is as good as it gets. In the nearly ten years since Lone Wolf was first released, the accessible games arena has seen little to rival it.

Complex society simulation games, motor racing, shoot-‘m ups, Space invaders, sword fighting, virtual dog racing and even remakes of popular titles such as Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, do exist, either in audio only, or playable with a single key (or switch). Very many are free and those which aren’t will set you back no more than a few pounds (prices which recover the costs of licensing, sounds and images, but which give the developers no real profit).

Enjoyable as these can be, the fact remains that there isn’t an accessible game out there to come close to the quality of commercial equivalents on the highstreet .
A group of teenagers playing a Playstation game.
The availability of top-quality, fully accessibleComputer games is becoming all the more important now that playing them is no longer the solitary geek activity it used to be. Thanks to modern consoles, and especially the Nintendo Wii, gaming has moved from the bedroom to the sitting room, from the domain of the teenage boy to the hub of family life. And we disabled people are missing out.

The current generation of consoles have technology on-board which lends itself well to a diversity of players. There's haptic feedback which lets you feel the inpact of incoming blows, ergonomic controls that are logical and comfortable to use, high quality audio, often connected up to a large screen, and all at a price lower than that of the average home workstation. Very disappointing it is then that the fully accessible options remain little more than retro arcade games with bright colours and louder bangs as their only concession to the 21st century.

For those of you tech-savvy enough to get through the complicated set-up processes, it is possible to cobble together a game of golf on the sony playstation using switches, or tennis for the visually impaired using Wii controllers connecting wirelessly to a PC, but somehow it doesn’t quite have the same appeal.

Where are the games disabled and non-disable people can play together with equal enjoyment?

Disabled people are being excluded from a 21st century family activity and it’s just not good enough! I demand the right to waste hours of my life fragging characters that don’t really exist, beating virtual opponents at sports I’m no good at, and having bragging rights over my kids as to who can keep up with the dance routines from whatever the latest trashy tween flic is.


Have you found any console or desktop games that you can enjoy equally with your friends and family? Tell us your ideas for a game that could be universally accessible and worth playing. Come on geniuses, spill your ideas in the comments below. Accessible family life is at risk here, even if i'ts just Adrian's.
The switch control picture included in this article was provided by Able Gamers.

Comments

    • 1. At 6:05pm on 05 Aug 2010, Djonma wrote:

      I play Final Fantasy XI, an MMO, and my sensory issues and physical disabilities are causing me more and more problems with it now.
      A couple of the jobs in the game require position-perfect things, for their spell effects to hit the right people in the group.

      There is a third party tool and plugin that does this, but it is not allowed by Square Enix, the company who produce the game
      The third party tool which has plugins for it is usually used by Real Money Traders to cheat the game and have bots and hacks.
      The thing is.. the third party tool just uses data coming from the game itself, so SE could easily add such information as an accessibility feature, or for people who want to know things like how far they are from a monster, or from a group member.
      It would be very simple.

      It would also be nice to be able to move bits of the screen around.
      I play the healer a lot in certain events, and the hp bars of my group are down in the bottom right of the screen... well my eyes are bad and sometimes I have to cover my right eye completley, making the hp bars in my blind spot.

      But it's a pretty old game.
      However, they're bringing out Final Fantasy XIV this year, and from what I've heard, there are absoultely no accessibility-related upgrades to the interface and game play.

      Rather annoying, especially when you're stuck at home all day long and online games become rather a good form of entertainment.

      And then there's the new Playstation Move.. and the XBox Kinetic. Things that use your whole body as a controller.
      What if you don't have what is normally considered a 'whole' body?
      Or what if you can't stand up and jump around?
      Will these new games be accessible?

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    • 2. At 10:38pm on 09 Aug 2010, Barrie Ellis wrote:

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

    • 3. At 10:39pm on 09 Aug 2010, Barrie Ellis wrote:

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

    • 4. At 10:55pm on 09 Aug 2010, Barrie Ellis wrote:

      A harsh but fair appraisal of the state of accessible gaming there, Adrian. There's not much out there in the main-stream at all. A handful of games with colour-blind options, a small but growing number of games with simplified control scheme options (e.g. Forza 3's racing with auto-braking, and Bayonetta and the latest FIFA) and.... Yep, not a lot off the top of my head.

      There is a one-switch option in Namco's Star Trigon for the PC.

      Half-Life 2 has full subtitles (including sound effects).

      Last audio-game of depth for a games console was 1999 and in Japanese only: Real Sound: Kaze no Riguretto (Regret of the Wind) for the Dreamcast.

      Let's Tap! for the Wii is fun for those who can tap a level surface accurately. For those who can't, might manage the visualiser, which is quite fun (tap to create art, annoy fish, trigger fire-works).

      The Xbox 360 has a number of one-button games on the Indie Arcade (including Fishie Fishie 50 for up to 50 players).

      The PS2's original Eye Toy had a load of mini-games you could play with different parts of your body (you just need to move the camera to suit you). Like Let's Tap, it had a free-play experimentation area for a no-pressure way to get used to the system. Pretty superb actually even today.

      The Game Base Electronic Soup Podcast had a section on deeper audio games that may be of interest. I'd post a link, but it's not easy to do so here.

      And Microsoft are showing an interest in the accessible gaming community at the minute as regards their Kinect hardware. There's mentions that it can recognise a person sitting down, and can read American Sign Language with certain software libraries. We'll see though...

      In short, yes, there's a long way to go. Hoping the likes of this article will help to usher in change.

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    • 5. At 12:16pm on 10 Aug 2010, HeartSinger wrote:

      I often don't bother to even try certain types of computer games ...partly because I'm not as intensely interested as some people (such as my partner) but also partly because I know that many games were not designed with deaf people in mind and depend so heavily on sound that people like me will get left out or left at a disadvantage. Some basic games (say, card games or Mah Jongg) are inherently accessible for sighted deaf people, but I'm guessing not so much for blind people. But many role playing type games have characters that interact with each other in spoken dialogue, or ask you to listen to things for certain clues, all very often with no captions. So for me it usually isn't worth the bother unless a hearing person specifically tells me that Game X has full subtitles. Even then, I have to try it before I really trust that the subtitles necessarily actually give me full access. Sometimes it turns out that the subtitles only caption dialogue and not sound effects that you might need to be aware of, or sometimes the captions don't even capture the full dialogue only some of it. I'm not familiar with Half-Life 2, but games as apparently deaf-friendly as that one is are rare. My partner did show me another one (not sure it included sound effects but did include captions for dialogue).

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