Hard-core gamer Marco Salsiccia of San Francisco misses the visually immersive games he used to play before he became totally blind four years ago. A growing number of game developers are waking up to the audience demand for accessibility options. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)
A few years ago, Madden NFL graphics developer Karen Stevens won a “game jam” — or hackathon — at the video game company Electronic Arts.
Her pitch: tweak the code to make it possible to adjust, brightness and contrast controls, opt for bigger menu icons and change the colors -- you know, for people who are colorblind. "Turns out one out of 12 men are colorblind, and one out of 200 women," Stevens says. "There are probably half a million color-blind Madden players, so it really makes an impact."
As the Game Developers Conference packs the streets of downtown San Francisco this week, let's take a moment to assess how the industry is addressing diversity from an accessibility perspective.
As surprising as it may seem, given the visually intensive nature of most games today, there are visually impaired people all over the world playing games -- whether they were designed with them in mind or not.
Four years after that hackathon, Stevens is now EA’s Sports Accessibility Lead, making sure accessibility is “baked in” to product development from the start.
Stevens also spreads the gospel by giving talks at conferences. “It’s a mindset, not a feature," she told last year's GDC. It really should be considered in every step of the process.”
This year, she also spoke at #GAconf, a conference totally focused on accessibility that was held Monday in San Francisco.
"Just because a game isn’t designed to be accessible, doesn’t mean people can’t play it. Like, when I started my role, people were already playing EA games -- blind. They just didn’t have any support, so they would struggle with things, but they would still play."
Redwood City-based EA isn't the only company to prioritize the kind of customization that expands who can play its games. Last year, for instance, Microsoft introduced the “co-pilot” feature, that allows two people to share one controller. Ostensibly, blind gamers could pair up with sighted friends.
"Even though we were building it for gamers with disabilities in mind, it opens up a whole new variety of ways to play on our platform," says Evelyn Thomas, a program manger on Microsoft's Xbox.
"Parents with children who aren’t necessarily that skilled yet in playing games. Two people sitting on a couch and playing together on the same game. One person in the turnt of the tank and the other person steering," Thomas explains.
Hankering for a more immersive experience
Marco Salsiccia of San Francisco is the very kind of gamer likely to benefit from the work Stevens and Thomas do.
Salsiccia lost his left eye to retinal cancer as a baby, and related complications took his right eye about four years ago. "My vision just went dark one day, in a matter of 30 minutes, and it never came back."
Among other things, the blindness ended his first career. " I was a motion graphics animator and a Visual FX artist," he says with a sigh.
These days, when he’s not working as an accessibility consultant for Lyft, Salsiccia still gets together with his sighted gamer buddies to get as close to the games he used to play as possible. "I have a photographic and eidetic memory, so I remember a lot of the games that I played. So while they’re playing it, I can visualize what the levels look like, like where enemies were. Like, 'Careful around this corner. I know it’s going to come up.' Being able to sit here and just listen to the experience was fun, though I do miss actually playing it."
His experience reflects a common truth about gaming: it's as much about socializing as it is about the games. "Gaming is in fact the way many teens bond with their friends, and accessibility barriers mean, unfortunately, that there will be social distance between blind teens and their friends," writes Bryan Bashin of San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
"Yes, there are a number of blind gamers who play games designed to be nonvisual, and many really enjoy these. But it is the enjoyment of a ghetto, and the key social benefits of connecting with other gamers in person or online is lost with blind-specific games," Bashin adds.
Salsiccia plays online in game rooms with blind or otherwise visually impaired players from all over the world. It’s a trip to watch him play, because I’m staring at his laptop, but nothing’s happening on the screen.
He reels off the games he can play. "Monopoly. Uno. Blackjack. Yahtze. Battleship. Shut the box. Cards against humanity. I’m able to come into a game room, open up a little table. people can join me, or I can invite my friends and we can all play rummy together or any of the games here.
"But a lot of the games that I’ve found are accessible, aren’t necessarily immersive," he adds.
Gaming the games
Now, a blind or visually impaired person can play an immersive game, like Madden NFL, by paying close attention to the verbal descriptions, music and other audio cues. As more game designers send vibrations to the controllers, those provide non-visual cues as well. And of course, these gamers are more likely than the average to really read the manual.
One gamer in England who goes by the moniker “SightlessKombat” has developed an international reputation playing first-person shooter games. You can watch him on his YouTube channel.
But there are also immersive games that put the audio front and center -- like The Nightjar, a sci fi thriller set in outer space.
Salsiccia explains, "The whole experience is narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, so you have his voice in your ears, guiding you through the game, while your character’s trying to escape a space station that’s been overrun by aliens and is being sucked into the event horizon of a black hole."
"There are some games that almost hit that level of immersion, but there could be more," Salsiccia says.
Nothing will perfectly replace the visceral delight Salsiccia used to get playing with visually immersive games for. But the technology is getting better with each passing year…as is the attitude among game developers.
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