How Video Game Companies Are Improving The Experience For Visually Impaired People

May 2, 2018
Originally published on May 2, 2018 10:06 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are some video games that put an emphasis on the sound in your headset instead of all the action on the screen. The Nightjar, for example, is one that forces you to listen very carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE NIGHTJAR")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Narrator) I'm going to walk you through that door, out of the airlock and back into the ship. Just relax.

KELLY: The audio-intensive experience makes it popular among people who are blind or visually impaired. Rachael Myrow of member station KQED reports that's a population the video game industry is beginning to focus on more.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: As surprising as it may seem, there are visually impaired people all over the world playing video games.

KAREN STEVENS: Just because a game isn't designed to be accessible doesn't mean people can't play it.

MYROW: Karen Stevens has spoken at San Francisco's Game Developer Conference for the last two years about accessibility. She's the sports accessibility lead at Electronic Arts. One of their most popular games is Madden NFL.

STEVENS: We figured out that there are probably about half a million colorblind Madden players.

MYROW: It's Stevens' job to make sure accessibility is baked in to product development from the start.

STEVENS: 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.

MYROW: Stevens' role is to provide that support with simple code changes like those that make brightness and contrast controls easier to adjust, bigger menu icons and color palettes that reflect the fact many people can't see reds and greens well. But some people need more than color adjustments. Marco Salsiccia of San Francisco is one. He lost his left eye to retinal cancer as a baby. And related complications took his right eye about four years ago. Among other things, the blindness ended his first career.

MARCO SALSICCIA: I was a motion graphics animator and a visual effects artist. So I worked on commercials, movies, corporate videos.

MYROW: Blindness also ended his enjoyment of visually immersive games like Madden NFL, Fortnite and the like. The games Salsiccia plays now are relatively simple ones he gets into in online game rooms playing with blind or otherwise visually impaired people from all over the world.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Applications...

MYROW: That's his digital assistant reading off developments in the game as he makes his moves on the keyboard. He has it running at double speed because it takes less time.

SALSICCIA: Monopoly, UNO, Blackjack - but a lot of the games I've found that are accessible aren't necessarily immersive.

MYROW: Now, there are blind people who can game games that are primarily visual by paying close attention to verbal descriptions, music and even vibrations coming through the controller. There are also some newer games that give primacy to the audio experience, like The Nightjar, a sci-fi thriller set in outer space.

SALSICCIA: The whole experience of the game is narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, so you have his voice in your ears guiding you through the game while your character is trying to escape a space station that's been overrun by aliens that's being sucked into the event horizon of a black hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "THE NIGHTJAR")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Narrator) Now walk to the door at the end of the corridor. Use your thumbs - left, right, left, right. Listen to your footsteps.

SALSICCIA: There are some games that almost hit that level of immersion, but there could be more.

MYROW: Nothing will perfectly replace the visceral delight Salsiccia used to get playing the most exciting games on the market. But with more attention from gaming companies, the technology is getting better with each passing year. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.