Video Games for the Vision Impaired

Players who are blind or visually impaired have a growing number of games to play that use sound cues instead of images to guide racers and shooters.

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Video games are a popular holiday gift, but as the graphics improve with each new generation of consoles, video games become less and less accessible to the blind and visually impaired players. Reporter Amy Standen has the story of sonic games, many developed by blind players themselves.

Mr. SHAY MARTIN (Game Developer) At first, I didn't even know blind people could use a computer.

AMY STANDEN: Shay Martin was 29 when he started to lose his sight due to diabetic retinopathy. He was a visual effects producer in Los Angeles at the time.

Mr. MARTIN: That career was about nine years in the making and just as I was making a lot of progress and getting ready to do a lot of movies and film work, that's when I started losing my vision.

STANDEN: Martin had a few surgeries to try and save his eyes, but within a matter of months, he was completely blind. A long time gamer who had spent most of his life in front of a computer, Martin went back to what he knew best.

Mr. MARTIN: I ran across a program called Jaws. It synthesizes the computer for you so your computer actually tells you what's going on. Two years ago I started teaching myself to program. And I did a few projects, small shooter games, and then started on Rail Racer, and we're just about finished with it.

(Soundbite of game)

Unidentified Man: Prepare to race.

STANDEN: This is Rail Racer, the game Martin developed. There are no visuals in Rail Racer, just sounds. But with stereo headphones on, you can hear everything you need to know.

Mr. MARTIN: And away we go. Now there's a curve. That scraping side you hear is me going too far in the curve and hitting the edges.

STANDEN: Michelle Hinn chairs the International Game Developers Association's special interest group on game accessibility.

Ms. MICHELLE HINN (International Game Developers Association): At last year's game developer's conference, someone came up to me and they said, wow, could you imagine if someone created a game that you played entirely through sound cues. And we're like, well, yes, we can, because it exists.

STANDEN: Hinn has been lobbying the mainstream game industry for years to open up games to people with blindness and other disabilities, but it's been a challenge.

Ms. HINN: We would come up to some of these companies and we'd say, hey, did you know this would be really handy for people who wanted to game who had these conditions? And they'd have a look of horror on their faces. They're like, we don't want to be known as an accessibility company.

STANDEN: So for now, blind people exist at the margins of the game world, playing text-based adventure games and audio games like Rail Racer and Enemy Attack, which we're hearing now.

(Soundbite of video game)

STANDEN: Like Rail Racer, Enemy Attack uses stereo sounds to indicate where and how close threats are. It demands a skill most sighted people lack, hand/ear coordination. Here's Ken Downey, who designed Enemy Attack.

Mr. KEN DOWNEY (Game Developer): If a game says enemy on the right, enemy on the right, shoot him, he's on the right, that's no fun. But if I hear, I'm going to get you coming from the right speaker and it's coming toward me, then I know he's there. I can aim right at him and fire.

STANDEN: Audio games have many of the same sounds as video games - guns, helicopters, cars - but Downey has been blind since birth. He's never seen any of these things. Downey says that in his mind there's no such thing as an image.

Mr. DOWNEY: I'm thinking about speed. I'm thinking about sound. I'm thinking all these things. But if you were to be blindfolded for a month, you might have a few seconds where you didn't think anything at all about images or pictures, and then you'd be in my world.

STANDEN: Audio games have the same appeal to blind people as they do to those who can see. They offer entertainment, escapism and the ability to develop new powers. Game developer Shay Martin.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think the attraction of, to fulfill a fantasy, to become something that you're not, to become greater than you are in normal life. And for a sighted person that might be, you know, become a wizard or fly around on a dragon. Well, the same thing would apply to the blind, I think. In that game we may be able to do things we can't do in normal life, drive a car, have a kickboxing match. I think that's the appeal of gaming overall.

STANDEN: Rail Racer, Enemy Attack and many other audio games can be downloaded from the Web site audiogames.net. For NPR News, this is Amy Standen.

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