What methods do individuals with visual impairments use to engage in video gaming?

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Ben Breen entered this world without the gift of sight, yet video games have been an integral part of his existence for as far back as he can recall. His gaming journey commenced on a personal computer, navigating games without the aid of any technology designed to assist individuals with visual impairments. Over time, he has witnessed an encouraging trend of developers incorporating features into games to enhance the gaming experience for those with limited or no vision.

However, Ben’s aspiration extends beyond these incremental improvements. His vision now encompasses a future where all major gaming studios wholeheartedly consider and include individuals with sight loss during the game development process.

“I embarked on my gaming journey with titles like Fighter Pilot on PC, back when I had no knowledge of screen readers or any assistive technology,” he recalled. “So, I was essentially just pressing buttons, exploring the unknown, and quite literally sending planes into nosedives.”

His gaming odyssey took a turn when he delved into audio games featuring rudimentary graphics tailored for individuals with low or no vision. As developers gradually integrated features specifically designed for blind players, Ben found himself able to partake in a broader array of mainstream games accessible to people of all abilities.

Lately, game studios have been crafting experiences with more built-in features catering to those with visual impairments. An illustrative example is The Last Of Us Part 1 for PS5, which hit the shelves in September.

“I do still occasionally indulge in audio-only games,” Ben noted. “But I lean towards experiences that can be enjoyed by a wider audience.”

These helpful features encompass the creation of shortcuts on gaming controllers and the implementation of lock-on aiming mechanics in combat-oriented titles. Screen narration assists in conveying the visual aspects of the game to the player, while navigation assistance tools provide valuable information about the player’s proximity to objects and adversaries.

Now holding the role of an Accessible Games and Immersive Technologies Research Officer with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Ben is actively sharing his insights with the billion-dollar gaming industry.

He recently participated in a symposium in Dundee, where he engaged with representatives from Google, EA Games, and Microsoft to discuss potential enhancements in the world of video gaming.

This symposium was hosted by Abertay University, renowned as the pioneer of the world’s first computer games degree, in collaboration with the RNIB.

Through this partnership with the university, Ben aspires to inspire future developers to incorporate accessibility into their games right from the inception stage.

He emphasized, “While we have witnessed a few fully playable games released on select platforms, it’s crucial for all companies to step up. Even at a fundamental level, improved accessibility equates to increased sales.”

Ben also stressed that sight loss exists on a spectrum, and gaming remains an accessible and vital form of entertainment. Nevertheless, he underscored the need for greater efforts in ensuring game accessibility. He personally remains committed to playing any games within his reach.

He asserted that studios must recognize the importance of accessibility and advocated for the active involvement of individuals with sight loss in the game development process.

“I’ve encountered people who believe they would give up gaming if they woke up without sight, but that’s not the case,” he asserted. “They would want to continue, and the path to that continuation lies in the inclusion of accessible features within games.”

Dr. Robin Sloan, a seasoned game design instructor and researcher with 15 years of experience at Abertay University, stressed the importance of crafting interactive elements in games while prioritizing inclusivity and rigorously testing them with individuals who have limited or no vision.

He elaborated, “This involves considerations such as employing high-contrast visuals, utilizing larger fonts, and simplifying the complexity within game scenes.”

Going beyond these foundational elements, he acknowledged the greater challenges associated with making decisions in situations heavily reliant on visual cues.

Dr. Sloan suggested that standardizing design models and incorporating accessible features into coding could significantly aid smaller game development companies in enhancing their inclusivity. He pointed out that smaller firms often acquire foundational code for their projects, and if this code already integrates accessibility features, it enables developers to concentrate their efforts on the core gameplay experience.

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Adapting games and devices holds paramount importance. A representative from the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, the trade organization representing the UK games industry, emphasized their commitment to accessibility.

She further stated, “The UK games industry boasts a commendable history of collaborating with charitable organizations like SpecialEffect to modify games and devices, such as the Microsoft adaptive controller.”

Additionally, she highlighted the efforts of organizations like Many Cats, which collaborate with studios to promote accessibility thinking throughout the entire game development process, from recruitment to fostering an inclusive culture.

The industry-wide initiative for equality, diversity, and inclusion, known as #RaiseTheGame, has partnered with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to provide valuable insights into the sector and support fundraising and awareness events like Gaming for RNIB.

Moreover, RNIB has engaged with the education initiative Digital Schoolhouse, conducting reviews of educational materials and delivering training to ensure content is accessible for visually impaired learners.

Notably, Dundee stands as a prominent industry hub, credited with the launch of some of the world’s most iconic titles, including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto.