So I have butterfly pattern macular dystrophy. It sounds pretty (cause butterfly's are so pretty), and it's not really a big deal, but it means that I'm slowly losing my vision and have a very good chance of having increasingly poor vision as I age, as well as the possibility of becoming completely blind. There currently is no cure for this. My question is... will I be able to continue video gaming if I lose most or even all of my vision. Thankfully, the answer is a very cautious yes.
With my own form of vision deterioration I will apparently start to get random blind spots, so most games will still be playable, but it would be nice if developers started to take vision disabilities into consideration. The ability to move HUD elements around (including the center cursor) would enable vision-disabled gamers to create a usable environment in any offline or online game that best suits their disability. Many people with vision impairment are better able to use their peripheral vision rather than focusing on an object to see (those with center vision loss), while others lose their peripheral vision. By being able to arrange HUD elements on the screen to suit their particular needs, many games would continue to be playable. In particular, the mini-map becomes increasingly important with vision loss and it's placement should be variable. I may not be able to play well.. but I already have a well worn butt cushion from all the ass kicking I take in multiplayer games, so I'd be comfortable with playing poorly, but just being able to play. With butterfly pattern macular dystrophy, this is what I might see!
Another very small thing that might make a difference for playing online multiplayer games might be the introduction of a simple system for gamer tags that uses a special symbol to denote a disabled gamer. By going to Microsoft or Sony with proof of a disability, the gamer could use the special symbol in their gamer tag. I know I would go much easier on someone sporting the symbol and knowing that they could be blind, deaf or have some form of disability that directly affects their ability to game. It would be a peer-based system, but again, it's something very simple that might have an impact on making gaming more enjoyable for those with a disability (especially considering the ability to vote to kick poor players from the games).
The most important aspect to loss of vision is that audio cues become increasingly important. Thankfully, this is already occurring in games with advances in surround sound and many games even have event cues. In the current beta for Battlefield 3, it's not unusual to hear the voiceover of "there is a sniper in your area" or in MAG a voiceover is present when an objective is planted, or destroyed or when other key strategic game elements happen. Voice overs in games could certainly be used in different manners... even in the menu systems to denote what part of the menu people are in for those that are either totally blind or have limited vision (or even those with SD screens in our HD world). Kinect and various sensors seems to have wonderful possibilities for navigating menus using voice commands and possibly text to voice will be enabled on future consoles for navigation. (Just try turning on your console with your eyes closed and trying to navigate the menus to start a game... I tried... and missed. The PS3 has a nice "clicky" sound as you go through the menus, but apparently my memory of where things were wasn't so good!)
Many of us know and love that "headshot" ping, but it would be nice to introduce a "hit sound". We get a visual cue of the cursor turning red, but if our gun had a very slightly different tone when it was actually hitting an enemy it would give auditory feedback in addition to the visual reference. Note, that while I often refer to FPS games because these are the games I love to play, there is a cursor in many other game types as well - in RPG's to denote your sword/magic attacks, and in many other types of games.
There have been experiments in gaming for the blind. There is a "Shades of Doom" mod for Doom which is entirely auditory, and there are a variety of audio games available for the blind. Back in 2006, Nintendo released a collection of audio games called "SoundVoyager" for the Game Boy Advance. Unfortunately, the game never made it to North America, but there is hope that Nintendo may pursue this direction in the future. There are experiments in iOS games for the blind (I've downloaded Stem Stumper Lite just to give one a try) and hopefully the results will enable developers to better learn what works and what doesn't work for the blind. Advances in Text to Speech technology has allowed almost all of the older text adventure games to be adapted for the blind, and many gamers even manage to play console games based entirely on their hearing or with the help of sighted friends.
Still... one thing that consoles could easily do in their next generation is is to use a current technology that could easily be applied for visually disabled gamers - the concept of "spectator" modes. These are sometimes found in FPS games where when you die, you can view the game from the point of view of another player, or you can even take a break from some games and enter spectator mode to just watch your buddies play. If the next gen consoles were able to give voice chat and spectator modes to most games through the operating system, then this would enable a form of co-op gameplay for the visually disabled where they can have an internet buddy verbally guide them through a game and give descriptive elements. This would be awesome for games like Fallout or Oblivion... or even for online multiplayer games. It would be a bonding experience for the participants and both gamers would gain from the experience. I know that currently being sighted, I would certainly volunteer an hour of my time each week to play with a visually disabled gamer. Additionally this method might allow physically disabled gamers to play in a new way... as a vocal guide to a visually disabled gamer, describing actions that need to be taken as well as describing the environment. Together they could play through a game in a cooperative manner - offering the experience to both gamers who might otherwise have difficulties playing the game on their own. It would be additionally beneficial if the console allowed the spectator/volunteer to not even own the game.. but to simply voice chat and spectate - ensuring a ready pool of volunteers who may not want to buy the game, but allows them to try it out in a unique manner. For myself, it's the social aspect of gaming I would miss the most, and this use of existing technology would keep that part of gaming open for me, and would cost next to nothing to incorporate. It's a simple solution that relies on teamwork.. something that gamers usually have in abundance. Even now with online co-op games, a visually-disabled gamer could play with a sighted co-op buddy and both people could play with one guiding the other. While there aren't a lot of blind gamers right now, this will change as the current gaming population ages. Age related eye diseases are not at all uncommon and the population of gamers with vision disabilities will inevitably increase over time.
Overall, when I read about totally blind gamers playing Zelda by ear
or competitively playing Mortal Kombat
, it certainly gives me hope for the future.
I have a new set of glasses on order as my prescription has changed once again.. my vision is slowly getting worse, but is still adequate. I wear progressive lenses and it's sometimes hard to adjust my head up or down to find the exact point where my TV is in focus... and then I have to carefully hold my head at that angle (don't worry... by the time many of you reach middle age, you'll know what I'm talking about). Luckily there is new technology coming that may help with this issue... liquid crystal lenses that will automatically adjust the focal point at the touch of a button on the glasses
. Technology is advancing quickly... it might not provide a cure for my specific eye disease (which is genetic), but there might be corrective surgery or even bionic eyes by the time I lose my vision. Bionic eyes... yeah... I could easily and clearly see that f'ing camper hiding in the grass and knife his ass!
Still... I'm prepared for either way it goes - total blindness or bionic eyes. I've already started taking out audio books from my local digital library and getting used to them, and I'll always have my loving husband. I know that he'll be willing to sit down beside me and walk me straight into the side of a mountain... then read a book while telling me to mash certain buttons to battle and slay a dragon that isn't actually there! :)
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Kyle MacGregor Burleson 1