Visually Impaired and Gaming: Overcoming the wall of prejudice
23. 6. 10.
You can see This article's Korean version in below URL:
I sometimes have had chances to discuss about "game accessibility" ever since I started working for Banjiha Games (Korean word for "Semi-basement") as a writer, while representing people with visual impairment like me. Sure, I do like games. But I'm not good at it. And frankly speaking, my current work also has to do little with the game. So I must admit that I try to talk cautiously whenever such a topic arises. But in this article I will go ahead and talk about how I personally experienced gaming as an ordinary gamer. And perhaps point out a few remarks on how to make games more accessible and inclusive to visually impaired people.
It is said that human rely most heavily on visual inputs from the eyes out of all the five primary senses of our body. Perhaps that is the reason why the inquiries and constructive discourse on game accessibility for the visually impaired still remain a challenging area – and are slow in progress even compared to games accessibility for other disabilities. Nevertheless, visual impaired like me have always been enjoying playing games. In the mid-1990s, when I was in elementary school, computers were expensive household items – far more than what is perceived nowadays. Therefore, I first learned the basics of how to use computers from a teacher. Here, one might wonder, 'How can visually impaired people use computers and smartphones?' A simple answer: Computers can read what is printed on the screen for you. Of course, there are several differences in how it works depending on each operating system – they might have slightly different functionalities or the name of the software, etc. But still, in principle, it works pretty similarly to each other.
Returning to my childhood story, the teacher introduced me to a simple computer game. I think they wanted me to have fun while learning to use the new device. And that simple game became the first video game in my life.
Back in the 1990s (in Korea), most games played by visually impaired people were sound-oriented. Memory games could be played while listening to voices, digital baseball games with matching numbers, or "Blue Flag and White Flag" games but on a computer. Those who knew how to deal with dial-up internet back then also enjoyed text-based MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon games), a predecessor of MMOs that we now know today. While the Korean game industry moved on from MUDs once the high-speed internet became common, these text-based adventures are still highly favored by people with blindness.
I also used to enjoy various other digitally adapted board games such as computer chess, Yutnori , trump cards, etc. However, as the Windows operating system became more common and now the digital environment heavily leans towards mobile devices, things have become more difficult for the visually impaired to enjoy games.
Apple later released the VoiceOver function on their iPhone series, which helped people with visual impairment to finally step into the world of the smart(phone)-era. However, we couldn't easily dive into the sea of mobile games as there were only very few mobile games that we could enjoy. Since the 2010s, most digital games that we get to play are still limited to audio-based games designed for those with difficulties with their vision. There are several different genres of games in this category, from action fighting games or RPGs in which you hear sounds to locate and defeat the enemy characters to trading card games, puzzle games, rhythm games, and simulations.
But there were several challenges in playing these specially designed games. First and foremost, many only supported English language as they are imported games developed by foreign studios. At some point, I would wonder, "Am I playing a video game or taking an English test?" In addition, since these games were only targeting blind people as their main audience – which are already a niche market compared to the mainstream game market – and require familiarity with PC and mobile, inevitably the market size is small. Hence, not many studios target this market and thus limited choices on what you could play.
Then what about games other than audio-based games? Well, there aren't that many. There are some text-based browser-based games and some mobile games, but many are, obviously, in English. There are very few – almost none – (text-based) games that offer at least a bare-minimum computer-assisted translation in Korean.
In fact, as of 2022, there are only a handful of games that visually impaired Koreans can enjoy in their own language. The situation is the same even if we count text-based MUDs even if their game servers are still active.
I'm not just trying to rant here. I'm not trying to say that we need more games for blind people because there are not enough games. It's not about making games that are functionally playable to people with visual impairment. It's more fundamental than that. As I mentioned earlier, audio-based games are (somewhat) functional for the visually impaired. But they are bad because they are bound to have limited market scalability with various practical challenges. So how do we resolve this? I suggest we should approach it from two perspectives:
First, the implication for legal and institutional support. Frankly speaking, games are not the most burning issue for most visually impaired people in South Korea. We are still struggling to survive, to fight for our lives and work. In such a situation, the game accessibility discourse struggles to reach its first step. In 2021, the South Korean National Assembly proposed a bill for game accessibility – but there is still a long way to go.
[Rep. Tae-kyung Ha: "Time is now to include game accessibility in the Game Promotion Act, and to build implication guidelines". – Interview from Thisisgame.com (online game news). https://m.thisisgame.com/webzine/nboard/4/?n=123269 (20 April 2021)]
Some might say that solving the issue of game accessibility is not urgent right now. But we must acknowledge the fact that games are already a cultural phenomenon. For instance, the recent hype on the "metaverse" is in part also in line with the way how games are designed and played. Game accessibility is, therefore, more and more becoming closer to the issue of our livelihood.
There are so many instances where people with visual impairment have to do things in the 'gray area' to play games. So many occasions I had to juggle around somewhere in between the terrain between lawful and unlawful just to play video games. I have mentioned earlier that there are only a handful of games that can be played in Korean to people like us. Well, if you count games that offer the Korean language "officially" then the number becomes even more dismal.
In such cases, one must play using an unauthorized accessible mode of the game – for instance, hacking into the game using admin (developer's) mode. There are some cases the game offers some accessibility, but not all. Let's say the game did offer a (or worked with the device’s) screen-to-audio function up to a certain level, but not completely, then that visually impaired gamer is now stuck – they cannot progress any further, wasting their in-app purchases if there were any.
There are some audio-based games that are basically a copy-and-paste version of some of the famous games. While such productions clearly violate some market ethics, to be honest, I can't just blame those studios. Because those copied games are the only ways for us to play some of those famous games that we can otherwise only hear of – and as a gamer myself, that is undeniably a tempting opportunity. Furthermore, it is also quite interesting to play (hack) the game in unauthorized accessible mode, as it gives you a glimpse of how feasible it is to add accessibility functions to the game. Things can be done. Cases like these can be enforced by law upon bringing the discussion on game accessibility to the surface – to discuss and implement appropriate laws.
Of course, regulations themselves wouldn't be able to solve the issue entirely, as it also requires the industry's awareness and will. I think one of the major issues behind the short list of games accessible for the visually impaired is not because of the technical problems. Rather it is the issue of perceptions, coming from misassumptions of the game industry thinking that games must be made entirely from scratch to accommodate the needs of visually impaired gamers.
What we need, therefore, is a change in people's views. Games shouldn't be only for blind gamers. Games should be for all games – those that are visually fit or impaired alike.
In fact, there are – few working – cases. One of those examples is the game Seoul 2033(서울 2033), a mobile game currently in development by Banjiha Games. The development of Seoul 2033 originally began without considering accessibility for players with visual impairment. Some brave visually impaired gamers, including myself, first tried the game and noticed that the game was inconvenient to play as some of the important stats in the game were not supported by screen-to-audio functions. It was somewhat playable though. Nevertheless, we left a review on the App Store – without expecting much in return. We were surprised that the developing team actively stepped up and responded to our needs. Since then, we are working closely with these passionate game developers, gradually updating the game's accessibility-related features. There are other text-based mobile games by Banjiha Games now that also work with iPhone's VoiceOver and Android's TalkBack features.
[SBS News (news). Seoul 2033: An indie game that can also be played by people with visual impairment. https://news.sbs.co.kr/news/endPage.do?news_id=N1005230699 (video, 20 April 2019)]
I would say the development of VoiceOver functionality for Seoul 2033 was initiated by a bit of luck. Seoul 2033 is a text-based game in which the story changes depending on the player's choices as the game progresses. That being said, the game has fairly easy mechanics. They were also not based on regular game engines, so it was somewhat playable with the VoiceOver functionality on the smartphone. This allowed us to at least play enough of it to think of suggestions on how to improve it through the App Store review. But what ultimately made this idea turn into reality was how much the developers were devoted to making this happen. If the team at Bangiha Games just neglected our suggestion, if they thought people like us were not able to play games in the first place, this continuous effort of making a game also available to those with visual impairment wouldn't have happened. I also wouldn't have been able to join them as a game writer.
Of course, even now, the game's VoiceOver compatibility is not perfect – with new issues popping up upon each update. Still, the developer's constant effort to communicate and resolve those issues is what matters to us. The game Seoul 2033 is, therefore, still being actively played among visually impaired gamers in Korea.
* Demo of Seoul 2033 with VoiceOver
Another example is The Lord and the Knight (성주와 기사), a mobile game developed by XYRALITY. It is a strategy game that reminds us of a browser-based Tribal War by InnoGames back in those days, in which the player can build their own fortress and conquer the surrounding area. The player can also form alliances with – or compete against – other players. One might wonder how people with blindness are able to play this game as it is a strategy game with maps. But that's not much of an issue. The game can present the direction and distances of the objects relative to my current coordinates.
The case The Lord and the Knight is a prime example that games for visually impaired gamers are not solely in the genre of text-based games. With some change of thoughts and dedication, other various types of games can also become enjoyable. How about adding a coordinate feature in the game's map system so that the system can tell the players the key locations and NPCs on the map? How about buttons that are readable via the VoiceOver function on the device? This simple function is something that I often find lacking in many games out there. Hearing all those 'gray area' tricks that visually impaired gamers do just to make a game work is heartbreaking. And it is mainly because of the games' system and design that were built without even a slight consideration for accessibility for blind people. Therefore, I cannot express how much it is important to change people's views – breaking the wall of prejudice as a pathway for more accessible game worlds.
Does technological advancement enrich our livelihood? People with disabilities have more chances to engage with the world thanks to some of the crucial technical improvements. Even at this right moment, I'm using a screen-to-voice program to write this article.
But on the other hand, we must acknowledge the potential danger of advancing technologies in our lives too rapidly. We often hear stories of people with disabilities – including elderly people – struggling to order simple takeout foods because of high-tech touch-screen kiosk machines now taking over every corner of our world. I remember those times when people played MUD games because computers back then did not have the computational power to run advanced graphics. And those were the time when visually impaired gamers like us were more able to engage also with gamers without visual impairment.
I believe lowering the curb height of the pedestrian road is far more pragmatically helpful than a set of supercomputers somewhere in the world to a person with a wheelchair. The cases like Seoul 2033 and The Lord and the Knight evidently show us the importance of overcoming the wall called prejudice. Surely, technical development and large-scale capital investments are important. But overcoming the prejudiced view that remains within ourselves is, I think, the most vital aspect needed to be further encouraged to improve game accessibility – and the inclusivity of our society as a whole.
Perhaps this is the main reason why I like games. There are no prejudices or restrictions in the virtual game world. There, whatever the wall blocking me in the game is a wall that I can climb up and overcome.
For about a year, with Banjiha Games, I was able to engage in the actual game-making process. I realized how much the game development process involves creative energy. “Disabilities and games”. One may think these two words don't add up that well for now. But I truly believe with game developers' passion and innovative ideas, one day, the combination of those two words will be felt as natural as it should be.