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How blind players succeed at sports video games they've never seen

March 22,2018 07:25

SAN FRANCISCO—Blind people might not seem like a natural audience for most video games since they can't experience the “video” part that's a definitional piece of the experience. At a fascinating Game Developers Conference Presentation this week ...



As you watch this video, close your eyes and imagine playing the game.
SAN FRANCISCO—Blind people might not seem like a natural audience for most video games since they can’t experience the “video” part that’s a definitional piece of the experience. At a fascinating Game Developers Conference Presentation this week, though, EA Sports Accessibility Lead Karen Stevens talked about how she discovered a significant existing base of blind players in EA's games and how the company is moving to serve it.
The process began when Stevens received an email from a blind gamer complaining that changes to the kick-power meter in Madden NFL were making the latest version of the game impossible for them to play. Reaching out to other blind gamers through the forums on audiogames.net, Stevens found plenty of players figuring out their way through UFC, NHL, and even Need for Speed games without being able to see the menus or action on-screen.
“We already had an audience; they were just struggling,” Stevens said. “We were ignoring part of our audience.”
With that revelation, Stevens dived into the forums to figure out just how these blind gamers were managing in games that were decidedly not designed with them in mind. In games like Madden and NHL, blind gamers are helped by the detailed play-by-play commentary that provides a useful running account of what’s happening on-screen, “kind of like listening to a game on the radio,” she said. Both games also have helpful camera angle options where the goal is always to move “up” on the screen and AI that automatically moves teammates until you actively take control, simplifying things immensely.
In a game like Need for Speed, blind players can find the road by following the path of AI cars. Tracking audio cues like changing engine pitch (to indicate speed), directional stereo sounds when the cars are turning, and whooshing sounds for passing obstacles can help generate a mental map for a course even when it can’t be seen. After a while, these players can essentially memorize the tracks, using the rumbling controller to know when they’re going off course or into a collision.
“As long as they know they’re close, they can try,” Stevens said. “It’s not as good an experience [as competitive sighted gamers get], but it is an experience. And having an experience is the most important thing.”
With the blind portion of the audience identified, Stevens transitioned from general development to spend the last six months as EA Sports’ first accessibility lead, identifying the problems blind players have and working with the development team to fix them. In Madden NFL, for instance, there’s now an option to add a slight rumble when the game’s moving kick meter passes over the correct power and accuracy zones. Other unique rumble patterns can help players identify different types of play calls in menus or feel when the ball changes hands.
After those kinds of changes were implemented, Stevens literally blindfolded the development team to get past the lingering “No way can a blind person play Madden” resistance. “They were like, ‘Wow, this actually works!’” she said.
From there, Stevens said she had more leverage to push for changes that let blind players complete the game’s new story mode, including an option that lets players “fail forward” after a few failures in a row, so they can at least complete the narrative.
Stevens has also worked to create an EA accessibility portal, which launched last week with extremely detailed, screen-reader-friendly guides on everything from setting up an Origin account to explaining the basics of football for people who’ve never seen it. This kind of accessibility is now an integrated part of the EA Sport design pipeline, and the company maintains a dialogue with blind players about their needs.
Stevens urged other developers to reach out to the blind and sight-impaired portion of their player base, asking about the pain points that stop them from enjoying the games. A few “low-hanging fruit” changes implemented early in the design process can instantly unlock a huge new portion of the audience, and small changes in accessibility can lead to major advances over time, as long as you don’t let things regress as the user interface changes.
For blind players, Stevens says, “It’s not about a competitive gaming experience. It’s about playing with friends and children. Yes, it would be wonderful if they could have the same experience as a competitive gamer. But really it’s important that they have an experience.”
Listing image by EA Sports

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