Here at Gamecritics, we’ve been adding information on accessibility to our reviews for over a decade. It’s an issue that’s important to us, and we want others to see its value – after all, we love games, and we want as many people as possible to love them too! However, it’s really hard to love something that’s not willing to let you in, such as games that lack subtitles or visual cues, for example.
Although games have come a long way in this regard, there’s still a long way to go. Even today, I constantly come across games that lack subtitles or ones that include progress-halting sound-based puzzles or gameplay elements that rely on having a working pair of ears – not something that every gameplayer has.
In order to get some perspective on the issue form people who are directly impacted, I had a quick chat with the guys from Deaf Gamer TV, a group who do Twitch and YouTube videos in American Sign Language.
Phoenix and Zero
BG: Hey guys, thanks for talking with me. To begin, can you tell me about yourselves?
Zero: My name is Brandon Chan, aka Zero. I’m 28 years old, and my primary language is ASL (American Sign Language) and I also use English. I was born deaf, and I can’t hear or understand sound at all. I don’t speak well. I grew up in the hearing community and attended mainstream schools (deaf students attending hearing schools) but I consider myself to be deaf. I’ve been playing games since I was a child — my first was Mega Man on NES when I was 7.
Phoenix: My name is Chris Robinson, 28, from Chicago. I go by the name Phoenix when I’m gaming. I was born completely deaf in my left ear and I have a severe hearing loss in my right ear, so I need to wear a hearing aid to hear things. I didn’t get my hearing aid until preschool.
ASL and English are my primary languages. My parents had me in speech therapy from elementary to high school, which unfortunately pulled me away from ASL and towards using speech. When I got older, I went back to ASL as I find it more comfortable to use for communication — just because I was able to speak doesn’t mean that I can hear, and after telling people that, they’d still try to talk to me. So, I decided to stop speaking now I stick with ASL. For non-signers, I use paper and pen or typing notes on a smartphone. I started playing videogames when I was a kid and my first was Super Mario Bros 3 on my brother’s NES.
BG: Okay, so now that we know who you are, I’d like to ask you why subtitles in games matter? It seems obvious to me (and I’m sure to you as well) but a surprising number of people out there, including developers and publishers, don’t seem to have the same understanding.
Zero: Subtitles in games matter because deaf gamers want to understand a game’s plot, the characters’ history, and the dialogue. Without subtitles, deaf gamers may not enjoy playing as much.
Phoenix: Subtitles allow us to understand what’s going on. A game without subtitles is like a book with pictures, but no text — no one would know what’s going on.
If you can’t hear this coming, you probably aren’t going to dodge it…
BG: Let’s get specific for a minute here with a title that’s super popular right now — I’ve heard that you play a lot of Overwatch. Can you explain how a lack of subs or visual cues affects your gameplay?
Zero: It affects my gameplay because Overwatch has a lot of audio cues. I’m not able to understand what other players on my team are saying, and I miss out on what the opposing team is doing. For example, I can’t hear when characters shout before their ultimate attacks, and there are no subtitles or visual cues. That makes them very hard to dodge or watch out for! However, I can still adapt by observing what other players are doing and by using the pre-programmed text commands such as ‘Need Healing’, ‘I’m Charging My Ultimate’ and so on. On PC, I’m better able to play with other deaf players as we type in the chat.
Phoenix: Ever since Zero and some friends from our channel got me into Overwatch, I’ve been enjoying it so much that I can’t stop playing. The downside, though, is like he just said — there are audio cues that don’t have any form of subtitles, and this leaves deaf gamers at a disadvantage. I’m getting tired of getting blown up by Junkrat’s tirebomb and Hanzo’s dragon arrow!! I’m glad for in-game chat, though, because we can use it to communicate and coordinate better.
I can see that he’s angry, but I wish I knew why…
BG: I can imagine how frustrating it must be to miss hearing the cues for supers… It seems like Bizzard should be able to add some sort of visual cue there. However, I’m curious about other games — can you share a few experiences where a lack of subs or other visual cues has prevented you from fully engaging?
Zero: God of War 1 & 2 and Persona 3 & 4 are good examples of games that I didn’t really enjoy. God of War had no subtitles at all, and while Persona has dialogue boxes, there are no subs during cutscenes. It’s so frustrating! I couldn’t truly enjoy those games and had to find their scripts online.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is also a good example of a title that relies on sound. In one section, I had to search for one particular hostage in a group while mercenaries patrolled. To be able to progress, I was supposed to detect his/her ‘distinctive’ pacemaker heartbeat. But, because I don’t know what a heartbeat sounds like, I had to interact with each hostage one by one until I found them. I nearly quit the game in this section!
Phoenix: For me, Alien: Isolation is a game that prevented me from fully engaging with it because I couldn’t tell when the Alien was nearby. I never knew when to run away! The developers really should’ve included a visual cue option for people who may need it. There are also many games that I couldn’t ever get into because of the lack of subtitles — Devil May Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and more.
Doing it right.
BG: In your opinions, what can the games industry do to make games more accessible to deaf gamers, or people with hearing impairments?
Zero: Game makers should add subtitles visible during gameplay, during cutscenes, in game trailers (including conventions such as E3, etc…) and add visual cues for games that rely on sound. For team-based games, I’d like to see more options for in-game communication. Adding a subtitle option will not only benefit deaf gamers, but also hearing gamers who might use them. Of course they should be able to be turned off if some people prefer that. In addition, the subtitles need to be readable!
Phoenix: In my opinion, what the games industry can do to make games more accessible is to get feedback from people who need accommodations! In addition to what Zero said, add options regarding what we want our subtitles to look like. The game Remember Me had terrible subs – it was so small you’d have to sit with your nose on the screen just to be able to read it. As an example of someone doing it right, the recent Tomb Raider did a great job with their subs – they had different text colors depending on who was talking.
Infinite thanks to Zero and Phoenix from Deaf Gamers TV for taking a few minutes to talk with me — For more from them, you can check out their Twitch channel, their YouTube Channel, or catch them on Twitter at @DeafGamersTV.