Computer scientists at the Pontíficia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro are working on non-visual games for mobile phones that they hope will be fun for players who are blind, have low vision or are sighted. In a paper in the Journal of the Brazilian Computer Society, Luis Valente, Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza and Bruno Feijó describe their protype adventure game Audio Flashlight. They also discuss some things they learned during field testing about making games accessible to players with visual impairments.
The authors chose mobile phones because they have a wide variety of input and output devices—for instance, transmitting sound and haptics, as with vibrations. But cell phones also have disadvantages when it comes to playing games: they have low processing power and there are so many cell phone models. (Owners of a game console like the Xbox 360 can be confident that their machine will play any game designed for it).
Valente, de Sousa and Feijó wanted to create a mobile game without visual or verbal cues that would be fun for visually impaired and sighted players. They designed this game according to the principles of Semiotic Engineering, which they describe like so:
"[I]nteractive systems designers actually communicate with users (at interaction time) through computer systems interfaces. Interfaces act as the designers' proxies (the designers' deputy, according to the theory). Thus, when designing any system's interface, designers are actually deciding what kinds of conversations they will have with users, using which modes and media, and for what purposes."
In Audio Flashlight, players explored a series of rooms or caves in search of treasure. The game has no graphics at all and uses music ("The radar selects the pattern according to the distance between the player and the secluded treasure. The closer the player gets, the faster the music plays. The radar also changes the music volume using this strategy"), other sounds (e.g. footsteps when walking) and vibrations, such as when bumping up against an obstacle. Instead of pressing buttons, the player interacts with the game using gestures: tilting the phone left, right, forward and back, he or she can walk in those directions.
Seven people field-tested the Audio Flashlight prototype: three sighted, three blind and one with low vision. And while all the players said they enjoyed the game, they also uncovered some problems. The player who had some vision said it was more fun than "the boring game that I can play on my mobile," but "[i]n the beginning I was somewhat distressed because I couldn't see anything." The authors state that, since she has some vision,"being deprived of sight certainly has a different emotional meaning [for her] than that for sighted and blind people," which they hadn't taken into account.
The authors also found that all the players, whether sighted, blind or visually impaired relied heavily on the footstep sound to orient themselves. For instance:
"The footstep sound was intentionally played lower than the music when the player was very close to the treasure. The researchers wanted to check whether the excitement of the music playing faster and louder would take over and suggest that the participant was moving towards the target. But, all the players reported getting lost in this situation."
Despite this problem, players said that the music helped set a mood of tension and excitement, and also helped guide them to the treasure. One of the blind players said that the music made finding the treasure easy for him. He also said:
"I thought that the combination of both sound (music) and vibration made perfect sense. […] But to me, sensing the vibration, short or long, is really what matters. It means that I have to get out of that place and go where the music is playing louder. So, it didn't really matter whether I was hitting a wall or another obstacle. To me, a wall is an obstacle…For us, blind people, this [signifying collision with obstacles or walls] is crucial. If you leave us in the middle of a square, with leveled and smooth pavement, no obstacles around us, we'll be lost."
However, another blind player often stayed still long enough for the music to start over; he thought the gap in the music signaled a special event of some kind. He also mistook the noise of the phone's motor for an in-game sound.
More work needs to be done, of course. Still, Audio Flashlight demonstrates that designing cell phone games for people with visual disabilities is possible, and that such games can be fun—for gamers with low or no vision and sighted gamers alike.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.