So do blind people play games?

This was interesting question that I was asked, not sure if they were seriously asking me to contemplate the question. Although that is interesting, visuals have probably become one of the most important forms of feedback in video games, and that brings to question how would you be tasked for making a game without visuals?

So I stumbled across this video,


Now first off that's awesome, and just goes to show the power of the gaming community at its best. However having to painstakingly record every single movement through memorization seems like a daunting task (2 years it took them to record every single step necessary to beat the game, that's incredible). Now how do you design a game for the blind?

What does it mean to be blind?

It's impossible for me to answer that. People who are blind have heightened senses in other areas, some have developed interesting methods to get around their environment. Terry Garret is an extraordinary individual who aside from being an engineer likes to sit down and enjoy video games. He has created a system that has allowed him to play video games based on sound cues and haptic feedback from controller vibrations.


Haptic feedback from standard controllers are still rather limited, the motor is usually limited to varying degrees of rumble strength and pulse patterns. You'll know when you get hit, or hitting something. In other words its a 1-dimensional form of feedback to the player. Some games like Ocarina of Time try to use it for the element of Discovery such as when you acquire the Stone of Agony and use it like a metal detector to look for secrets in the game. However it still requires you to rely on trial and error, because it only determines your range within a point with no particular sense of direction in mind.

Sound seems to be a more viable option, especially now that we have the technology to create 3D sounds in games. This concept can be seen in something like the Devil's Tuning Fork, however, ironically the game relies on visuals rather than spatial sound design to traverse the game world. Fret not for there does exist a game called, In the Pit where the direction of sound comes into play. Long story short, you're the monster of an evil king that lives in a pitch dark pit that has to eat the people who get thrown into the pit.

Here's a screenshot from one of the levels in the game, In The Pit.
So we have spacial awareness based on sound design but what about everything else? In The Pit does has the right idea with rumble by using it as a complement to the sound design in that it acts as the wall, or obstruction. It's sends a message to the player that it requires an action to be performed. It goes from 1-dimension to, it's either on or off, if it's on then you're already there.

Sound and Rumble as Game Mechanics

Spacial awareness is perhaps too concrete of a concept to grasp in terms of dealing with sound in game design. Something that I'd like to see is something more abstract, or rather that sound is not only the feedback of the physical space in a game, but also feedback for the user interface or HUD.

Sound is incredibly important to determine out health as human beings. Doctors listen for heart murmurs, erratic breathing, and many other kinds of strange sounds that our body might make to indicate any health issues that we might have, but there also exists healthy body sounds. It's a shame that the only time we ever hear a heartbeat in a video game is when we're in a state of danger or close to dying. I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, in fact the sound of a heart is instantly recognizable and would act a great mechanic to check on a player's status by having the ability to listen into their heart rate.

Originally I said that haptic feedback on a controller may not be as effect as detecting 2D or 3D space. But in an abstract concept something like sound and rumble could be used as a way to determine an action with the added benefit of creating the element Tension in the player. As an example let's say you're charging an action that will be executed upon the release of a button. How can we gauge the potency of an action without using an onscreen element? The rumble motor has the ability to modulate the strength of its vibrations. A vibration that scales up could be a way to indicate the strength, or the value relative to something. This is just an example where sound plays a more important role in, well, playing the actual game.

Another one is the element of timing like a ticking clock or a metronome. Using these sounds we create rhythm. Rhythm Heaven already achieves this in a rather elegant way, by creating gameplay that's incredibly simple (one or two methods of input at most) but addictive and modular as well. Newer iterations of the Rhythm Heaven franchise are starting to rely more on audio cues rather than visual ones. I foresee this being one of the shining examples of game design using sound as the mechanics in the future as it starts to evolve and get more creative.



Sound as Atmosphere

Lastly I'd like to point out when sound use as a method of enhancing the atmosphere of the game. Sound doesn't take on the role of actually defining the experience (the design and mechanics should probably be doing that in a video game), however it can definitely be a powerful tool to define the fiction of the world you're immersing yourself in. I think we can all agree that Silent Hill is one of those games that defines what it means to have your sound create the atmosphere. To me the best tracks are the ones that sound less like music and more like background noise (I mean that in the best way possible). These sounds create a psychological effect that drenches the player in atmospheric charm and really helps lock in the emotions the game creators wanted to the players to feel when playing their game.



Then there are games that, going back to the beginning of this post, are used as a sense of feedback although not really in the navigational sense. I'm talking about games that have sound for every action you make in the game as form of feedback in the same way you'd would receive feedback from popping bubble wrap. In some way the sound acts as a reward, like in Lumines.



Now, do these kinds of elements do anything to benefit blind players? Maybe, they sound great but do they add anything to the core fundamentals of playing through a video game? The answer is the same for a player who can see just fine. The benefits for having sound as the atmospheric element is that it paints a canvas of the world and how the player perceives it. Someone who can't see what their character looks like may actually have the ability do what some players with sight may never do. The ability to perceive themselves and the world around them in ways we can't even imagine.
 


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