Making Deaf Accessible Games – Why is it so hard?

For months now my home life and journalistic life have been coming together. At home I care for two deaf parents. My journalistic life revolves around reviewing and previewing titles for you fine people to read. Now they are coming together as my main coping mechanism for anything in life as well as my lifelong hobby is proving to be harder than it should be to help my disabled acquaintances enjoy.

The reason this matters so much to me though, is that I was actually gotten into gaming by my parents as something we could all enjoy together. Games of the era when I was younger were all on the SNES and Megadrive. Even on awful  15″ CRT screens the characters were easy to spot due to the contrast in colour and lack of pixel real estate that could be used. They also rarely had any focus on sound meaning that those who couldn’t hear weren’t losing out on a massive portion of the gaming experience. We would sit down every day after school, this was the time we played Bomberman as a three or Lemmings before sitting down to eat.

Now though as everyone seems to rage about how 900p means a game is garbage and frame rates seemingly being more important than gameplay those people who saw gaming as an escape from their disabilities are now being excluded from the vast majority of the medium. When the PlayStation era started to come along we stopped playing together and I started being left to play alone. Not because I was playing games my parents wouldn’t enjoy, but because audio cues were not reflected on-screen and voice acting started to become much more integral to the experience.

Now we live in a world where home consoles are more powerful than they ever have been and development teams spend years crafting these experiences in well-equipped offices with armies of staff, but more and more people are being excluded from the joyous activity of gaming. Why? Why is it so hard to make deaf accessible games?

A note here before I go any further. My points from here on will be related to hearing impairment but the visually disabled, those who have lost limbs, those who suffer from muscular problems, or those with other difficulties should definitely be considered too. I may focus on these groups in future articles on the subject but for now I’m sticking to what I know best.

Most gamers now associate good sound design with a good game. reddit conversations go on for weeks about video game music. Voice actors such as Nolan North and Troy Baker are well-travelled names in the gaming press. Millions of dollars are spent each year just in the development of AAA games in the search for that perfect music or a weapon reload that feels right. It’s not a bad thing at all, the majority of the gaming population can hear these sounds and appreciates the amount of effort which goes into every little note. What many people don’t think of however is how people without the ability to use this sense are often affected by this disability.

Take for example a large-scale military first person shooter. Those of us who are able to hear can judge the positions of our enemies by listening out for footsteps or the direction of weapons fire thanks to surround sound and audio panning. We hear a clip being fired to our left, so we turn to our left to hammer lead into the poor sap who didn’t take us out. Maybe we hear the cacophony of an explosion behind us allowing for preparation for a nearby threat. There are even audio cues telegraphing the positions of enemies,  shouting “over there” or “behind there” or “up on that”.

Next time you’re in such a situation, mute your TV or take off your headphones. That hail of gunfire to your left is now only pointed out to you via a tiny blip on your map. The huge explosion behind you, as far as you know, didn’t even happen. The audio cues thrown at you about enemy positions are now totally meaningless because these of course aren’t subtitled (not that it would matter, but that’s a point for later). Instead of being a bonus the use of sound in games is now more of a staple. It has become expected while more accessible solutions are brushed under the carpet.

Making Deaf Accessible Games – Why is it so hard? - n3rdabl3
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is a brilliant example of deaf accessibility in games done right

At a time in the past and for smaller developers even now, a lack of resources is a possible reason for why such features were not considered. You know what, that’s okay. Not everyone is going to be able to do these things, they do after all require time to be put into them and when your basket of food for next week revolves around releasing that game as soon as possible then it is perfectly understandable. When you’ve only got five or ten people working on a game, even one solitary person, there’s only so much you can do.  Not only that but a lack of technological power could be considered a factor in the not too distant past. There may not have been enough space on the cartridge for subtitles or the hardware simply did not allow for accessibility features to be implemented. These are logical reasons, almost justifying a lack of accessibility for a time.

When the problems faced by hearing impaired gamers start to be ignored rather than unsolvable however is when the industry needs to look inward and realise something has to be done. There are teams consisting of more than 100 people working on many projects with budgets in excess of lottery jackpot wins. Teams which will take a minimum of two years to develop a title for general release to make back on the investment. Is someone honestly going to sit there expecting the public to believe than the best possible course of action was to add subtitles to the bottom of the screen which are not only often hard to see but bear no context at all in their implementation. Expecting the hearing impaired community to accept such an insult from developers who couldn’t even take a day to consider their problem any further than copy-pasting the script into a line at the base of the screen.

Can we really live with this? Development studios with 100+ people on staff and no-one thought to try a simple workaround to help the deaf. This means that one of two things likely came up during development. Either someone mentioned it for the problem only to be shot down due to additional budget expenditure, or no-one pays any attention to the needs of those less able than themselves. From other developers I’ve spoken to, the latter is most certainly not true (in most cases atleast) so that must mean its the former.

The simple act of assisting a portion of any countries population to enjoy the same experience as their fully able peers being shot down because it would cost too much money. That’s a thought so sickening I’m moving on for now.

Maybe developers think adding in subtitles is enough for the hearing impaired. In some cases and for certain titles yes. Not very far back in this article you might remember me saying that subtitling certain things simply wouldn’t matter? Here’s the simple one word reason. Context.

It’s all well and good having a character on-screen recite War and Peace during a gunfight, but without any indication as to which character is speaking or from which direction, messages the hearing take for granted are not offered to the impaired. Adding context to these messages even so far as putting a character’s name before speech is still not a common feature. Even something so glaringly simple as having subtitles appear over the speaking character or just having a different colour. It’s not much but its going to help a portion of the gaming public who are likely to be incredibly grateful for what’s been done.

The flip side to this design inertia however can be found often in smaller teams or indie teams. While progress made by a majority of AAA companies is slow and sluggish the independent development scene is awash with open eyes who will take on these problems then factor them into development. A small amount of these developers will often design a game with the issues that hit the hearing impaired in mind. Others may not even consider the problem but when they are made aware will then try to make it as accessible as possible. A few though who are at the top of their game (yes pun intended) design a game from the ground up which bashes these issues square in the face and makes the game open to all.

One which is still in development is Xiotex Studios brilliant looking Containment Protocol. My adoration for this game is fairly well documented but this isn’t fanboy-ish adoration through rose-tinted glasses. Immediately after playing it what became starkly apparent to me was just how little reliance was placed upon sound in the game to progress. That’s not to say the sound design sucks, it is a haunting experience with or without sound. Any important event is passed onto the gamer through subtle yet noticeable audio cues alongside stand-out visual cues. Gamers who happen to be hard of hearing are going to adore this title and it shows part of what making an accessible game should entail.

Making Deaf Accessible Games – Why is it so hard? - n3rdabl3

The second of my examples is Thomas Was Alone. For the touching story and time-sucking gameplay Mike Bithell’s best known title to date has already received praise worldwide. Rightfully so of course, but there’s another key feature that assists the hearing impaired in enjoying the experience. The script is not only expertly read by Danny Wallace but any words being spoken are displayed on the screen in such a way as to not detract from the gameplay as well as make for an easy reading experience. It stands as a testament to both the design and script writing of Thomas Was Alone that even without voiceover, the same feelings are evoked through this simple and yet ingenious mechanism.

The conclusion may have already be drawn by some of you that I’m on some sort of righteous crusade against all AAA developers in this article, but you could not be further from the truth. Many best-selling games show an incredible degree of sensitivity to those unfortunate enough to be unable to enjoy audio or indeed visual stimuli as easily as most. The recent release of Tomb Raider on PS4 and Xbox One is part of the reason I’m writing this piece and show hope is not lost.

During gameplay subtitles are displayed contextually while also being easily visible without taking away form the central experience. A standout example of this comes quite early in the game; a wolf attack where rustling bushes give away the intended line of attack should be impossible for those with hearing difficulties, but through the use of clever subtitle placement and timing they are playable. My proof you ask? I returned home from a shopping trip to find my mother three hours into her own save. She was the first person to tell me about it and that’s where it gets important. Her excitement was tangible; her glee brightened up the whole room. This was a woman who hasn’t played a video game since the 1990s – not for want of trying – but for the first time she came away satisfied from the experience instead of fraught with frustrations.

This is what games are supposed to be about. They are an escape from the real world into fantasy. For some people they are a way to enjoy competition. For others, a place to build their own worlds. For all of us though, games are a form of entertainment which should be available to everyone instead of the majorities. Those who have to cope with deafness on a daily basis often find an exponentially greater amount of pleasure from certain games than most people might. Instead of it being a medium they are able to delve into freely it poses a barrier to happiness when a game cannot bring someone joy. Someone is undoubtedly going to read this and suggest that the main reason is how it’s not financially viable to make a AAA game accessible for such a minority. Those who think this need to take a look at their priorities. Games are a medium through which joy is spread, so spreading it to those who may need it most should crucial.

Continuing that last point; how is it not financially viable to open up a product to more of the market. According to the lowest projection I could find the Galluadet website states that 0.18% of people are fully deaf in both ears and 0.23% of people are unable to understand any audible speech or hear. Just taking these and combining them means that 0.41% of people in the USA alone are deaf. That equates for 1 in 250 people (or 4 per thousand). Not a sizeable number but these are still people. Taking another figure from a Wikipedia estimate 1 in 1000 in the world are totally deaf. With the Xbox One and PS4 expected to blaze past an install base equalling 100 million each that could in theory be 100,000 totally deaf people with a next generation console. Surely adding a small feature like on-screen warnings along with audio cues or better subtitling is ‘financially viable’ when you take that number into consideration.

Other forms of media such as film and music have already done a substantial job of assisting the hearing impaired in enjoying the medium. Most cinemas now offer subtitled presentations of movies; all DVDs come with (generally) easy to read subtitles, and even musical performances have been put into a format which the deaf can enjoy. These musical performances are conducted through interpreters who will recite the lyrics in sign language. Some people will scoff at such an idea but what you experience at a concert is not just the music. There’s the whole atmosphere of like-minded fans, sights on stage and the beats which make this a true event. Helping people to enjoy this experience is never a bad thing. While it may cost a small amount money and resources, is it not worth it to bring a little happiness to someone who may not have been able to enjoy themselves with the same media before.

It is time now for the games industry as a whole to step up and make a difference. This article is incredibly long and for that I do apologise but there are multiple subjects just pertaining to the gaming of the hearing impaired which I have as of yet been unable to touch on, so keep checking back on n3rdabl3 or follow me on twitter as we take a deeper look into this condition and how games can be easily modified to bring joy to all. Has this all got you thinking about the issue? Let us know in the comments box down below.

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