Blind gamer defeats Zelda after 5 years, or, Let’s talk about accessibility

A friend of mine sent me a link to this story over at The Verge a few days ago:

After five years of trying, Terry Garrett has finally beaten The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. That might not sound like that impressive a feat — Nintendo’s classic N64 RPG should only take about 40 hours to complete — but in Garrett’s case, it shows superhuman dedication and a whole lot of skill. That’s because Terry Garrett is blind.

Superhuman dedication is right. Terry’s videos, dating back to 2011, are incredible and tedious to watch, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to have played through them. They also have a surprising dirth of profanity. If it took me five years of 10-second save intervals to get through a game, I would be swearing. A lot.

Terry’s methods to help him get through the game are pretty genius.

The Verge reports:

Garrett had to use the game’s sounds to orient himself, keeping track of his character in an entirely 3D space. Using speakers situated on the left and right of his chair let him work out where audio was coming from, an emulated version of the game that let him quickly revert to saves he made minutes before … Particularly important in Garrett’s playthrough was the use of the hookshot — a Zelda mainstay that fires a retractable chain — as a form of echolocation. When Garrett fired it against a wall, he’d hear a telltale clang; if he fired it into thin air, it would reach the end of its tether before returning to his hand, spooling backwards with a different noise.

Seriously, that’s brilliant. If you watch his videos, Garret explains other sounds he listens for, and you’ll notice him using his sword to locate walls.

But now I’m wondering about how games could be made more accessible for those with disabilities. Surround-sound audio is a good start, but not ever game has a tool like the hookshot that allows for echo-location. Closed captions are common in games now, but what about descriptive captioning? Could controller mappings be made to be more universal?

Oh, wait. Hang on, Me, let me Google that for you.

Gaming accessibility is not a new thing, thank goodness. There are nonprofit organizations out there helping to make games more accessible to players is disabilities.

Polygon published a feature in August 2014 about Why Game Accessibility Matter. The feature opens with an introduction to competitive  — and blind — gamer Carlos Vasquez, who “reached the finals in his pool at international fighting game tournament Evo [in 2013], and he was instrumental in developer NetherRealm Studios patching an accessibility mode into its fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us.” Also mentioned is accessibility expert and consultant Ian Hamilton, who was working for the BBC in the early 2000s when he saw footage of severely disabled preschool-aged children who were able to play video games that had been adapted for them using a single-button input, which could be connected to their pre-existing mobility aids: “Exactly the same technology that Stephen Hawking uses. So what I was seeing was video footage of very young, profoundly disabled children who not too long ago would just have been lying there being cared for, now independently laughing, playing, doing the same things as their classmates,” he told Polygon.

Hamilton left the BBC in 2011, and in collaboration with other experts and developers, put together the Game Accessibility Guidelines — free advice for developers on how to make games that are more accessible. The guidelines are organized in varying degrees, from Basic (“Simple considerations or design decisions that apply to most game mechanics”) to Intermediate (“Features that require some planning and resource to implement and may not suit all game mechanics, but still relatively straightforward, beneficial to many people and generally just good game design, making the game better for all players”) to Advanced (“Complex adaptations, usually only used when aiming for specific niche audiences”). The guidelines also offer an explanation on why developers should make games more accessibly, but if the answer isn’t immediately obvious (you know, that it’s the right thing to do), then maybe you should have a sit and think about your life choices.

The Game Accessibility project also works to help promote games that are better for disabled or impaired gamers “by providing resources for developers, publishers and researchers in order to stimulate accessibility in games.” Game Accessibility writes on their site:

Unfortunately, the vast majority of modern computer games does not meet the needs of gamers who function under limiting conditions. Limiting conditions can be functional limitations, or disabilities – such as blindness, deafness, or mobility limitations. The Game Accessibility Special Interest Group (GA-SIG) writes in its publication Accessibility in Games: Motivations and Approaches (2004) that “between 10% and 20% of the people in a country can be considered disabled.” Information by the W3C seems to confirm this conclusion. Unfortunately, there are no exact figures that describe the scope of the target group. However, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) about 58% of Americans play video games.

The site also offers a run-down of eight “competing” guidelines on making games accessible, which I definitely need to take a thorough look through. You should, too.

The AbleGamers Foundation is a charity group that “aims to improve the overall quality of life for those with disabilities through the power of video games.” The foundation has developed its own guidelines, titled Includification, which is available for free online and as a downloadable PDF. AbleGamers has a three-pronged approach: It offers a space of disabled gamers to talk and share ideas and support; it offers free consultations to developers to help make games more accessible; and it offers grants for efforts that further the cause of gaming accessibility. The foundation says on its website that 92 cents of every donated dollar goes “directly to AbleGamers related projects.” Outstanding.


About Lisa

Lisa lives in Maine, is a 20-something college grad, and really loves talking about games.
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