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Accessible Computer Games

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted with permission from Dialogue Magazine, Summer 2003.

Since Pong hit the scene in the early 1970s, video games have grown in popularity to become one of America's favourite forms of recreation. In this age of Tomb Raider and Super Mario Brothers, visually impaired players have not been left out. There are several game developers producing new and exciting games specifically designed for visually impaired computer game enthusiasts, or "blind gamers", as many call themselves.

Interactive fiction games, which are entirely text based, have always been accessible to any visually impaired person with a screen reader. There have always been some games, designed for sighted players, that determined blind gamers have been able to enjoy despite the inherent difficulties. In the past several years though, companies devoting themselves entirely to producing quality computer games for blind users have been coming out of the woodwork, to the delight of blind gamers everywhere.

PCS Games has been in business since 1995 and boasts more games in its catalogue than any other company. "We've spent years of trial and error to come up with many of the techniques that are used in accessible games today," says Phil Vlasak of PCS.

His newest creation, Pacman Talks, costs $30. Like the classic arcade game of the '80s, you move through corridors devouring dots to earn points and trying to avoid ghosts. There are distinctive sounds to tell you when you are approaching a wall, when you are near an escape tunnel or when ghosts are getting close. Pacman Talks offers a full audio menu with game sounds described and hot keys to tell you what's going on around you.

"Since I became blind 20 years ago," says Vlasak, "I still remember playing classic arcade games as a sighted person. I enjoy recreating that same feeling and excitement today using sounds instead of pictures."

GMA Games, which has been in operation since 1999, is the home of Shades of Doom. The game costs $35 and was inspired by the famous three-dimensional shoot-'em-up game Doom. In a three-dimensional sound environment, you guide your character through a top-secret research base using the sound of the wind in the passages and rooms, the echo of your footsteps, the sounds of nearby equipment and, optionally, guidance from your environment analyzer computer to shut down an ill-fated experiment.

BSC Games, owned and operated by visually impaired programmer Justin Daubenmire, has brought the arcade classic space invaders to visually impaired gamers with its release of Troopanum. It costs $25.95 and its fast arcade action has been a huge hit with the blind gaming community.

"Troopanum truly reflects the vision of my company," says Daubenmire, "that being, arcade-style games that are fun and that you can waste away hours playing aimlessly." BSC posts Troopanum scores online in real-time and the healthy competition the postings generate has done a lot to boost the popularity of the game. "I can't say enough about this game," says Cary Combs, a Troopanum player, "It really rocks!" BSC also offers the free games Deekout and Finger Panic for download on its website.

Dreamtech Interactive, a new company, has taken the world of interactive fiction to a new level with the release of World of Darkness. This is an interactive novel that immerses you in a virtual reality audio world. World of Darkness can be downloaded for $19.95. The game has been a hit with blind gamers but is also an enlightening experience for sighted players.

When the game begins, your character has just lost his sight, and you must navigate the game as a blind person. You will learn to travel using a cane and will experience many of the difficulties faced by newly blind people in real life. You must find alternate ways to explore your environment as you solve challenging problems and ultimately face and defeat your nemesis.

"World of Darkness gave me real insight into what it must be like to be blind and made me look at things in a new way," said Jennifer Nichols, a sighted player.

Dreamtech also offers a free virtual reality text game for children called the Missing Mutt Mystery in which your character has lost his puppy and must use problem-solving skills to find and retrieve him.

ESP Softworks is another promising newcomer in the world of accessible gaming. Its action arcade game Monkey Business sells for $34.95. In this game you will move through a jungle, rich with three-dimensional ambient sound, to retrieve the parts of a stolen teleportation invention from a group of unnaturally intelligent monkeys. ESP also offers the free artillery-style game Shell Shock, for download on its website.

Another great place to go for accessible games is Kitchens, Inc. Jim Kitchen, a blind computer programmer, has worked diligently for years to produce dozens of accessible games for DOS and Windows that he offers for download at no charge.

Currently, his most popular game is Mach 1, an accessible version of the old Atari racing game Pole Position. Mach 1 is self-voicing and features eight different tracks with three difficulty levels.

A new development in the accessible gaming world has been the move toward online gaming. "Like the mainstream game field, accessible games are going onto the internet with games where several people play against each other in real time," says Phil Vlasak of PCS. Games for the Blind and ZForm are leading the way in accessible online gaming.

Games for the Blind, home of a variety of accessible games, was the first to take accessible gaming online with the game Accessible StarFight. Written by visually impaired programmer Robert Betts, StarFight is a space-themed version of the classic battleship game and can be played online. The game features a built-in chat feature so you can talk with your opponent as you play. "I was really amazed how intense the game can get when you are playing an opponent instead of the computer," said a player of StarFight.

ZForm launched its first game, the immensely popular ZForm Poker in April 2002. ZForm Poker is a multi-player, online version of five-card draw poker that is fully accessible to visually impaired players but has also been designed to be attractive to sighted players.

"We focused the design of ZForm Poker on interaction and communication so that people, blind or sighted, could have a fun way to interact and build community," says Paul Silva of ZForm.

"It's great to be able to sit down at my lunch break and play a couple quick games of Poker. It's something a lot of sighted people take for granted, and to have this door opened to me has been a dream come true," said Tim Keenan, ZForm's Audio and Accessibility engineer who is blind.

ZForm offers a fifteen-day trial and then charges a monthly fee of $7.95 for unlimited access to ZForm Poker online.

Resources

PCS Games

GMA Games

BSC Games

Dreamtech Interactive

ESP Softworks

Kitchens Inc.

Games for the Blind

Bavisoft

ZForm

Best of Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction Archive

AUDYSSEY, an online magazine devoted to accessible gaming

Dialogue is a publication of Blindskills, Inc., P.o. Box 5181, Salem, OR 97304-0181; phone: 800-860-4224; email: blindskl@teleport.com and website: www.blindskills.com

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