How a blind man plays mainstream video games and the future of accessibility in games

Nintendo's Switch console came out earlier this month and now the party game 1-2 Switch is gaining a lot of attention for being accessible to blind and visually impaired gamers.

"Being able to play that with my friends and not have a disability hinder my playthrough, it was amazing," said Steve Saylor, a blind gamer from Toronto.

He said the 1-2 Switch contains unique features that make it possible for him to play. 

"The text was really big on screen. I can sort of stand back and read it without any problems. And for them to describe things in audio on how to play certain games is really great," he said.

Saylor has a condition called nystagmus which causes involuntary eye movement and makes it hard for his eyes to focus.

His vision is severely impaired — even with glasses on, something that's six metres away looks like it's 60 metres away. 

When he plays video games, he stands just over half-a-metre away from a big-screen TV.

Saylor likes to play story-based games such as the massively popular The Last of Us, Witcher 3 and Mass Effect. Role-playing games usually move at a slower pace and don't rely a lot on hand-eye coordination, Saylor said.

"Anything that's like an Assassin's Creed or a Skyrim where essentially it's a lot of text and a lot of complex movements that you have to make, it's hard for me to get through…because I don't have that eye-hand co-ordination that other people do," he said.

He likes first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Battlefield.

Even if he's not particularly good at a game, he will still post his playthrough to his YouTube channel as part of a series he calls Blind Gamer. His channel is meant to show that blind people can play video games, too.

Saylor said he likes playing mainstream games as opposed to audio games, which are targeted to blind and visually impaired people, because he can play mainstream games with or alongside his friends. 

"It levels the playing field and it allows for a small moment in time for someone with a visual disability to actually kind of feel normal in a way," he said.

"Not to say that we're not normal, but it allows us to feel like we're gamers, too. We want to be able to play these games. I really hope developers can see that and develop that further."

EA tapping into accessibility gamers

Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest gaming companies, is working on incorporating accessible features in its games. This would help the roughly half a million Canadians and 25 million Americans who have significant vision loss.

Karen Stevens, an engineer for Madden NFL, has recently taken on the role of an accessibility advocate for EA. She's the one responsible for the accessibility features in Madden. 

In her role, she reaches out to visually impaired gamers to find out how to make their games more inclusive. 

"We have brightness and contrast support to help people with low vision. In the same line we also added in a resize feature so icons on the field — like pass icons — catch icons were about twice as tall and twice as wide as an option so people could see them easier," she said.

The reason EA is doing this is simple, she said: The company wants people to be able to play the games it makes.

Virtual reality as the future of accessibility 

As for the future of accessible games, Saylor said virtual reality may be a good option for visually impaired and blind gamers.

The first time he tried virtual reality was also the first time he was able to play a video game without his glasses because the screen was so close to his face. 

"It makes it so much easier, more accessible. That's kind of where accessibility can be pushed, and I hope that it can be pushed in that direction," Saylor said.

One company that has successfully created an inclusive VR experience is The Campfire Union in Winnipeg. 

Campfire created a 360-degree video for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights that brings viewers into two women's co-operatives in Guatemala.

The video was closed-captioned, bilingual and tested to make items in the video distinguishable for those who are colour blind.

It also featured hands-free navigation that's equivalent to a mouse pointer, so viewers could select items in the video just by staring at them.  

These are the kinds of features John Luxford, chief technology officer at The Campfire Union, hopes to see in the future. 

Virtual reality is still in its infancy and has no real standards to dictate things like how players need to interact with items or how they should move around, he said.

"This gives us an opportunity to look at inclusiveness and look at accessibility right off the hop and design those things deliberately and from the start," Luxford said. 

"I think what will happen is for the next few years it's probably going to be somewhat of a Wild West, and you're not going to see a lot of commonality between things. Then standards will start to emerge. And I'm hoping one of those is a strong emphasis on inclusiveness."