Friday, February 17, 2017

Accessible Gaming on iOS

 I've always found that games are an excellent way to gain real comfort and competence with new technology. People who are hoping to vanquish their friend in a game or solve a murder mystery have a vested interest above and beyond mastering something which seems new, dificult, and disconnected from their everyday concerns. As a boy, I basically tought myself to type fast and accurately in order to find out what happened next in text adventure games playable on the Apple computer I had. Whenever I've gotten new and different accessible technology, one of the first things I do is look for opportunities for play. I might grudgingly spend an hour trying to figure out how to use the screen review capabilities of my screen reader. This sort of effort is necessary at times in order to grasp the basics. On the other hand, I'll cheerfully spend a whole weekend trying to win an adventure or master a game I can play with other people. Good games feel neither daunting nor dull. They pull you past their interface and mechanics right into their captivating headspace. While you're playing, figuring out how to operate your device or review the screen transform from dreaded chores into the means to an exciting and desirable greater end. I've always encouraged beginners to obtain and play games with their new technology. It helps get past feelings of intimidation and gives them a compelling reason to use their devices which they will enjoy. In far too many cases, people have a grudge against technology simply because they don't find ways to enjoy what they have. While technology is often portrayed as a means to fun for sighted people, it is largely touted as a means of accomplishing things independently for blind people. The sad disadvantage of this is a kind of grudge against the very things which can make meaningful change in our lives. We learn best when we're too busy having fun to realise we're learning at all.

I think that it's very important that we go into this area with realistic and reasonable expectations. Many games simply require sight to play. Any attempt to make them accessible would so fundamentally alter the game experience as to constitute a completely different game. Ian Hamilton is a strong advocate for accessible games based in Australia. He points out that all games involve some sort of challenges and that this essentially means that standards for accessibility must differ from other industries. Games often simply can't include everybody and remain true to themselves. For instance, some games can induce seisures in people who are epileptic. Others demand a level of visual perception. Games reliant on audio are splendid for blind people but exclude those who cannot hear or who have poor hearing.

Bearing this in mind, we're in a paradoxical position as blind consumers of iOS games. On one hand, we still face the classic situation where around 95% of games are inaccessible to completely blind players. It would be foolish to presume that a game picked at random from the app store was accessible. At least one blind person thought to try Super Mario Run from Nintendo when it was released in late 2016. Very quickly, an entry on Applevis chronicles the disappointment possible when expectations exceed the reality of where we stand. Thankfully, the game was free to try. It takes a special effort and careful well-considered use of sound to make arcade-style games accessible. There's a big difference between using sound as ear candy and a minor source of information and using sound as the only source of critical information. Don't expect even large companies like Nintendo to put in that level of extra effort. I believe it would be quite possible to make a similar audio arcade game fully accessible to blind people. However, it would take expertly considered audio design and extensive testing by blind gamers. It's more than simply adding sounds and spoken textual information. The small number of blind people who would be at all interested in a given specific title makes it hard to justify the costs involved. The odds are far better with smaller app developers especially if accessibility is brought to their attention early while they're working on their app. It is much easier and les costly to plan accessibility from day one than to add it in later. The same goes for instilling the kind of thinking that leads to a real desire to put in the effort to make games as inclusive as possible.

The iOS platform greatly lowers the resources and effort required to make many kinds of games accessible. At the same time, the economic environment set up by Apple is a favourable one for smaller developers or even single individuals skilled in programming. There has never been a situation where the economics and potential for being included in less complex time-sensitive games has been better. There are a great many accessible games for iOS devices. An exciting aspect of the iOS platform is that Apple's included accessibility tools make it easier for app developers to design mainstream apps and games in a more inclusive way. This lets blind people play some of the same games their sighted friends and family are enjoying. At times, you'll potentially find that a game you like is ranked highly in the top charts of the app store. That's a very new experience for blind gamers. It has simply never happened before on any computing platform. It usually took until after a game stopped being popular for people to figure out how to make it accessible. Different economics and fundraising tools like Kickstarter are presenting blind people who have iOS devices with new gaming opportunities and unique experiences. It is now possible for us to leverage our dollars to make developing accessible entertainment more attractive and/or possible. It is also more economical on iOS for people to use the accessibility features built into the iOS operating system to make apps accessible.

It's not all roses and light though. There are sadly many instances where games which could quite feasibly be made accessible simply aren't. This is due to a lack of awareness on the part of app developers as well as higher up the chain. Platforms like Unity which are used to develop apps don't always make it easy for developers to add accessibility using Apple's built-in tools like Voiceover. This isn't out of malice. Rather, it is due to a lack of awareness and lack of economic inscentive. Blind people make up a very small percent of users of iOS devices despite how widely they have been adopted by the blind community. This results in developers having to make choices favouring ease of construction over others which might allow for better accessibility but be more costly and difficult to work with. You therefore run into games which sound from their descriptions like they should be fully playable. They may be described as text-based games not even requiring typing and yet be utterly useless to blind people. Efforts are underway to change this sort of problem but change is slow in coming. Economics is a big part of that. We've seen some of the best audio games ever created disappear from the app store due to the inability to justify the cost of keeping them updated to work as the iOS operating system changes how it handles sound. These games were well-advertised, perhaps too low-priced, and had famous actors doing voice work. Despite all those advantages, they simply didn't sel enough. Keeping them working on successive versions of iOS would cost too much for too little return on investment. They have sadly disappeared from the app store.

Due to Apple's commitment to accessibility, we've never been in a better position. A lot of potential for different game experiences begs for exploration. Boardgames which provide audio and tactile feedback are possible. Audio experiences taking advantage of sensors built into iOS devices have been created already. Economics are such that independant game developers can create more inclusive games and experiement with new ideas. Awareness of what's happening and polite timely communication are the keys to greater inclusion. This is an area where being an active informed consumer can really pay off. If you hear about a game you're interested in, find out as much as you can about it. Have an idea how an inaccessible game might be made accessible when you approach its developer. They often don't know where to begin with accessibility. People are still discovering the possibilities of iOS and there's a willingness to experiment. It's important that we be aware of what we're asking for and that economics can be very tight for smaller developers. They may not have the money to spend on the time and effort needed to make games accessible.

I've long felt that organizations of and for blind people could be a lot more supportive in this space than they have been. Games are not just frivolous wastes of time and money. They're tools which can teach, unify and reach people far beyond the classroom. They're also the dominant art form pulling in more revinue than movies and music combined. Innovations like 3d touch combined with vibration and oral feedback could help make it possible to play board, card and strategy games. Back in the 1980's, a series of adventure gamebooks called Fighting Fantasy won awards for encouraging children to read. Teens who didn't like to read were drawn into the worlds of these books which were as much games as story. Blind people completely missed out on this and many other phenomena since it would have been very costly to transcribe these books into Braille. The books would have spanned multiple thick volumes even if they didn't include tactile pictures. Finding the correct next paragraph to read would have been somewhat more cumbersome than it was for sighted readers who had all of the text in a single paperback volume. Technology has now reached the point where much of the cost and bulk could be removed entirely. Text based games combined with iOS devices and affordable Braille displays like the Orbit Reader 20 could make a tremendous difference for Braille literacy particularly among blind youth. Paragraphs can be linked. Portability is no longer a factor when thousands of full-length books can be carried easily on even a cheep smartphone. For me, Braille was simply never exciting or fun. In hindsight, the advantages of learning and reading Braille seem obvious. However, unless the story was interesting to me, the motivation to practice just wasn't there. In Braille, I read what I was forced to. On the computer and through tapes and CDs in those days, I listened to what I actually wanted to in far more portable forms. Organisations like CNIB, RNIB, AFB and others could support game development economically. They could provide advertising space in their publications so blind people know what's out there. They could also put time and resources into making game developers aware of the potential blind audience and of the tools and techniques required to make games accessible when this is possible.

Before obtaining a game from the appstore, do a bit of research to avoid disappointment. Check on the Applevis site to make certain games which interest you are in fact accessible and suitable for your level of skill. Go to:

The app directories are full of descriptions and reviews of games which have turned out to be either inaccessible or accessible. The deck is stacked in favour of accessible games. People tend to want to share positive experiences leading others to them. However, there are thankfully some people brave enough to try apps and report back to the community when they face the disappointment of discovering that an app is inaccessible. Don't presume that just because a game has an entry on Applevis that it is accessible. Take the time to actually read the entry. Do the homework and you won't spend money on apps you can't use. To help get you started, here are some games which are fully accessible and safe to acquire:

Games from Kid Friendly Software:

Type Kid Friendly Software of even just the word Blindfold into the appstore search field and you'll come across Blindfold games. These games are programmed by Marty Schultz who took a keen interest in developing games for blind people using iOS. There are over 50 titles so far. The games all use similar gestures and feature spoken help and instructions. They are easy for beginners to pick up and start playing. Titles include Pinball, Wild Card, Breakout, Travel Cards, Racing and many more. Games tend to be simple overall and are either card/puzzle games, games relying on ball physics like Pool and Pinball, or other simple matching or word guessing games. The developer, Marty Schultz, is quite eager for any feedback or suggestions. His games are free to try but you can purchase upgrades for them including unlimited play if you find a game you espeically like or want to support future efforts.

Dice World: Developers have done a great deal to make their app accessible. They have reached out to the blind community and are eager for any suggestions and feedback. They are also committed to making certain that future games they create are accessible to blind people. It's a great one for beginners. The games are simple to play and not time sensitive. There is penty of hep and tutorials for beginners.

Interactive Fiction Games:

These are made by several developers and are based on stories where players must make choices effecting the outcome. Easy examples for beginners would be Timecrest, Delight Games, the Choice of and Lifeline series of games. The Lifeline series are all accessible with the exception of Whiteout. Don't get that one but all other Lifeline games are fully enjoyable with Voiceover support. In all these games, you can flick left or right to read text and choices double-tapping on the choice you want. There are also likely tabs across the bottom giving you access to different areas of the game like a screen with inventory or statistics on your progress. This easy-to-handle format has proved popular among sighted players wanting a change from the arcade or picture-heavy experience. The developers of Lifeline Games respond eagerly to suggestions and feedback and value their growing good reputation among blind players.

Audio games:

There are numerous audio arcade games. These include Ear Monsters, Audio Game Hub, A Blind Legend, and many more. You typically need to play these games with Earpods or some other headset on. This is because most of these games take advantage of sterio sound. For some audio games, however, hearing where a sound is coming from isn't really important. One noteable example is a puzzle game called Stemstumpers. In it, you try to help a vine grow across a garden avoiding obstacles and eating food. By moving your finger acrosss the screen, you can hear the various terrain and items. Double-tapping on a square causes your vine to grow towards it as far as possible. There are also a couple of audio games which are like audio dramas with choices. Code Name Cygnus is the best example of this. You play by literally talking to the game saying key words to indicate your choices. The developer, Earplay Inc. Has another app called Earplay which features demos of what they're working on next.

Invisible Puzzle: MIT wanted to study possibilities of audio interfaces and put out this collection of audio puzzles where you need to draw shapes on your device. An economical way to provide fun and help research audio interface possibilities which could potentially benefit anybody whose eyese need to be focussed elsewhere.

A Blind Legend: A game developer teamed up with Radio France to produce this fully accessible audio adventure game. It's still being updated and is free from the app store. You don't need to use Voiceover to play the game. It requires headphones or earbuds and uses stereo sound. You need to fight enemies, ride a horse and make your way through dangerous environments as a blind knight attempting to rescue his wife.

Some big names are experimenting with audio games using iOS and the results are usually accessible. Those lucky enough to have grabbed Papa Sangre II before it disappeared from the appstore are treeted to Sean Bean as the narrator of a unique horror game. Sadly, Something Else, developer of Papa Sangre II went out of business and all their unique audio experiences were removed from the appstore. They're releasing their audio engine so there's hope that others will put it to use in the future.

Audio Game Hub is another recent development worth checking out. You get 8 audio games in the app and they've just done a Kickstarter to fund games for PC Mac and iOS now being worked on. The first appearance after this Kickstarter was a game simulating Cricket as played by blind people called Blind Cricket.

Advanced Games:

For people wanting a stiffer gaming challenge including more of a need to use Voiceover's review capabilitys, typing or dictation practice, there's Frotz. This interpreter lets you download and play stories like the old Infocom adventure games such as Zork. There are hundreds of free games you can get from the interactive fiction database. Should you have copies of Infocom game files, you can actually transfer those to the Frotz app and play them. The app fully supports Voiceover which means you can play text games using a Braille display if you have one. Also, you can dictate your commands using the "dicatate" button fond near the space bar on the virtual keyboard. Double-tap on the "input command" found at the bottom of story text. The virtual keyboard should appear including the "dictate" button. Try typing "help" if you're stuck. After typing or dictating a command, find and use the "return" key. You may also use a Buetooth keyboard to type in commands that way.

King of Dragon Pass is a complex combination of choose your own adventure meets rpg and strategy simulation. The controls are quite simple. The game is fully accessible with Voiceover. Actually winning is very hard and starting again means a whole different set of circumstances and outcomes. You need to be competent with Voiceover to play this game at a reasonable pace but the game waits for your move and never rushes you. Great for taking out when briefly unoccupied and making a move or two.

A Dark Room: Elements of the experience are timed. It is a text game with statistics, resource management, a map, and other complexities but the author has made certain that it's all fully accessible through Voiceover. After being made aware of interest from blind players, he has become a strong advocate for making games accessible where it's possible to do so. He built an alternative ending section of his game so blind people could complete it.

Hanging with Friends: This game by Zinga is less popular than it used to be. It's a form of competitive Hang Invisible Puzzle: MIT wanted to study possibilities of audio interfaces and put out this collection of audio puzzles where you need to draw shapes on your device. An economical way to provide fun and help research audio interface possibilities.

man played with your friends or other gamers. The developers have made the app accessible to blind players. It's turn-based so there's no rush. Not all games by Zinga are accessible but they are at least aware of blind players and will accommodate where possible.

Theta Poker: This is a very popular single-player Poker game pitting you against artificial intelligence said to be the best available on iOS. Other players are simulated and you can play through a whole simulated career of a professional Poker player. The developers have gone to extensive lengths to make this game fully accessible through Voiceover.

Audio Game Hub: This team of a game developer and two universities have formed a group to produce high quality audio games and just completed a successful Kickstartercampaign to fund their next efforts. Their 8 initial audio games include a version of Tetris and are free from the app store. They're working on an audio action role-playing game called Whispering Tunnels.