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Author: beauturkey

Designing MMOs for the Blind. (Yes, I'm serious.)

Posted by beauturkey Tuesday June 2 2009 at 10:52AM
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I have been reading a lot about assistance dogs lately, and how they can help a blind person go from taking several hours to do something to someone that can do pretty much what everyone else can do.

Dogs can now sniff out cancer cells, help detect seizures, and can help bust drug runners. Thanks to an animal that we domesticated thousands and thousands of years ago, people can do things they never thought possible. In one article a man talked about his experiences as a blind marathon runner, and about the dog that made it possible.

I have also read stories about blind people and the bodies ability to compensate for the lack of sight by kicking the other senses into high gear, allowing a better sense of smell and hearing. Many blind people can navigate crowds and can do activities that we "sighted" people can, thanks to their ability to see without eyesight.


And now games are getting better and better at mimicking the real world. NPC AI is getting more and more sophisticated, sound design is getting more robust and realistic and even touch is becoming a part of certain interfaces.

So think about it: how could a blind person, or a person with limited sight, play an MMO? This is an exercise in imagining, but also an exercise is what is very possible either now or in the very near future. Let me just give an example of real game-play that could happen within a matter of only years:

Bob is blind, and loves to play "Dragon Loot Online." He logs in using voice recognition software, and tells the computer to pick out his favorite character for his session. Bob can also type in information if he needs to. Once in, the surround sound in his headset tells him he is in an Inn, and he locates the bartender thanks to the sound of clattering glass and cloth wiping wood.

"Hey, barkeep.." he types, and his character says it, in game. The bartender recognizes the keyword and responds with his own voice: "Yeh, whatcha' want?"  "Do you have any information about the dragon?" says Bob and the barkeep responds to the keyword and reads out the quest information.

Armed with information, Bob calls out his pet, Phyllis. Phyllis is a dragon trained to navigate Bob through the world, and Bob is tethered to the dragon, and can hear the dragon.

Off they go after Bob has told the dragon where he wants to go: "To the east gate."

As they approach the gate, Bob can hear the shuffling of suspicious feet behind him. He tells Phyllis to stop, to go into aware mode. He hears Phyllis growling and can feel the vibration of her tension in his interface. "What do you want?" asks Bob. The NPC responds to the question with: "..your wallet, good sir!" and immediately Bob goes into combat mode, hitting a key that pulls out his audio spellbook. Within the spellbook are spells that are cast using a series of audio tones, and the spells are more accurately cast when Bob copies the tones faster and with more precision. As he hears the thief pull out his sword, Bob hits the key sequence for his fire shield spell, copies it perfectly (the game has "sung" the tone sequence to him) and with such precision that it gains a buff to damage. The thief is hit, and is attacked by Phyllis as well.

Now, most of this technology exists right now, and in many games audio is an important game-play factor. One thing that makes me want to play Darkfall, for example,  is the ability to HEAR when a player is pulling back a bow, or the problem with heavy armor clanking as you try to sneak up on someone.

Surround sound is already out there, and we all have stories of the sound in a game giving us the chills! Right now in Free Realms, you "draw" on the screen to give commands to your pet dog. One only needs to imagine "singing" to your dog to do the same. EQ2 has fantastic voice acting and you don't need a very big stretch of the imagination to picture the NPC recognizing your speech.

A blind player could also respond to a vibration from a mouse, and could use voice recognition to talk to NPC's. (Something EVERY player will use one day.) So the technology for this is not that far-fetched, if at all. And think about it: players already use AoE spells in combat, and already do things to defend themselves that do not involve having to SEE the enemy.

In developing games that have all types of players in mind, developers will create tools and systems that are good for everyone, open the player-base to all types of players (variety is healthy,) and will push technology into the future!

I frequent and I am always floored at the innovation at some of these gamers. They find ways to play, sometimes having to make their own devices. Seeing some of the technology that is being used by disabled players makes me confident that even players that cannot SEE will one day be able to play along aside of his friends, and do pretty well while at it.

After all, people will say that a blind person cannot run a marathon or many other things that we sighted people can. But thanks to technology, innovation and our use of the natural gifts our bodies give us when we need them, we might log in to conquer dragons with Bob one day very soon.

Beau Turkey