The benefits of accessible mobile games for the blind and visually impaired community
For most people, a lifetime of gaming begins only days after we are born. It starts simply with a round of peekaboo with our mother. As we gain the ability to speak, we play I Spy and 20 questions. On vacations to the beach, we graduate to epic sessions of Monopoly, Stratego, Risk!, and Battleship. If we were lucky, we would get an opportunity to play card games with the adults. For the rest of the summer, we would do our best to teach our friends the various games of poker.
Soon, our interests would become sophisticated and diverse. The literary intellectuals would find joy in crosswords and games of Scrabble. Physically coordinated people would play soccer, football, baseball, tennis, or hockey. Others would investigate electronic platforms to play several types of games, including first-person shooters, RPGs, real-time strategy games, adventures, simulations, and sports. This interactive entertainment simultaneously relaxes and stimulates the participant. The cycle continues when we play the first round of peekaboo with our own children.
Imagine if that progression of joy, socialization, stimulation, and distraction never began. Or, if the cycle was abruptly disrupted. Playing games is an integral part of the human experience, however, there is a portion of the global population whose access to this most essential human occurrence has been limited. In a recent study completed by the Vision Loss Expert Group, they identified that currently, 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from visual impairment. 36 million are categorized as completely blind and 215 million are considered significantly visually impaired. According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, The distribution of vision loss is drastically impacted by the socio-economic situation of the geographic region.
In developed countries, moderate and severe vision loss impacts approximately 4% of the population. This rate rises into the teens for less developed countries. Third World countries suffer from over 20% of the population with moderate to severe vision loss. Based on global demographic trends, the number of individuals with significant vision loss is expected to triple to 750 million by the year 2050.
In the Prevalence of depressive symptoms and associated factors in an urban, ophthalmic population article, the authors stated that individuals with acute vision impairment suffer from anxiety and depression at a rate nearly three times higher than individuals without vision impairment. This depression and anxiety arise from feelings of inadequacy, lack of purpose, and inability to make social connections.
These statistics related to vision loss and the associated mental impact mirrored my own personal experience. I spent my entire life following the typical gaming progression outlined above, but an accident in my mid-40s caused me to go blind. In the immediate aftermath of my vision loss, I had trouble finding moments of joy in my new blind life. Over the next couple of years, I learned to adapt to life as a blind person. I learned how to operate a computer with a screen reader, use my iPhone with voiceover, navigate my surroundings with a cane and a guide dog, learn the basics of Braille to read and watch television, utilizing audio descriptions. I learned a new auditory way to interact with the world. After learning all of these new techniques, I still had a large hole in my life. It dawned on me one day that I had not played an electronic video game in over two years. The lack of gameplay meant I was missing the benefits that come with gaming.
Dr Dan Brennan explains that video games have several cognitive and mental therapeutic benefits. Video games require strategic problem solving, building social connections through online gaming, creating a sense of purpose and accomplishment as the player completes the game or obtains achievements, teaching players self-reliance as they learn to overcome failure by trying again and providing a distraction from everyday worries and psychological traumas. The associated burdens related to severe vision loss can be directly paired with the advantages of playing video games.
Unfortunately, of the millions of games that are available, only a mere fraction are accessible to the blind community. For example, a typical board game costs about $20. Only the most popular games will offer a Braille accessible option, and at nearly 5 times the cost. Braille on playing cards and dice has opened up a swath of games to blind individuals. However, electronic gaming offers the greatest opportunity to expose a wide variety of game genres to the blind community. For Decades, screen readers on computers and phones have provided the blind community with the ability to interact with the electronic world. The Screen readers allow blind individuals to fully interact with the elements on the screen.
This technology has made it possible for the blind and vision-impaired to navigate websites, word processors, spreadsheets, and phone applications. The issue is that when games are built, accessibility is often an afterthought. In some cases, small game developers do not have the resources to make adding accessibility financially viable. While some game creation software has integrated accessibility add-ons to provide game developers with the tools to make their games accessible, the majority of the game-maker programs do not provide accessibility features. Developers using these programs need to build an accessibility interface from scratch if they want their games to be accessible. This often means that the blind community is left out of the conversation of the hot new game (I am looking at you Wordle.)
Gaming is a vital component of the mental health of the blind community. The blind community’s increased levels of anxiety, isolation, and depression coupled with the plummeting sense of self-worth can be mitigated by the benefits of video games. This creates a group that is passionate and hungry for gaming opportunities. Through my work reviewing accessible mobile games, it is clear that blind gamers love a wide variety of gaming genres. The only obstacle that hinders the blind individual from playing video games is the accessibility feedback that many games lack. I call on game developers, game reviewers, and game players to extend their efforts in advancing the development of accessible games. By creating an accessible game, you can better the lives of millions of people who suffer and struggle each day with vision loss.