Gaming Without Sight: Removing The Video From Videogames
Allow Me To Introduce Myself
Hello. I'm SightlessKombat, an accessibility consultant and Gamer Without Sight (GWS). Though I'm from the UK, my work has given me great opportunities to travel to numerous places including the US for events including E3 and two of Microsoft's Gaming and Disability Boot Camps, as well as Germany, Paris, The Netherlands and even Slovakia.
But What Is A Gamer Without Sight?
If you're thinking "are you blind?" then you'd be technically correct. However, I use the term GWS as "legal blindness", often just shortened to being "blind" can and often does include usable and/or residual vision, which I've never had.
To put it simply, I have absolutely no sight whatsoever and use the term gamer without sight (GWS) to avoid as much confusion as possible.
So, If That's The Case, How Do You Play Videogames?
That question could probably comprise an entire article in and of itself. However, for the sake of brevity for now, I play videogames using a selection or all of the following:
Audio Cues and in-game accessibility features (such as menu and UI narration)
Sighted Assistance and/or use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) where required.
Simply dedicating time to a game and learning through experience
(Note: What OCR is and how I use it won't be covered here, but could be the subject of a future article if there is interest)
Of course, these elements can and do change on a game-by-game basis as well, and no two game experiences might be the same for two different GWS.
But Even Though You Can Play Videogames, The Real Question Is... Why?
Many times, I've been asked, whether through social media, in person, or even during live gaming sessions a question that is simultaneously the most straightforward and arguably also the hardest to answer: "why do you play videogames?" Depending on how the question is asked, as it can come in many different forms, I'm sometimes uncertain how to answer.
Sometimes the question is just as above, a basic element of curiosity to which I can reply "because I want to", or "to socially integrate with my sighted peers", amongst numerous other responses. However, at times, there's an element of hostility and, when this is present, it's not even posed as a question, more as a statement of fact. Here are a few examples of this latter category with the versions shown here being similar, if not identical to ones I've seen first-hand:
"You shouldn't play videogames."
"They're called videogames for a reason."
"You're wasting your time."
"You should stop playing videogames." "Go outside." or "get a new hobby."
Of course, that last one is a little tenuous, but the thread is still there. Holding on to part of a word and using that as a lynchpin for the argument that, just because someone doesn't have any sight, they should be excluded from enjoying a pastime that has stood for decades and will likely continue to remain engrained in our culture for many more to come in one form or another.
Thankfully, the above examples are far less common than one might think and most gamers I run into are surprised or amazed that a GWS is even playing a videogame, which is a useful conversation starter that can help raise awareness of accessibility not just for specific scenarios, but in general.
Speaking of raising awareness, as well as going to events and conducting studio visits, amongst other avenues of course, I also share my experiences and perspective through creating various forms of content, which I'll go into some more detail on below.
Streaming And Content Creation
Being an accessibility consultant, streamer on Mixer and content creator on YouTube, as well as writing accessibility reviews from my perspective on my website, offers me a unique opportunity to not just show how I experience videogames, but show the pitfalls and positives to the whole world of gaming and, at times, everyday life too.
For instance, if part of the bot I use for streaming, the very useful and accessible Firebot from Team Crowbar isn't recognised by my screen reader (the free and open source NVDA), sometimes I'll have to get sighted assistance in during a stream to resolve the issue. Thankfully this is very rare, but when this kind of thing crops up 10 minutes before a stream it can be frustrating. This is, of course, the same with any piece of software or hardware though, not just Firebot.
The more common problem I've faced, however, regardless of whether I'm streaming or writing a review, is a lack of games with enough accessibility features to allow me to stream them on my own, without needing any sighted assistance whatsoever. When the vast majority stream as a single player, they need no one else there, just their own skills and commentary guiding the chat through what's going on and interacting with a seamless heir of fluidity.
When you have to work around a lack of sight within a videogame, on-stream or otherwise, the experience can vary widely. On the one hand, there are games where I am able to work with a large percentage of the mechanics (see Jedi Fallen Order or Ryse Son Of Rome, where collaborators have only had to assist with navigation and elements only supported by visual cues). At other times, I am unable to play a game at all even though I would really enjoy the opportunity to experience it (such as Doom 2016 or Borderlands 2 where there were issues with Share Controller, continue reading to find out more on that). I've even had to go as far as to place games in the latter category in a list on my Mixer profile, not only so people know what I've had issues getting to work and the reasons why, but also so I don't accidentally try and reconsider one of those titles for a new series when the time comes.
You Said Above About Collaborating To Play Videogames. How Does This Work?
If I'm unable to get anywhere in a game, either because of a lack of menus that are accessible via in-game narration or other means or because of the lack of audio cues for navigation, for instance, I usually end up having to enlist the assistance of sighted individuals. There are a number of ways to achieve this, but they vary depending on whether I'm streaming or not.
Off-stream, there are only a couple of ways of collaborating that I've found to work relatively well, which will be covered below.
The most common and well-known of these is CoPilot, an Xbox One platform feature that allows two controllers to be linked together and simultaneously control the same character or set of actions on-screen. The key reason this only works off-stream is because of the requirement that both controllers be connected to the same console (i.e. in the same room). With this method, a sighted player can assist a GWS like myself with elements of the game that lack accessibility features to allow a GWS to work with them successfully, such as traversal, puzzles, interacting with objects, or even a basic element like menus or setting up the game in the first place.
I've managed to complete Titanfall 2, Doom 2016 and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order using this feature and have partially played through Red Dead Redemption as well. That being said, the main drawback is finding a willing sighted individual local enough and passionate enough about gaming to assist a GWS in the first place. I've been very fortunate in that regard myself, but I'm aware of others who aren't so lucky due to living on their own or other reasons of circumstance.
Screen Sharing On Discord Or Via Other Applications
Some applications support screen sharing or using a camera and, though these features may be intended for face-to-face interactions, I discovered whilst looking at God Of War for PS4 that I could, in fact, use my capture card to act as a camera and relay the video to a willing collaborator over the internet.
This is actually how I completed what I termed as the "Valkyrie Challenge", where I defeated Gunnr, arguably the weakest of God Of War's secret Valkyrie battles. This fight involved a large amount of setup, involving Jenna, a very kind and generous sighted individual who was willing to offer assistance (and also happens to be the voice of the God Of War #TranscribingGames videos. Jenna helped me upgrade my various attacks and learn some new ones, as well as sell off unnecessary items. Combined with some tips before the fight, her much-needed guidance via screen sharing allowed me to beat this challenge on my third attempt, something I wouldn't have been able to do without the aforementioned assistance.
Titan 2 Adaptor
The Titan 2 from Console Tuner is an adaptor/converter that allows for the use of two controllers simultaneously, much like CoPilot on Xbox One. However, given that only Xbox One consoles support the latter functionality on a software level, the Titan 2 fills in the gaps on PC and consoles like the PS4.
Of course, the most immediate limitation, again much like CoPilot, is the need for two local players. Additionally, unless you have the right add-ons for the Titan 2, wired controllers are required. Other than that, if you can get a sighted player to assist, this tiny box opens up an even greater variety of games that otherwise couldn't be easily enjoyed. Using this piece of equipment, which I wrote an accessibility review for, I've played through both God Of War (as previously mentioned) and Uncharted 4, both of which I wouldn't have been able to progress anywhere in without assistance, in my case, using this device.
These methods may encourage collaboration and teamwork in a local environment or with a relatively small number of individuals via screen sharing, but what about when I'm streaming and want to share my gameplay on a more interactive level?
Whilst streaming through Twitch.tv might've potentially gained me extra viewers, I instead chose to stick to Mixer, Microsoft's streaming platform. One reason for this is the availability of Share Controller, a feature that is not often talked about as a pro of Mixer as a whole but has allowed me to achieve things that I wouldn't have thought possible with no local sighted assistance.
Share Controller: What Is It?
Share Controller, much like the aforementioned Titan 2 and CoPilot, allows two people to have control of the same character or set of actions on screen simultaneously. Specifically, these people are the streamer and a viewer (usually best chosen by the streamer beforehand to avoid frustration). To put it simply, what you have access to, disregarding latency and such, is what I sometimes term as "CoPilot over the internet".
How does it work
Share Controller can only be activated from an Xbox One console during a stream, by going to the broadcast tab and selecting Share Controller whilst the stream is running. Turning the option on after this will allow any single viewer to jump in and have control of your game with you. There is functionality to invite a specific viewer, but I've never got that to work myself and, as a result, prefer to arrange Share Controller streams with friends and colleagues ahead of time.
Is This Just A Gimmick?
To most, this feature might just seem like a ploy to get a streamer and their viewers interacting, or an opportunity to allow for pranks during gameplay. However, as a gamer without sight, Share Controller has allowed me to complete games on stream that otherwise I wouldn't have been able to, including the aforementioned Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Ryse: Son Of Rome. The above links will take you to playlists of videos featuring highlights from my streams of those two games, though more similar playlists are planned as time goes on.
As of the time of writing, I'm also playing through Titanfall 2 for the second time via Share Controller, my first time through having been via CoPilot. Share Controller has opened up so many possibilities other than the stereotype of just playing fighting games on stream, even if there are issues with certain titles as previously mentioned.
When a game doesn't work with Share Controller, for whatever reason, sometimes even just having someone there to read the screen as part of your stream is the only needed addition, as was required for parts of my Killer Instinct Shadow Lords series.
Testing what games do and don't function correctly ahead of time has meant that, somewhat fortunately, most of the issues experienced have been down to latency, which is to be expected with a system like Share Controller.
If there is interest, I'd be happy to go into how dividing up controls can work but that's slightly beyond the scope of this introductory article.
Co-operative multiplayer, local or online, is likely something most of you reading are aware of in one form or another. Teaming up with one or more generous and helpful sighted players has allowed me to not only complete several games off-stream including the entire Gears Of War series (in terms of its main-line entries), but also all of the shooter-oriented games in the Halo franchise. With other games such as Sea Of Thieves or Minecraft Dungeons, teamwork is paramount and getting sighted players together who understand the challenges and various accessibility issues that might be experienced as a GWS is an important part of the process. Though it has sometimes felt like a daunting task to get the right people together and explain how gaming works for me, the reward is almost always worth the effort. If you're interested in seeing some of the positive moments that have come from such ventures, watch my Sea Of Thieves playlist or footage of the Minecraft Dungeons closed beta.
I'm Interested. Where Can I Learn More?
If you want to see pre-recorded footage of me playing, or highlight reels from my streams, you can find me on YouTube. If you'd like to come along and watch the streams live and join in there, you can do so on Mixer.
Moreover, if you'd like to read my accessibility reviews or find out about the #TranscribingGames project, you can visit my website.
Gaming has, over the years, brought so many people together, uniting them with a bond that is like nothing else. Remember that first time playing a videogame with a friend or relative? Then remember when that person continued to play alongside you for many hours afterwards? I know not all of you will have had that experience. However, I hope that showing you don't need sight to enjoy what some less open-minded individuals think of as a medium that should only focus on visuals above all else provides a new or different perspective for you to consider.
If you're reading this, are working in or around games and would like to talk to me about my experiences and accessibility as a gamer without sight, I'm always up to discuss and consult on current and future projects to help make gaming a place where everyone can play. I'm also happy to lend my perspective to podcasts, interviews and articles as well. You can either use my website's contact form or find me on Twitter to get a dialogue going.
After all, in the words of Microsoft's brilliant and acclaimed Super Bowl ad, "When everybody plays, we all win".
This article was first posted on Can I Play That, but this copy exists for both archival and cross-site promotional purposes.
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