For most people, a life of play does not begin until a few days after we are born. It starts simply with a peekaboo game with our mother. As we acquire the ability to speak, we play I Spy and 20 questions. On vacation at the beach, we go to epic sessions of Monopoly, Stratego, Risk! and Battleship. If we were lucky, we would have the opportunity to play card games with the adults. For the rest of the summer, we would do our best to teach our friends the different poker games.
Soon our interests would become sophisticated and diverse. Literary intellectuals would find their happiness in crossword puzzles and Scrabble games. Physically coordinated people would play soccer, football, baseball, tennis or hockey. Others would study electronic platforms for playing multiple 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 peek-a-boo round with our own children.
Imagine if this progression of joy, socialization, stimulation and distraction never started. Or, if the cycle was abruptly interrupted. Playing games is an integral part of the human experience, however, there is a portion of the world’s population whose access to this most essential human event has been restricted. In a recent study by the Vision Loss Expert Group, they identified that currently 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from visual impairment. 36 million are classified as completely blind and 215 million are considered to have significant visual impairment. According to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, the distribution of vision loss is significantly impacted by the socio-economic situation of the geographic region.
In developed countries, moderate and severe vision loss affects approximately 4% of the population. This rate rises until adolescence for less developed countries. Third world countries suffer over 20% of the population with moderate to severe vision loss. According to global demographic trends, the number of people with significant vision loss is expected to triple to 750 million by 2050.
In the article Prevalence of depressive symptoms and associated factors in an urban ophthalmic population, the authors stated that people with acute visual impairment suffer from anxiety and depression at a rate nearly three times higher than people without impairment. visual. This depression and anxiety stem from a sense of inadequacy, a lack of purpose, and an inability to make social connections.
These statistics related to vision loss and associated mental impact reflected my own personal experience. I spent my whole life following the typical game progression described above, but an accident in my mid-40s left me blindsided. Immediately after my vision loss, I struggled to find moments of joy in my new life as a blind person. Over the next two years, I learned to adjust to life as a blind person. I learned to use a computer with a screen reader, to use my iPhone with voiceover, to navigate my environment with a cane and a guide dog, to learn the basics of braille for reading and watching television, using audio descriptions. I learned a new auditory way of interacting with the world. After learning all these new techniques, I still had a big void in my life. One day I realized that I hadn’t played an electronic video game in over two years. The lack of gameplay meant I missed the perks that come with games.
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 games, creating a sense of purpose and accomplishment when the player completes the game or earns achievements, teaches players autonomy as they learn to overcome failure by trying again and providing a distraction from everyday worries and psychological trauma. The associated burdens related to severe vision loss can be directly associated with the benefits of playing video games.
Unfortunately, of the millions of games available, only a fraction are accessible to the blind community. For example, a typical board game costs around $20. Only the most popular games will offer an accessible Braille option, and at almost 5 times the cost. Braille on playing cards and dice has opened up a range of games for blind people. However, electronic games offer the best opportunity to expose a wide variety of game genres to the blind community. For decades, screen readers on computers and telephones have provided the blind community with the ability to interact with the electronic world. Screen readers allow people who are blind to fully interact with on-screen elements.
This technology has enabled the blind and visually impaired to navigate websites, word processors, spreadsheets, and phone applications. The problem is that when games are built, accessibility is often an afterthought. In some cases, small game developers don’t 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 game creation programs do not provide accessibility features. Developers using these programs must create an accessibility interface from scratch if they want their games to be accessible. This often means the blind community is left out of the conversation about the hot new game (I’m looking at you Wordle.)
Play is an essential part of the mental health of the blind community. The blind community’s increased levels of anxiety, isolation, and depression, associated with falling self-esteem, can be mitigated by the benefits of video games. This creates a group that is passionate and eager for gaming opportunities. Through my work reviewing accessible mobile games, it’s clear that blind gamers enjoy a wide variety of game genres. The only barrier that prevents the blind individual from playing video games is the accessibility feedback that many games lack. I call on game developers, game reviewers, and gamers to redouble their efforts to advance the development of accessible games. By creating an accessible game, you can improve the lives of millions of people who suffer and struggle with vision loss every day.
About the Author
Aaron Spelker is the founder of “Apple iPhone iOS Voiceover Compatible Games”, which offers in-depth weekly reviews of iPhone games accessible to blind and visually impaired gamers. His game reviews are posted on the Facebook group of the same name and in the video games section of the Triple Tap Tech website.