by Melanie Jayne Ashford
Accessibility is a hot topic, and with all the technology involved, there’s nowhere better for accessibility than video games. Sadly, though, the world of video games lacks support for deaf and hard of hearing players.
The gaming industry provides the most consistent captioning that I have seen, but there are still games that disappoint, such as the notorious Spyro: Reignited Trilogy debacle. I grew up on Spyro the Dragon, and it can honestly be credited with being the game that made me a gamer. Excited for the remaster, I pre-ordered and watched the clock for the installation. Booting up the first game, my face lit up as I was reacquainted with that stunning sheep-filled homeworld. And then the cutscenes appeared. Being such a big, highly-anticipated release, I was fully expecting the caption side of things to be covered — most games these days are, with my heartfelt gratitude, fully captioned. So you can imagine the sadness that kicked in when Spyro: Reignited launched without captioning. By the time captions were patched, I’d already completed the trilogy. When they announced the addition of captions, I was gutted.
The difficulty of competitive play
Captions aside, there are many other issues deaf gamers face whilst engaging in a hobby we’re repeatedly being told is for everyone. Take Overwatch and Fortnite for example. Unlike many other gamers, I am immediately at a disadvantage in four crucial ways during these competitive multiplayer games:
- I can’t hear you coming — try to imagine playing a Battle Royale without those telltale footsteps. It’s time for games to add visual signals to the accessibility menu.
- My teammates often become frustrated and aggressive towards me — I can be a liability in esports, as I’ll walk right into someone, or fail to react to an approaching enemy in time, and get either myself or the team killed. It doesn’t often happen, as I have adjusted to my hearing loss, and I am just as capable of winning esport matches as anyone else. But it does happen. When it does, people tend to get upset. To be fair, they have no way of knowing I’m hard of hearing; they probably think I’m just rubbish, stupid or both. Team games definitely need an icon or some other tool I can use to let people know I’m playing without hearing ability.
- I can’t hear the pretty tinkly noises that tell me there’s loot nearby — well, I can, but usually not until I can see the glowing chest or crate. An excellent option for game designers to add would be another signal for loot crates, even if it’s purely an accessibility option and not part of the standard game.
- I have no access to the voice chat conversation the rest of my team are having over my head — a profoundly deaf person has no access to voice chat at all, and someone with moderate hearing loss, like me, will get snatches of conversation (and most of what I hear, I’ll probably get wrong). I wish more games took inspiration from Apex Legends here. It has the best deaf accessibility I’ve seen since getting my PS4 two years ago. It provides an option to convert voice chat into text, which changes my life. It also has the most comprehensive ping system in the esports world. My teammates can tell me where things are, alert me to enemies and more — a complete lifesaver for anyone playing without voice chat. Fortnite has since improved its ping system, but I still find Apex Legends is the best for someone with hearing loss.
One of my favourite genres is RPG / MMORPG. Games in this genre tend to be very well-captioned, including cutscenes. However, I frequently find myself baffled and stuck doing nothing for ages, simply because the instructions are audio only. RPGs also seem to have moments where the protagonist you’re playing offers a clue. These clues are almost never captioned. The only way I can move on in these situations is to look up walkthroughs, which is often where I discover that there was a voiceover telling me something vital to my progress. Providing deaf players with all the crucial information they need to play and finish a game is a fundamental aspect of accessibility. It’s a shame this is still consistently overlooked.
Other essential elements of gameplay that depend entirely on sound are things like Mr X in Resident Evil 2. He is solely announced by sound, and someone with a hearing disability is definitely going to have a much harder time beating that part of the game.
These sorts of elements need to be considered carefully with the deaf gamer in mind. If the game depends on audio, there has to be an accessibility option for those of us who can’t rely on our hearing.
Something most might not consider is the need for background music in games. Like many deaf or hard of hearing people, I suffer from tinnitus, which is triggered by too little sound being funneled into what’s left of my hearing. An option to add background music to games that don’t have it would make my gaming experience a lot more comfortable. I spent most of Horizon Zero Dawn battling tinnitus, even though the game has ambient sound. Either the ambient sound was very quiet nature noises or it was just too faint for me to hear, as I felt like the game was painfully quiet.
You’d never think quietness would be an issue for someone with hearing loss, but believe me, it’s a nightmare.
What do game devs say?
The gaming industry has made leaps and strides in accessibility for deaf people, but it still has some gaping holes to fill. However, none of the options deaf and hard of hearing gamers require are that difficult to add. These are also relatively unobtrusive to regular gamers since all game devs need to do is add the option to the menu. Then visual cues can be turned on and off like subtitles and color blindness modes. With all the new technology PS5 and Xbox Series X are bringing to the table, I have high hopes for deaf accessibility in next-gen gaming.
For game developers, though, they have to carefully plan out accessibility options from the very beginning of the development stage. It’s one thing to patch in subtitles, but quite another to design a game around visual cues instead of audio cues.
One of the best things about the gaming industry though is that developers see creating accessibility options as fun new ways to make games. Naughty Dog, for example, said in an interview with Verge, that they’re “excited to see some of the unintended ways players utilize these features.” And let’s not forget that game devs are artists; they want you to play the whole game, and not put it down because it didn’t work for you.
There is also additional time, effort, and cost in creating accessible video games, especially for ongoing games like Fortnite. However, every step forward in video game accessibility is a major step in the development of technology. And with the PS5 and Xbox Series X breathing new life into the video game landscape, who knows what developers will come up with next?
Mel is a freelance writer and a part-time Chemistry student. Her favourite games are Horizon Zero Dawn and Spider-Man on PS4. She lives in Wales with one cat and a French Bulldog puppy. You can follow Mel on Twitter via @ashford_mel