Traditionally, video games have been an intensely visual medium. After all, it’s right there in the name. In a video game, players have to consult a series of moving images in order to gather information about their environment, monitor their own status, and assess the effects of their actions on their environment and themselves. While video games do have other sensory elements, such as sound effects and haptic feedback in the form of a controller’s “rumble,” those features usually play a complementary role to the action on the screen.
For most players, that’s fine. Sight is the dominant sense for most people, so it makes sense for game developers to prioritize the video part of video game. But there are roughly 285 million people who have significant visual impairments, almost 40 million of whom are blind. They’re our friends, colleagues, and neighbors, and they have every reason to pursue the same hobbies and passions that the sighted population does. In particular, despite the intensely visual nature of video games, there are entire communities of blind and visually impaired gamers. I spoke with three such gamers about the unique challenges of competing in fighting games without being able to see the action unfold.
Navigating The Menu Maze
Back in the arcade days, starting up a new game was simple. You put your quarters into the slot, pressed start, and immediately found yourself on the character select screen. These days, however, things aren’t so straightforward. Thanks to the proliferation of modes and options, console and PC gamers usually have to navigate a series of menus in order to start playing the actual game itself. For sighted players, these menus will be an annoyance at worst. But for players who have visual impairments, they can be labyrinthine.
“Menu narration would be amazing,” says Mitchell, a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Street Fighter V player who goes by dontRunOff. When players navigate around the menus in Smash and SFV, the games respond with sound effects. However, those sound effects don’t tell the player which menu option they currently have highlighted, which means that visually impaired gamers have to memorize the paths that lead to where they want to go, either by painstakingly mapping out those paths themselves or consulting navigational guides that other (usually sighted) players have made. In some cases, even following these paths can be absurdly complicated. If dontRunOff wants to play a standard one-on-one stock battle against an online foe, he has to progress through five different screens. One of these has a long list of rule options, and if he accidentally chooses the wrong setting, he won’t discover his mistake until he’s in the middle of a match.
Smash also uses a free-floating cursor on its character select screen instead of utilizing the more common (and more user-friendly) grid system found in Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, and nearly every other fighting game. In practice, what this means is that players like dontRunOff can’t just memorize a series of directional inputs to find their mains. When he plays SFV on the player-one side, he knows that he can reliably select his character, Laura, by going down once and left three times. But when he plays Smash, he has to find his characters by feel and guesswork.
These obstacles may not totally prevent visually impaired players from picking up fighting games, but they’re still unnecessary and counterproductive. At the bare minimum, all players should know where they are within the game’s menu system and how to operate those menus to get what they want. The irony is that many fighting games already have menu narration. But because the narration only activates after the user selects a character or menu option, it only tells players that they’re on the wrong option after it’s too late.
Hitting The Lab
Once visually impaired gamers conquer the menu system of their preferred fighter, they face another challenge: practice mode. As any serious member of the Fighting Game Community will tell you, lab work is crucial for a player’s growth and competitive strength. Training modes give players the chance to build muscle memory, develop new techniques, and explore specific scenarios that have given them trouble in the past. Too often, though, the lab makes no accommodations for players who have visual impairments.
“Without massive amounts of work on the part of community members, 99% of features and elements [in training mode] are far too complicated for casual players and myself to even bother with,” says SightlessKombat, a blind Mortal Kombat streamer. “I end up spending most of my time learning from matches.” Not only do practice modes have complex menus, they display silent visual readouts of all of the relevant information.
In some cases, players can work around the problem by utilizing Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, software. As the name suggests, OCR programs scan the user’s display for letters and words, which they can then read aloud. “If I get lucky,” says Dengster, another gamer who competes in fighting games despite visual impairments, “I can get my OCR software to read out the combo hit, and sometimes, the damage of the combo.” This process is laborious and time-consuming: “I do a combo, then, put down my stick, press Insert+R, and my screen reader will say something like, “Recognizing.” Then it presents me with a screen with all the text that it captured. Then I can use my arrow keys to see what it captured. Then I hit Escape, and do it all over again. It’s never perfect at all.”
As much of a hassle as it is to use OCR when gaming on a PC, it beats the alternative. “I am lucky to be on a PC with OCR software that reads the screen for me,” Dengster says. “For people who mainly play fighting games on consoles, they’re basically out of luck.” For example, when dontRunOff uses the training mode in Smash, he “can’t really tell how much damage [I’m] doing.” In short, says SightlessKombat, “the lack of accessibility in tutorials…means that most of the time you end up learning from sighted players who already have played the game and can teach you from there.” When those communal resources don’t exist, visually impaired players find themselves at square one: “just pressing buttons yourself and seeing what happens.”
Successes And Failures
Despite the myriad ways in which developers have made their games inaccessible to visually impaired players, there are some signs that a better way is possible. Many modern fighters use stereo sound, meaning that players can acquire information about positioning and spacing from the game audio. Many visually impaired competitors also cite the PC version of Skullgirls as a game whose menus and training mode are properly designed.
Yet these few victories are the exceptions to the general rule. Some games that have stereo sound also have shifting cameras, which undermine the reliability of what a player is hearing. Story modes and other “extras” are also often inaccessible. While dontRunOff did manage to beat Smash’s single-player World Of Light campaign, he had to do so with a sighted friend who could help him operate the Spirit system, which has no narration or meaningful sound cues at all. Similarly, if SightlessKombat wants to unlock the fatalities, taunts, or music tracks that are only available through MK11’s Krypt, he would have to enlist a sighted ally to help him navigate the huge, puzzle-filled, non-narrated 3-D world.
There are even some characters who pose unsolvable problems, like Smash’s Hero. While the rest of the Fighting Game Community was complaining about Hero’s critical hits, visually impaired Smash players were wondering whether they would ever be able to know which spells had appeared in his Command Selection move. Unfortunately, the answer is “no,” which means that Hero is basically unplayable for those competitors and drastically harder for them to fight against.
Gaming For All
Perhaps the most frustrating element of the whole situation is the fact that many of these problems could be easily avoided or fixed. For example, SFV already has sound clips that announce the name of each menu option. If those clips played before the user selected their menu option instead of after, that would be a major quality-of-life improvement for players like dontRunOff, Dengster, and SightlessKombat. Likewise, it would be easy (if slightly more costly) to have English voice lines for Tekken’s story mode, which would allow visually impaired players to understand the lines that are currently only spoken in Japanese.
These solutions aren’t groundbreaking or complicated. Other cases may be more difficult to handle (e.g. the Krypt), but developers won’t even be able to begin working on those challenges until they care enough to cover the basics. Ideally, we should all have equal access to every mode and feature. But at the bare minimum, all fighting gamers should be able to easily navigate menus, access crucial information in training mode, and identify both their own moves and their opponents’ moves.
When they’re walled off from parts of their favorite game, FGCers become second-class citizens, and that’s simply not right. There’s no difference between dontRunOff’s Byleth or Dengster’s Akuma and anyone else’s Byleth or Akuma. Their goals are the same as everyone else’s: to get better, to enter tournaments, and to meet friends with whom they can share their love for fighting games. As human beings, they have all the resources they need to make that happen. It takes creativity, patience, and focus to memorize the platform locations in Smash or learn combos by listening to tournament replays. But all the inner strength in the world won’t help unless game developers are willing to make sure that their games don’t lock players out.
Eli Horowitz is a sighted fighting game player who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His first novel, Bodied, is set in the FGC and is available for purchase here. Follow him on Twitter @BODIEDnovel for more FGC news, memes, and general positivity.