When most people purchase a new game, getting started is often as simple as logging on and jumping right in. Unfortunately, for the hard of hearing, things get a bit more convoluted. Reviews and trailers do not indicate whether a game can interface with accessibility devices, for instance, or if a title is captioned in their native language. Check out how game developers can make their products for hearing impaired.
That’s a problem and makes the Steam library for many hard of hearing individuals look like a sad graveyard for neglected toys.
It’s often necessary to customize one’s system and software settings to support adaptive hardware. Unfortunately, because an inordinate number of games don’t have this functionality built-in, it tends to be incredibly difficult. Worse still, most support teams simply lack the training to walk HoH players through the process, which is also frequently left out of installation/setup instructions.
Even if a gamer gets their devices working with a game, there’s no guarantee that will be the end of their issues, either. In-game, it might be impossible to control the level of ambient noise. Captioning might not be available in major languages, and vital story/play instructions might be given in cutscenes without subtitles, putting the hearing impaired at a considerable disadvantage.
As you may have guessed, the problem is that many game studios simply don’t bother to account for the HoH. If they did, the solution would be obvious. All they would need to do is hire HoH consultants to check out any accessibility roadblocks and explain precisely what sort of devices and functionality a hearing impaired player might require.
That’s only the first step in making an accessible game, though. To actually embrace accessibility, there needs to be a cultural shift. Game developers need to understand the following:
- No two forms of hearing loss are exactly alike.
- Although HoH accessible games are still a rarity, many countries are considering legislation requiring equal access.
- Hearing loss is on the rise worldwide. The World Health Organization has predicted that by 2050 nearly 2.5 billion people will suffer from some degree of hearing loss.
- Adaptive hardware is a fast-growing market, with the list of available devices getting longer with each passing day. Given the sheer volume, it can be difficult to account for everything; your best bet is to hire an expert.
- Accessibility may end up being a competitive advantage. Big studios are increasingly releasing titles with inclusivity in mind, receiving recognition in accessibility awards like Tech 4 Good and being featured on sites such as Can I Play That?
As for the specifics of accessible gameplay, the best way to understand what you as a developer can do is to look at what other devs have done with their titles. In some cases, they can act as a framework for inclusivity. In others, their oversights serve as a warning sign and a guide for what not to do.
Take Half-Life 2, for example. Developer Valve designed the title from the start with accessibility in mind, ensuring that cutscenes included closed captioning and hearing-impaired gamers were consulted during the development process. As you might expect, the results were highly positive, and the code necessary for closed captioning is now part of the Source Game Engine used by Valve (and others).
Doom 3 is an example of what not to do — at least at first. To the disappointment of many in the HoH gaming community, the title relaxed without closed captioning. Developer Id Software decided to collaborate on a closed captioning mode, culminating in a dynamic closed captioning system.
They proceeded to make this software available to other studios and creators for free. They also translated the dialog into multiple languages and added visual indicators to the screen to indicate where the sound originated during gameplay.
So, to summarize, here’s how developers can make their products more welcoming and accessible to the hard of hearing:
- Consult with HoH individuals during the development process.
- Integrate support for adaptive hardware.
- Incorporate closed captioning in cutscenes and general gameplay. Translate the captions into multiple languages.
- Provide options to tweak ambient sound, music, active sound effects, etc.
- Look at sites like Can I Play That? to see what inclusive/accessible titles all have in common, then follow their lead.
Ultimately, the silver lining here is that most studios are now aware of the need for accessible gaming, and not just for the hearing impaired. And with each new release, developers and publishers further cement the idea that accessibility is not an add-on. It should be included at launch, right out of the box.
About the Author:
Pauline Dinnauer is the VP of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing, which provides industry-leading hearing loss, hearing testing, and hearing aid consultation across the US.