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ORLANDO, Fla. — Video games for the blind may seem like a contradictory phrase to some, but for others, it represents the role technology has played in allowing those with visual impairments to share in some of the world's common experiences.
Audio games rely on sound, not picture, to convey messages to the player. They were rudimentary at first, with very few commands; they forced the player to rely largely on chance while playing. The part of the tech industry focused on visual impairments was more concerned with making life manageable for the blind — enjoyment could come later.
Munawar Bijani, who has been blind since age 4, is trying to revolutionize the entertainment industry for the blind, which he believes has been neglected. Despite the importance of the blind being able to navigate the world, they need to be able to have fun, too: "What do I do when it's raining outside and I can't go anywhere?" he told the Daily Beast.
Bijani has developed a series of games, including Three-D Velocity, the world's first combat flight simulator for the blind. The game, at a price of $43, has been downloaded 11,000 times since it was released two years ago. Blind gamers say it is a huge step up from previously available entertainment, and it is hoped that with its popularity will come further innovations in the field.
The idea of advancing gaming technology for the blind is not a new one, but it seems to be taking hold in individuals before companies, rather than trickling down to consumers. human experience is the prime motivator.
In April, Dylan Viale, a 10-year-old California boy, was motivated to create a videogame for his blind grandmother because she could not enjoy one of his favorite pastimes. The fifth grader downloaded a free game design application called GameMaker and got to work, developing Quacky's Quest, a game based on a duck Dylan's father had often doodled during elementary school.
Sound was the greatest tool for (Dylan's) grandmother to navigate through the game.
Dylan's grandmother would weave through mazes to find the Golden Egg, and had to use sound to do it.
"Sound was the greatest tool for (Dylan's) grandmother to navigate through the game," Dino Viale told Kotaku. "He had to figure out how to associate each move through the maze with sound cues for whether you were doing something correctly or incorrectly."
After a month of development, Dylan entered his game into his school's science fair, where it won first place. His father noted one of the most interesting aspects of the entire experience: experienced gamers did not perform as well in the maze as first-timers.
"They weren't as in touch with the sound," he said. "They didn't rely on the sound as much as a blind person would, or even a person who wasn't familiar with gaming."
One possible way for game developers to approach creating video games for the blind is to create them around the idea that the game does not have to be overly simple just because it does not have visual cues. Some blind gamers have managed to get through some of the most difficult levels of video games on auditory cues alone, despite the game not having been built around sounds.
Terry Garrett, who lost his sight in 1997 at age 10, plays Zelda based purely on the auditory cues it provides. He told Wired he relies on the footsteps, voices and musical cues to get through the levels.
"Through Abe's sounds, I was able to figure out how to navigate the world," Garrett said via email. His ability to beat the game shows the importance of sound on platforms traditionally thought of as mainly visual: to those who can see, the sound is just an effect. To those who can't, it represents a way to take part in common experiences many people take for granted.