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The Short Version

These How To's can be applied to all software on all platforms.

That being said, our focus here is on Windows games, because that's what we do and that's what we know.

The example code tends towards Java rather than C++. Again, because that's what we know best.

Nonetheless, many of the How To's here can be applied to business apps running on smartphones as well as games running on Windows.

The Basics

There are two ways to make your game accessible to gamers who are blind:
  • Screen Readers
  • Self Voicing
Screen readers are programs that speak displayed text. People who are blind typically have only one screen reader and use that to interact with Windows or OS X, and their apps.

There are five major screen readers that work for games on Windows and one for OS X. All behave similarly for the basics and differently for advanced features. All work with programs written in C++. Only two work well with games written in Java.

Self voicing is a program speaking for itself, either through speech synthesis or sound files. Most blind accessible games self voice.

Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 come with Microsoft's Speech API (SAPI) which your game can use to synthesize speech. OS X comes with VoiceOver, which your game can use to synthesize speech.

Tweaking a Game for Screen Readers

To make your game work with screen readers, ensure that all essential controls and game objects:
  • Have displayed text
  • Can receive focus
  • Are traversable via keystroke
It's not essential that all visual game artifacts be screen reader accessible; just those essiential to play your game.

Smugglers 4 (See Examples) from Neils Bauer Games, demonstrates how a single change can make a game playable by gamers who are blind.

Can your Game be Made Screen Reader Accessible?

Not always. Games that can't include those:
  • With lots of moving game objects
  • Written in Java
Smugglers 4, a trading and space war game, also demonstates the limits of screen reader accessibility. Even with Niels' tweaks, it's playable by blind gamers only if they use the Supernova screen reader. This because it relies on a screen reader's Virtual Cursor feature and only Supernova implements this feature in a way that is useable in a game.

Our own games are written in Java and work only with two of the six major screen readers. If our games didn't also self voice, they wouldn't be playable by many people who are blind.

Good candidates for games that are playable via screen readers include:
  • Memory games
  • Word games
  • Card games
  • Story games
  • Some puzzle games
  • Some strategy games
And even games like Smugglers 4 could be made to work with all screen readers if their game objects could receive focus and were keyboard traversable.

Making your Game Self Voice

To make your game playable via self voicing, ensure that all essential controls and game objects:
  • Speak
  • Can receive focus and are traversable via keystroke
  • Or are reachable by hotkeys
It's not essential that all visual game artifacts speak; just those essiential to play your game.

Games by Jim Kitchen, Ian Humphreys, Liam Erven, and ourselves (See Examples) demonstrate how even small indie game developers can deliver self voicing games.

Can your Game be Made to Self Voice?

Generally yes. Many games self voice, including those developed by a single person. (See Examples.)

In addition to the above good candidates for screen readers, we've seen self voicing games that are:
  • Side scrollers
  • Role playing games
  • Tank, submarine, and space games
  • Adventure games
  • World building games
  • First person shooters
  • Detective games
  • Educational games
  • Arcade games
  • Maze games
  • Flight simulators
That being said, in general poorer candidates include those with:
  • Lots of moving game objects
  • Lots of visual content
  • Games emphasizing spatial relationships
  • Games using game engines or third party components that can not be made self voicing
The point is, if you have to change the fundamental gameness of a game in order to make it playable via self voicing, you really haven't made that game accessible; you've created a different game. Most of our Tyler puzzle games and some of our WOOPLE word games fall into that category.

Going Forward

If you're a developer interested in specifics as to what it would take to make your games playable by gamers who are blind, or a gamer who's been asked by a developer for those specifics, read:

Gamers - How to Get Help
Developers - How to Give Help

Self Voicing and Games
Designing Games for Self Voicing

Screen Readers and Games
Designing Games for Screen Readers

Many of these specifics are also applicable if you're anyone who wants to make any software accessible to people who are blind.

John Bannick
Chief Technical Officer
7-128 Software