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Screen Readers and Games

Screen readers are programs that speak text they read from the screen.

They're how people who are blind read their computers.

Screen readers do not run on consoles or smart phones. All of the following screen readers run on Windows.

JAWS


JAWS from Freedom Scientific www.freedomscientific.com is the most popular screen reader in the US.

It's used by gamers both in the US and elsewhere.

It's commonly taught in schools for the blind and supported by accessibility organizations. It has an extensive ecosystem of vendors and trainers.

It offers a great deal of functionality, including audio cursors and scripting.

New versions of JAWS are released at about the same rate as other commercial desktop software, with a degree of functional changes appropriate to a mature product.

You can download a free demo version of JAWS.

Window-Eyes


Window-Eyes from GW Micro www.gwmicro.com is also very popular in the US.

It too has a US support community and offers a mature level of functionality.

New versions of Window-Eyes are released at about the same rate as other commercial desktop software, with a degree of functional changes appropriate to a mature product.

You can download a free demo version of Window-Eyes.

Supernova


Supernova (formerly Hal) from Dolphin www.yourdolphin.com is the most commonly used screen reader outside of the US. Though it is popular in the US as well.

It offers a great deal of functionality and is used by gamers.

New versions of Supernova are released at about the same rate as other commercial desktop software, with a degree of functional changes appropriate to a mature product.

You can download a free demo version of Supernova.

NVDA


NVDA, www.nvda-project.org is a free and open source screen reader for the Microsoft Windows operating system. It has a growing market share in the US.

It has less functionality than the above screen readers, but is used by some gamers.

ZoomText


ZoomText from aisquared, www.aisquared.com is a combined screen reader and magnifier that is popular in the US.

It is partiularly favored by US users who retain some vision.

You can download a free demo version of ZoomText.

VoiceOver


VoiceOver is the screen reader Apple Computer, www.apple.com/accessibility/voiceover includes for free in all Macintosh, iPhone, iPod, and iPad computers.

VoiceOver is used extensively by Macintosh games. See http://groups.google.com/group/macvisionaries.

Other Screen Readers


There are a number of other screen readers that have small market shares. In general, they tend to be limited in functionality in that they:
  • Lack scripting languages for extensibility
  • Have a smaller support ecosystem of forums, trainers, dealers
  • May require use of the clipboard instead of reading the screen directly
  • Limit their functionality to speaking word processors and similar office products
Thus, these screen readers generally are inapplicable to gaming.

How Screen Readers are Used


Users who are blind most commonly have a single screen reader installed, which they use constantly for all of their computer activities, including using Windows or OS X themselves.

Typically, users configure their systems so that their screen reader starts on boot. There's usually a menu at the top of the screen or an artifact on the Start bar.

The screen reader speaks as they tab around the Desktop and run apps.

If your game is designed to work with a screen reader, then the transition into your game can be seamless.

Headphones


People who use screen readers often wear headphones.

Stereo


Audio games often use stereo sound as an integral part of the game.

Screen Reader Emphasis on Major Products


The manufacturers of screen readers focus on making their products work with the operating system itself, Web browsers, and major apps such as word processors and spreadsheets.

The result is that they read block text and navigate the controls of those apps really well. They are more problematic with regards to the more esoteric controls and objects typically found in a game.

Screen Reader Differences


Different screen readers behave similarly when reading blocks of text or standard button faces. However, they behave differently with regards to navigation.

It is vital to note that:

These differences may make your game playable with one screen reader but not with others.

Voices


Screen readers typically speak with just one voice.

It is possible to change voices using a screen readers scripting language. But that may not be practical for your computer game.

Voice might be an issue if your game has multiple characters that speak. It could be difficult for a blind gamer to know which character is speaking.

You could compensate by adding some kind of screen-reader-only indicators.

A more subtle approach would be to ensure that each character, or type of character if it's a common NPC, has a destinguishable speech pattern. This is also an excellent example of how making a game accessible makes it better for all gamers.

People who use screen readers tend to be very particular about the voice used.

Non-English Speech


Screen readers speak with an accent appropriate to the language set by the user. Otherwise the speech would sound odd.

Most screen readers offer multiple language options.

If your game includes multiple language dialogs, for instance Spanish and English being spoken in a dialog set in Los Angeles, then it will sound odd. There's little you can do about this.

If your game is localized to a language and the gamer has their screen reader set to that language, there should be no problem.

Voice Speed


People who are sighted read at about 150 words per minute. People who are blind read via audio at up to 300 words per minute, or more.

Screen readers can be set to speak at these higher rates, and generally are.

This mitigates the fact that otherwise hearing is slower than reading.

For some games there may be timing or level-of-difficulty issues related to this.

Screen Readers and Installing your Game


People who are blind generally do not like others to install software on or configure their computers. Therefore, the installer for your game should speak to them.

Screen reading software includes self voicing in its own installers.

Any installation on the Mac self voices through VoiceOver.

We don't know of any commercial or open-source installers for Windows that self voice. And it's unlikely your company will build its own self voicing installer. So you should insure that your installer works with a screen reader.

Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS) http://nsis.sourceforge.net/Main_Page is a professional open source system to create Windows installers. It's totally free and works with JAWS.

Test your own installer against the same screen reader(s) you test your game against.

A subtlety of installation is that gamers who are blind are no different in the aggregate than other users. Some are highly computer literate; others are computer challenged. Don't make accessibilty options in your installation process any more complex than necessary.

Expense


Screen readers can be expensive, often over $1,000 per unit.

People who are blind have a high rate of unemployment or under employment. Often they are on fixed incomes.

Often their screen readers are subsidized by the state.

What this means for you is that gamers are not going to change screen readers in order to play your game.

Children


Children often do not use screen readers, either because of the expense or because they have not yet been trained in their use.

So children are generally limited to games that self voice.

Gamers who are Visually Impaired


By visually impaired, we mean people who can see only extremely large items on a screen, either in color or light and dark. Or people who can see peripheral areas but not central areas of a screen.

People who have some vision generally have a very strong preference to use that vision.

Also, some forms of visual impairment come and go. So your gamer may be totally blind one day and have some limited vision another day.

People who are visually impaired generally use screen readers, though they may prefer ones such as ZoomText that also offer screen magnification. Some may use special screens that offer magnification.

There are a number of additional design issues related specifically to visual impairment. We won't address them here.

Making your game screen reader accessible in no way makes it inappropriate to gamers who are visually impaired.

Final Words


The bad news is that there are six major screen readers, and each behaves differently in its more advanced features.

The good news is that all behave pretty much the same for the basic features in many types of games.

The best news is that it can be surprisingly easy to tweak some games to make them accessible to more than one screen reader.

See our article Designing Games for Screen Readers to learn how you can do this.

John Bannick
Chief Technical Officer
7-128 Software

jbannick@7128.com