From several decades ago, society has taken great strides in making the world a more accessible place for people with physical challenges. When it comes to people with hearing impairment, a combination of technology and design has made things like jobs and entertainment something they can partake into. Game design should be no different.
Many might think that most games these days are already accessible to the deaf and hearing-impaired because they come with subtitles. The truth, however, is that a lot of the times these captions aren’t made specifically for people who can’t hear or have partial hearing loss. Thankfully, there are a few ideas out there that can help make games that are inclusive towards the hearing-impaired.
Have you ever watched Netflix with closed captions on? They don’t just transcribe the words that are on screen. Rather, they provide a full context of what is going on that the viewer isn’t able to hear. An important mantra that movie and TV show creators consider when it comes to closed captions is “if it’s important enough to have a sound, then it’s important enough to have captions”.
Off-screen sounds have a variety of functions. They set the tone and atmosphere of a scene. Hearing gunshots and explosions in the background of a war movie is what tells you, the viewer, that it’s hell out there and the situation is quite precarious. For a person with significant hearing loss, the people who are running from cover to cover could be doing so for a number of reasons. The captions stating “gunshot and explosions in the distance” provide the necessary context so that the viewer can fully engross themselves in the action.
Even the moments that the captions appear are critical as there can’t be a continuous “rustling of leaves” strewn across the screen. Developers and designers follow the same process as visual designers. Set the scene before going to the action. You’ll notice that in closed-captioned movies the background audio is introduced first before introducing dialogue and action related sounds. The same must be done for games, especially big cinematic experiences like Spider-man and God of War.
Subtitles are great when delivering the cinematic portions and dialogued scenes of a game. What about the gameplay parts? Having captions stating “you’re being shot from your left” would probably make games too easy. A few methods that are being tested to replace audio cues is to make visual HUDs.
Color vignettes on the screen are one way of achieving a similar effect to sound. When a sound is produced somewhere in the game world, color begins to fade in around the edges of the screen. The closer or more intense the sound, the bigger the covered area and deeper the tone of the color. With some color-coding, the various sounds are classified as malicious, neutral or friendly.
What appears to be unchartered territory with a lot of potential for developing for the hearing-impaired is controller rumble. Haptic feedback technology has come a long way in recent times. The Nintendo Switch Joycons are capable of delivering some unique sensations that can mimic actual touch. Sony also claims that the haptic feedback technology behind the PlayStation 5’s controller, the Dualsense, will deliver unprecedented experience enhancement.
It stands to reason that controller vibration could be an alternative to audio for those who have hearing loss or even complete deafness. The key is doing so in a way that mimics the effect sound and audio cues have on a player’s experience and deliver a similar effect.
Gaming accessibility has definitely come a long way with developers across the industry using design and technology in new ways. With esports and competitive becoming bigger by the day, what remains to be seen is how they can leverage design to make their digital playgrounds open to those with hearing impairment.