Blind and Low-Vision Accessibility Guide

Christy Smith9 minute read

This guide does not address audio-only games.

There are a lot of things in the world that are harder to do if you are blind or visually impaired, but we still do them. We sometimes do things a little differently, but we still want to play video games for all of the same reasons that sighted people want to play video games. After reading this, I want you to have gained three bits of knowledge.

1. Know that blind people want to play your game.

2. Blind accessibility, or any accessibility, is not “special.” You are not adding special settings to your game. An estimated 3% of adults are blind or visually impaired. You are merely thinking about a broader variety of vision experience. You ALREADY put a LOT of thought and creativity into the visuals of your game and spent a significant portion of your budget on creating good assets and rendering them beautifully.

3. There is a wide variety of different types of visual impairments, and the language used around them isn’t very specific. Think of blindness as a spectrum, really a series of spectrums to account for all the aspects of vision. For instance, we might have good visual acuity and be able to read the newspaper, but we might have eye strain so that we can only read for ten minutes at a time.

Only about 10% of blind people have no vision whatsoever. We call the vision they do have “residual vision.” People who are “legally blind” can’t read 200-point font at 20 feet away. For reference, “perfect” vision is considered to be the ability to read 20-point font at 20 feet. This is where we get the 20/20 thing from. Legally blind is 20/200, and things just go up from there. The legal limit to drive in most states is somewhere around 20/70, and 20/40 is usually regarded as the line where you start falling in the “visually impaired” or “low vision” category. Blind, low vision, vision impaired, and partially sighted are all acceptable terms to use, though “blind” is more specific because it generally only refers to people who have 20/200 or worse.

However, all of that doesn’t tell you about the particular strengths and weaknesses of a person’s vision. There are approximately a million different aspects to vision. Color vision, near vision, distance vision, central vision, peripheral vision, visual field, depth perception, light sensitivity, ability to recognize motion, time it takes to register what you’re seeing, eye strain, motion sickness, ability to focus and time it takes to do so, time you’ve had the level of vision you do (because it takes time to get used to it and learn to use it), natural fluctuations in visual acuity, problems associated with dry eyes… The list goes on. These things mean that even if you know someone’s visual acuity at 20 feet… you only know their visual acuity at 20 feet.

Here’s a series of images that Buzzfeed doctored up to compare 20/20 and 20/200, the link points to an archived version because the original is ironically missing the images. Personally, I think these look closer to 20/600, so take them with a grain of salt, but remember that people’s level of function can vary significantly even at the same acuity. You can google around images to simulate the aspects of vision I mentioned if you’re interested.

I don’t tell you that to scare you. I told you all of that so you’re aware that there are a ton of different things you can do that will help someone access your games. Note that many of these tips are inspired heavily from points brought up by other accessibility guides on this site.

Visual Characteristics

·      Add options regarding contrast. Higher contrast by default is usually preferred, but it’s even better if the contrast can be adjusted. Folks with eyestrain problems may need to tone down the contrast lest things look washed-out. Add an option to invert colors whenever possible. Options for Dark modes (white or tan text on black background) are also really helpful.

·      Make sure the lighting is adequate. Dark environments may give players the aesthetic you’re going for, but include options to make things easier to distinguish. The lighting and the contrast here go hand in hand. If things are too dark, it will be impossible to distinguish objects from one another in the muddle of inkiness.

·      Ensure that tracking the movement of objects is as easy as possible. Don’t put objects behind other objects in the foreground. Add options to turn off background scenery.

·      Reduce visual clutter whenever possible. Extra background scenery and assets that don’t serve a purpose can get in the way of the things we really need to see. Obviously, you want some background to add character and personality to the game, but be judicious about creating clutter.

·      Consider your art style, and when possible, add bold outlines around characters and assets that can be interacted with. Add options that allow these outlines to be made bolder. Some people prefer white outlines, some prefer black, and some prefer sepia. Choices would be amazing, but any bold outlines would help.

·      If there are any assets that we need to interact with and understand exactly what the asset is to understand how to use it, add context clues to help us identify it. As an example, if we need to go find a particular plant, put it near some trees or grass or other vegetation. It’s easier to use limited vision if you know what you’re looking for and where it likely will be. We use our brains to compensate for limited vision.

·      If there are any visual movement features, like screen shaking or vibrations, allow these to be turned off. For folks who already have trouble focusing, the extra movement can be disorienting.

·      Include scalable font. And just default to large fonts. I generally think fonts should be as large as looks natural. If you’ve got a menu with three options, there’s no reason to make the menu occupy a small window in the center of the screen.

·      Options to change the font should include a dyslexia-friendly font, a bold sans-serif font, and a bold serif font. Text color should, if not selectable, should be very different from the background color. Avoid bright whites, as these are harder to see than softer white or sepia. Text effects such as 3D should generally be avoided.

·      Avoid flashing light effects or include options to turn them off. Rapid changes in lighting can be difficult.

·      If possible, give people the option to choose between sacrificing frame rate and resolution. With current and last-gen games, we are likely to be willing to lose a few frames to keep the resolution consistent, but that might be different for people with motion sensitivities.

·      Avoid dynamic resolution that only scales up if you get closer to the item or interact with it. Particularly for shooters. We can’t interact with it if the resolution is too low to find it.

·      Consider what objects or violence might look like to someone with impaired vision when planning what ESRB rating you are aiming for. You don’t necessarily need to do anything, but be aware that what a sighted person might recognize as a mild element might seem to a visually impaired person as more intense. For instance, sweat might be mistaken for blood or a Shy Guy chasing Yoshi with a tinfoil axe might scare the poop out of you because it looks like a real axe (or so I’ve heard…). Good lighting and context clues, especially for kids games, are helpful. 

Accessibility Features

·      Audio-described cut-scenes would make my day. If you aren’t sure what audio-description is or how to do it, here’s a helpful resource.

·      Add screen readers for your menus. Menus often are the most text-heavy parts of games, and the text is super dense to help things fit onto one screen. There’s no reason why your menu has to occupy only one screen. Sure, it’s a little extra work to have multiple pages of menus, but I’d much rather have four pages of menus that I can read instead of one page that I can’t. Adding a screen reader to your menu will allow both visually impaired and fully blind people to access the menu, though. There are a variety of auto-generated voices available open-source.

·      Options to slow down the game speed are very helpful for folks who need additional visual processing time. I’d give you bonus points if there were a way to slow down enemies without slowing down the playable character, which leads me to…

·      Allow the tutorial to be played anytime as a reminder. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what certain objects or characters look like because they may look less distinct if you’re visually impaired, so replaying the tutorial is a good reminder.

·      Allow any instructions to be pulled up at any time or at any time until the objective is complete. Information that is presented in text may be difficult to remember to someone who relies more on other senses.

·      Pause gameplay when text appears and allow players to acknowledge the text before proceeding with the game

Assist Modes: these can encompass a wide variety of features designed to make the game easier to complete. Ideally, these options should be individually selectable.

·      A highlighted path to follow makes it much easier to know where to go.

·      Additional health points and/or health that regenerates

·      Reducing hit points for enemies

·      Auto-aiming, steering, acceleration, collection of items, etc.

·      Invincibility to some or all enemies

Non Visual Cues: Primarily, nonvisual cues come in the form of controller vibration and sound effects. Be creative in your uses of controller vibration and sound effects. Vibration can be used as a warning or an indicator. Sound effects can signal location, the presence of enemies, or indicate what the player needs to do to progress.

·      Offer independent adjustment for sound effects, music, and dialogue. Players who need to focus more on one sound might find others distracting.

·      Offer unique sound effects for each enemy or each attack, as is relevant. 

Game Format and Specs

·      Some low-vision players enjoy handheld devices because they can be held closer to the face than a television can. When designing control schemes for handheld play, imagine holding the device three inches away from your face.

·      Include options to remap controls. What is comfortable when holding the device at a distance may not be comfortable when holding the device up close.

·      Include options to remap motion controls to buttons.

·      Include options to adjust sensitivity for relevant controls. Visually impaired folks may need things to be less sensitive so they have more time to aim or react.

·      If you’re developing for Mac or PC, research compatibility with screen readers and zoom software. For more information about technology accessibility, JAN is a good place to start. (See the Technology Professionals section)

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Christy Smith is a visually impaired gamer whose main goal in life is to snag a seat on the metro instead of having to stand so that she can play Switch on her commute. She/her/hers or They/them/theirs

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