A playing field for all

Only a few companies are developing software to enable those without sight, hearing or other abilities to enjoy games.

January 03, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Like millions of kids around the country, 12-year-old Amy Herstein found new computer games under the tree this Christmas. But these games aren't like any you'll find at the local computer store.

That's because Amy, who lives in Ellicott City, is blind. And the bowling and Monopoly games she now plays on her family PC are designed not for the eye, but the ear.

While most mainstream game designers are pushing the limits of computer graphics technology to create titles with ultra-realistic 3-D looks, a small group of programmers is doing just the opposite for sight-impaired computer users: developing titles with little or no visual content.

For example, instead of aiming just to the right of a headpin she can't see, Amy listens to a wavering tone that tells her when it's time to release her bowling ball. If she times it exactly right, it's a strike. If she moves too soon or too late, it's a gutter ball.

The emergence of such games signals a subtle shift in the computer's role in the lives of people with disabilities. Advocates for the disabled have long viewed computers as important tools for learning or for getting a job, but some are reconsidering the importance of computer games.

"People trivialize computer games. But for people with certain disabilities, it really is their only form of entertainment," says Randy Marsden, president of Madentec Limited in Edmonton, Alberta, which recently developed a technology for those who've lost the use of their hands to play Microsoft's "Links 2000" golf simulator.

The existence of games for the sightless comes as a surprise even to most blind computer users. "Hardly anyone knows these games are out there," says Michael Feir, a blind game enthusiast who started Audyssey, the first online magazine about computer games for the blind.

When Amy's mother, Karen Herstein, discovered the games at a recent conference for the blind, she thought they might make Amy more comfortable with computers and her classmates at Dunloggin Middle School, where she is the only blind student.

"She always feels different anyway," her mother says. "I thought if she could talk to other kids about computer games, it might be something she could have in common."

The games were created by Carl Mickla and Bill Vlasak, two blind game designers whose company, Personal Computer Systems in Perth Amboy, N.J., is the only one of its kind in the United States, although others are planned.

For years, the only games accessible to blind computer users were primitive text-based adventures, leftovers from the early days of computing such as the 1970s classic "Zork." In these games, players navigate a complex underground labyrinth with short, typed commands such as "go north" or "pick up ax." The computer responds with a simple description of the player's surroundings and other characters' actions ("Troll chops off your head").

Because these adventure games use only words, they're easily digested by the screen-reading software that most blind computer users employ to convert text to speech.

But Mickla and Vlasak wanted more. Both had been avid game players before losing their sight as adults. When personal computers first appeared, Mickla -- who never had great vision --hooked his Apple II to a 19-inch television set and played graphical adventure games such as "Wizzardy" a nose-length from the screen.

When his vision deserted him in 1990, Mickla took a few programming classes and started the company with Vlasak, who had been an interior designer at Macy's in New York before complications from diabetes took his sight.

At first the games they created were simple, text-based sports simulations such as baseball. But their games have gradually become more sophisticated -- and faster-paced.

The big problem: "How are you going to get a blind person to do targeting?" says Mickla.

Their solution: Paint pictures with sound.

Just as a blind person can tell the difference between an environment of grass or cement by its sound signature, Mickla and Vasak have embedded sophisticated audio cues in their games to signify when players are approaching a wall -- or just got nailed by a left hook.

Mickla and Vlasak try to crank out five new games a year and actively sell a dozen titles, including bowling, car racing and kickboxing games -- there's even an audio version of Pac-Man.

Still, the blind game business isn't easy. Although Christmas is their busiest time of year, they're lucky to sell 50 copies of each game a month.

"We're not even making coffee money," Mickla says. "It's pretty hard to market to blind people."

But advocates for the disabled say the number of potential gamers is large. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, one in 10 Americans has a serious disability. Some disabled computer users wonder why there aren't more games available for them. A few are pressing mainstream game makers to add subtitles and other adaptations.

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