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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 5

Access Issues

Not Just Playing Around: A Review of Accessible Windows-based Games

What do you do with your computer after you have read all the e-mail messages, properly formatted the documents, and completed all your spreadsheets? Believe it or not, computers can be used for fun as well as for work. One way to spend your leisure time is to play games.

For computer users who are visually impaired, accessible text-based games were a common thing in the days of MS-DOS. When Microsoft Windows became the predominant operating system, games, like so many other applications, were no longer accessible. A number of companies have been working to change that situation over the past several years. The latest generation of accessible software includes a wide variety of games that are both fun to play and appeal to almost every interest imaginable. Whether you want to drive a tank through enemy territory or simply play a card game, there is sure to be a game out there that you will enjoy.

All inPlay

All inPlay offers two accessible web-based games. For a monthly fee, users can log on to its web site and play the classic Crazy Eights card game or try their hand at poker. The monthly fee gives players access to both games. Since the software is web based, users can pit their skills against players from all over the world. Both poker and Crazy Eights have incorporated a chat feature that allows users to send text messages to each other as they play. Although the games are fully accessible, they are also designed in such a way as to be appealing to sighted users. All inPlay, as its name suggests, encourages sighted individuals to play alongside their friends and family members who are visually impaired. The company also regularly hosts online tournaments for games that are both competitive and fun.

How It Works

Crazy Eights is a game similar to the popular card game Uno. The strategy is to be the first to get rid of all your cards and force your opponent to pick up more. At the beginning of each hand, all users are given five cards, and one card is dealt out to determine the starting suit and number. When it is his or her turn, a player must lay down a card that matches either the number or the suit of the previously played card. The eights in the suits are considered wild cards, and they allow the player who holds them to change the current suit. In addition to the standard numbered cards, you may also play "skip," "reverse," and "draw two" cards, which makes the next player skip a turn, reverses the direction of play, and makes the next player draw two cards, respectively. When a player runs out of cards and wins the game, he or she is given points equal to the value of all the cards that his or her opponents are still holding. The goal is to get as many points as you can and to give up as few points as possible.

In playing Crazy Eights, you can select which card you want to play simply by using the arrow keys. The game also has keystrokes that allow you to hear various pieces of information, such as the number of cards left in your hand or the suit and number of the last card laid down. Crazy Eights also has sound effects to make the game a little more fun to play. For example, when a reverse card is played, a tape rewinding sound is heard. Although these sounds are fun, they can also be distracting. Fortunately, All inPlay allows you to turn the sound affects off with a simple keystroke.

All inPlay's version of poker is five-card draw. All new players are given a predetermined number of chips that they may use to place bets. The goal of poker is to get the highest hand while placing bets with other players. All inPlay has established various tables or rooms that players are allowed to enter and play. Each table can host up to five players and has a different betting limit. The more advanced tables also move faster, since they are intended for more-advanced players. For novice poker players, All inPlay's web site contains some very informative getting-started documents.

All inPlay poker has a straightforward keyboard interface. All the commands are issued with the letter keys, and cards can be either kept or discarded using the number keys. As is the case with Crazy Eights, poker contains several useful hotkeys that provide information on the status of the game. Poker also uses various sound effects during the game. Unlike Crazy Eights, these sound effects are not entertaining. While we were evaluating the product, we found it necessary to turn off these sounds almost immediately.

Want to Chat?

As mentioned earlier, both All inPlay products incorporate a chat feature. Pressing the Tab key while playing either game places focus on (that is, shifts the active window to) the chat window. While in the chat window, you can type a message that is sent to all the players in the current room. Since the game is continuing while you are in the chat window, most messages are fairly short. This is, however, a great way to meet the people you are playing against. Unfortunately, it is not possible to send a message to a single user in the current room.

For players who are visually impaired, both of All inPlay's games were designed to work well with JAWS and Window-Eyes. Both screen readers include configuration files (script and set files) that are designed to work with All inPlay's products. Both games have also incorporated several hotkeys that tell the screen reader to read various pieces of information, such as the last comment in the chat window.

Try Before You Buy

For users who are just getting started, All inPlay offers a free trial membership. Simply by going to the web site and filling out a registration form, you can play both poker and Crazy Eights for 15 days. Once this trial period has expired, you can purchase a subscription that will allow you to play both games for approximately $7.95 per month. Quarterly and yearly memberships are also available. One problem we encountered with this site is that these prices are not listed until you sign up for a free trial. There is, however, a link to send an e-mail to customer support. When we did so, we received a rapid response to our request for information on prices.

BSC Games

Another company that creates accessible games is BSC Games. This company offers a number of freeware and shareware (try-before-you-buy) titles, all available for downloading from its web site. AccessWorld evaluated two of the company's freeware games, Crazy Darts and Sonic Match. Although these games are not fancy, they are fun, and they are a great way for new users to try accessible Windows-based games.

Crazy Darts

This audio-based game allows you to throw a dart at a moving target. When the game starts, sound comes out of either the right or left speaker and moves to the opposite speaker. When you believe the sound is directly in front of you, you press the spacebar to throw the dart. A recorded voice announces the scoring region on the dartboard that the dart hit. To keep the game interesting, the target moves across the speakers at a variety of different speeds. When the game is over, your total score is announced.

This game is simple to operate (requiring only one keystroke to play) and is an easy way to test your hand-ear coordination. Unfortunately, it does have some bugs. On some machines, the game would occasionally play sound using only one speaker for a split second and then report zero points. It would usually do so only once or twice per game, so unless you are trying to reach the maximum score, it is not an issue.

Sonic Match

Sonic Match is a classic memory match game. Each arrow key has a specific sound. The computer plays these sounds, and you must imitate them by pressing the appropriate arrow keys. The more sounds you get correct, the less time you are given to press each key. When you get one wrong, the game ends, and you are told how many you got correct. The game also has three levels of difficulty. The first two levels use three of the arrow keys, and the final level uses all four keys.

Both Sonic Match and Crazy Darts can be played without the use of a screen reader. They are self-voicing applications and guide you through all menus. Both titles are also audio only. When you play the game, only the name of the game is shown on the screen. Sighted users found this lack of visual input disturbing and actually played better when they closed their eyes or switched off the monitor.

Although these games are challenging and entertaining, they lack the sophistication of other titles we evaluated. They also have limited documentation, most likely because they are freeware. Still, these two games are a great way for new players to venture into the world of accessible games.

GMA Games

Tank Commander

This game is for all of us who have ever dreamed of being in command of a fully armed tank rolling through enemy territory. Your assignment is to do as much damage as possible to the computer-generated enemy while you complete several missions. You are equipped with two types of missiles, two types of shells, a machine gun, and other high-powered weapons. Each weapon has its advantages and disadvantages. While you roll through enemy territory, you will encounter such things as tank traps, several types of enemy tanks that have much better weapons than yours, and helicopters that you must blow out of the sky before they drop bombs on you. Your ultimate goal is to complete all six missions and meet up with a tank transport.

One of the most striking aspects of this game is the realistic sound effects. Everything, from the rumble of enemy tanks to the burning of buildings or vehicles you have destroyed to the gurgling of a river, is presented in striking detail. The game relies heavily on sound spacing. If a player hears an enemy tank through the left speaker, for example, the player knows to turn left to face the enemy. This sound spacing can be used to place objects in a variety of directions relative to your current location.

Tank Commander uses a fairly straightforward keyboard interface. The arrow keys are used to control the movement of your tank. Weapons can be selected using the numbers 1–6 on the number row. The game has a large number of commands that provide information, such as your tank's current heading and what objects are close to your current position. The game comes with excellent documentation that explains the functions of all keyboard commands.

Tank Commander actually functions best when a screen reader is not active. The game speaks all menus and status reports in a prerecorded voice, so a screen reader is not necessary to convey any information. During our evaluation, we played the games both with and without a screen reader. Pressing certain keystrokes, such as CTRL right arrow to turn the tank 90 degrees to the right, caused the screen reader to speak up. This extra chatter made the game much more difficult to play. One disappointing aspect of Tank Commander is its lack of on-screen information. Sighted players are forced to rely only on their ears because the game displays only its title on the screen at all times. One might think that a game with this much audio detail would have some fairly decent graphics, but this is not the case.

The game can be played in one of two modes: standard or arcade. Standard mode allows users to play as long as they can stay "alive." Once your tank is destroyed in standard mode, the game is over. Standard mode does allow you to save your current game location, so you can come back to this position at any time. The second mode is arcade mode. Arcade mode gives the player three lives. If your tank is destroyed, you lose one of these lives, and play continues until you have lost your last life. Each completed mission gives you another life. When you play in arcade mode, it is not possible to save your current game location. Before you play in either mode, you must select one of five levels of difficulty. These creatively named levels of difficulty range from "It's my turn daddy" to "It's a good day to die." As you increase the level of difficulty, the enemies move faster and become more aggressive.

A demonstration version of Tank Commander is available from the company's web site for download. It runs for 10 minutes or until you complete the first mission. In addition to Tank Commander, GMA Games sells several other audio-based action adventure games.

The Bottom Line

Accessible games have definitely made their way to the Windows environment. Many of the titles rely heavily on complex sound effects and good hand-ear coordination, which are great for individuals who are visually impaired but not for those who are deaf-blind. When we tested these games using a screen reader and a refreshable braille display, almost all were unusable. The exceptions were the games from All inPlay, which worked fairly well using refreshable braille. The fact that most of these games had no on-screen text and therefore were challenging for sighted users to play is also disturbing. Despite these shortcomings, it is encouraging to see that companies are realizing that some people who are visually impaired are using their computers for more than just work-related tasks.

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Product Information

Products: Crazy Eights and Poker

Manufacturer: All inPlay, P.O. Box 335, Oxford, MA 01540; phone: 413-585-9690; e-mail: <info@allinplay.com> web site: <www.Allinplay.com>.

Price: $7.95 per month; quarterly and yearly plans are also available.

Products: Crazy Darts and Sonic Match

Manufacturer: BSC Games, c/o Justin Daubenmire, P.O. Box 3716, Boardman, OH 44513; phone:559-224-2436; e-mail: <sales@BSCGames.com> or <support@BSCGames.com> web site: <www.BSCGames.com>.

Price: Free.

GMA Tank Commander

Manufacturer: GMA Games, 245 Hillsdale Avenue East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4S IT7; phone:416-489-1933; e-mail: <davidgreenwood@gmagames.com> web site: <www.GMAGames.com>.

Price: $35.

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Copyright © 2004 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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