I've begun my research this week by investigating existing games which cater to visually impaired users, and my initial assessment is that this project is going to be problematic.
Three games I've considered are AudioQuake, Terraformers and AccessInvaders.
I had most success with AudioQuake as it allows the greatest degree of customisation, and hence control over the gameplay experience. I found it incredibly immersive to shut my eyes and concentrate on the audio in my headphones, trying to navigate around the space presented. I'd occasionally open my eyes to confirm that I was where I thought I was and most of the time I was right. It gave me some kind of impression of what life would be like without sight, and also suggested something of the aesthetics of audio gaming.
FPS games are clearly interesting for their physical action based largely around rapid navigation through space, and this is something that lots of us have probably enjoyed in the actual world as children as well as vicariously through film and games as adults. However, I have to wonder what kind of gaming pleasures are available to blind people. It would be great to speak to some blind gamers though to find out what games they like in the actual as well as virtual worlds. I guess they're less about gross but controlled movement and more about localised physical action, thought and imagination, but that's entirely the assumption of a fully-sighted person.
We might think in terms of Caillois' classic categories, ludus and paidia, and illinx (vertigo), mimesis, alea and agon. All of these basic forms are clearly available to blind gamers, though I wonder how effective audio computer games can be at stimulating illinx? The giddying excitement of fast movement through virtual worlds is a good example of the form this is found in visual computer games, but I wonder what is analogous in audio?
Perhaps we can learn something here from musicology. Some kinds of jazz or experimental music can perhaps produce a form of illinx (e.g., Mr Bungle), and the audio effects in Hollywood action movies can be evocative in themselves. Wouldn't it be reasonable to expect this to heightened if the user were interactively involved in the audioscape?
Access Invaders is an interesting case study as it has a different levels for blind players. In this mode the aliens group together in a single column and the player has to listen for where they (effectively as a singular entity) are. Again this makes me think that controlling the environment is an easy way to achieve accessibility (think about the bumpy surface in front of street that can be felt by people with sticks, or the changes we make to public buildings for wheelchair access). As a game it's not terribly exciting, though I was capable of adapting to the style of play. It has to be said that in the contemporary gaming age, even the classic Space Invaders isn't terribly exciting either. The only positive thing I can say about this game qua game is that it demonstrates 2D audio as a feedback device.
So much for the excitement of AudioQuake, I got even less enjoyment from the critically acclaimed Terraformers as I found the synthetic audio cues quite unpleasant to listen to. Personally I'd prefer more naturalistic or at least more integrated audio, that is, audio icons that bore more of a resemblance to what they represented rather than the current style of earcons. The obvious problem is what sound should a wall make to indicate it's presence? I found the low pitched throbbing to be quite evocative, and again musicology might be a good place to start for appropriate audio cues.
Access Invaders (Windows). Centre for Universal Access and Assistive Technologies, Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, Institute of Computer Science, Foundation for Research and Technology (Hellas, Greece: January 2006) <http://www.ics.forth.gr/hci/ua-games/access-invaders/> (Last accessed 19th October 2007).
AudioQuake 0.3.0rc1 ``glacier' (Windows). Accessible Gaming Rendering Independence Possible (27th June 2007) <http://www.agrip.org.uk/AudioQuake> (Last accessed 19th October 2007).
Terraformers (Windows). Pin Interactive (Norway: 2003) <http://www.terraformers.nu/> (Last accessed 19th October 2007).