AD4 Games: Working in an Interdisciplinary Team

by the research team of AD4 Games

The project took an interdisciplinary approach where audio describers, game developers, academics and participants with visual impairments worked collectively to produce and evaluate different styles of AD.

Interdisciplinary teams are fundamental to the design of new technologies and their efficacy within real world contexts. While interdisciplinarity should be embraced within research teams, it is also crucial to further such participation with the actors who may be affected by innovation. Thus, individuals and organisations should be consulted at all stages of technology design and development. Taking a ‘user-centred’ design approach that embraces democratic principles of inclusion and empowerment is necessary in order to produce innovations that are more representative of user’s needs.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach greatly strengthened the project in many ways. Most notable, was the ability to quickly receive feedback from people with varying perspectives on the different AD methods used. The audio describers could discuss the strengths and challenges of each method used, the game developer could then reflect on changes that could improve the audio describers experience, while the visually impaired participants were able to provide insight into their experience of the game throughout each AD method. All the while allowing the academics to collate and document the challenges and opportunities for each stakeholder and begin formulating guidelines for future game developers and audio describers.

Below, some of our project team members reflect on their experience working in an interdisciplinary environment.

Dr Xiaochun Zhang – Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies and Team Leader

“It has been a pleasure to lead and work with a team of very talented people with diverse backgrounds on such a multidisciplinary project. With shared goal and passion, we had thought provoking discussions, experimented various methods of providing AD for game streaming, and explored multiple solutions to making video games more accessible for visually impaired players from diverse angles and experiences. Knowledge is exchanged among academics, audio describers and participants with the user-centred research and game design approach.”

Dr Stuart Grey, Research Associate, Department of Computer Science

“This project addresses an under-represented group within video game research, visually impaired players. From our engagement with these groups within this project, it would suggest that this is reflected by accessibility shortcomings in the design of commercial games, and the subsequent marginalisation of these players. In exploring the concept of audio described games that leverage live streaming environments, we have begun to unpick some of the key barriers for visually impaired players. Moreover, we have produced a number of preliminary insights about the potential of audio described gameplay to tackle this.”

Dr Jane Devoy – Audio Describer

I normally write AD for film and TV so this was a new departure for me. Writing AD for a video game was a very different experience. The main difference was that the game is dynamic and changing each time a player plays it, rather than a pre-recorded, scripted video/film.

The first AD that I did was for a recorded game play so that was fixed, and I was able to describe it in the usual way. The main difference here was that there is very little dialogue and therefore a lot of screen time to describe. There was also lots of graphic detail to describe as well as movement. Hence it was very time consuming per programme minute.

When we were working on scripting a live play, I found this tricky because each time the game is played, it is different. As such I didn’t know if I had explored every space or narrative element when I played. At this point it was crucial to get the input from Claire the designer who was better placed to know all the content of the game. She made a useful spreadsheet and rough script of all the elements that needed describing then myself and Sonia edited and added to these as necessary.

In the end we were able to produce AD that vastly increases the accessibility of the game. In commercial terms, the barriers may be to do with compensating for the time it takes to AD a game. However, we discussed that if AD were integrated into the design of the game from the beginning, then it would be easier and potentially more effective.

This was a fascinating project and very important work, spearheaded by Xiaochun. It was great to work with such a talented and professional team and progress accessibility together in this new avenue.”

Claire Morwood – Game developer, 3-Fold Games

“Developing a solution to the challenge of implementing audio description in “Before I Forget” as part of the AD4G team was really exciting due to the multidisciplinary nature of the project. Working together with academics, audio describers and people with visual impairments allowed us to approach the challenge from a number of perspectives, and all of us were able to provide different ideas and insights into the design process. I personally found this very refreshing in terms of the approach to discussing implementation of various solutions to the game, and also enjoyed learning more about audio description during the project. I hope that I will be able to take some of this knowledge forward into my own future projects too.”

Mairi Deighan – Digital Health PhD student

“I thoroughly enjoyed my experience working in an interdisciplinary team on such a crucial and exciting project. Coming from a background in biomedical engineering I was new to the field of audio description and game development and found working with experts in both fields extremely valuable and insightful. Producing effective AD for video gaming is a highly under-researched and complex issue, this project has effectively uncovered key considerations that will hopefully inform and assist future game developers and audio describers in making gaming accessible for visually impaired and blind users.”

Dr Tanvir Bush – Visually-impaired Collaborator

“I am not nor have ever been a gamer.  It seems strange to me, as a lover of films, books, comics and graphic novels that I never side stepped into Final Fantasy or any of its ilk. I seemed to just miss that boat.

I remember in the mid-90’s, house sitting for a friend who had the latest Nintendo, whatever the thingy.  I was a film producer at the time and the film’s director popped over for a quick chat before work. He saw the gear and dove straight into a game – without a moment’s thought. I placed a cup of coffee next to him and went to work. When I came back 8 HOURS LATER, he was still sitting in front of the screen, coffee cold and untouched by his side.

What evil is this? I had thought. (Coffee is very important to me!) Why would I do that when there is so much else to get on with?

Now, added to the ‘why would I?’ is the fact that I am registered blind. I have a degenerative condition that causes a slow erosion of sight, starting in the peripheral vision and moving in.  I have had it for over 35 years and now have only have a very small tunnel of functional central vision that can blur or white out depending on the light. It also affects my light and colour vision as my rods and cones in the retina become damaged.

However, I am always game to help out a fellow researcher (see what I did there?). So, when Xiaochun asked me to be a participant in her study into audio described game play, I said yes.

The first time we experimented with the game, designed, and built by her team, I had someone audio describing live.  This was great fun as we were both finding our way. It also meant I could ask for help in real time when I got stuck, share jokes and thoughts about the game and experience.  That first iteration needed a few more sound clues and contrast, but we got through the game as a team.

Then later, I had a crack at the next iteration. Now the audio was embedded not live. There were more sound clues, better adaptations to help guide the VI gamer but I still kept getting stuck in space and wheeling around looking for something interesting to click on. I quickly become bored and slightly nauseated by the constant zooming in and out and searching.  I admit I am not the most dextrous when it comes to the controls.

In retrospect, I liked the teamwork aspect of being guided in real time and exploring the virtual world together. On my own, although I found the sound effects and contrast more conducive, I didn’t have enough curiosity to help push me past the places I was consistently getting stuck, and I didn’t have the energy to keep asking for help to get out or move on, so I bailed. This was partly because I had already played the game once. I knew the plot twists. But also, and importantly, because I felt more uncomfortable with my visual impairment.  Without a live guide, my blindness was more frustrating, and I lost my sense of humour.  In the actual world where I, and other disabled people, are constantly having to adapt, re-think, strategize and find workarounds, why would I want to go into a fantasy world where I experience the same?

I know that resolving this is exactly where Xiaochun and her team are heading so I hope my participation will be of use and perhaps in the next game we can have some kung-fu?”

Find out more about AD4 Games: making video games accessible for visually impaired players.