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Visually impaired players: The unseen inhabitants of Azeroth

The other night I was chatting to a friend of mine on Skype and she casually mentioned -- because she knows I play WoW -- that she was about to roll a character (Elfly) for the first time. Elfly had had an account for a while but had never been able to try it out while at university and now she has the whole summer stretching out in front of her. Yes, I suspect you know where this going, especially when she twittered a few hours later expressing her new-found love for Azeroth.

But there's a catch. Like me, Elfly is disabled. I'm a VIP (disabled shorthand for visually impaired person) and she's (in her own words) a blindy (shorthand for, well, a blind person). This means we play with our noses touching the screen and get lost. A lot. To give you an example for what the world (in-game or real) is like for me, nip to your nearest Azerothian tavern and quaff flagons of mead until you get completely smashed and the screen goes all blurry, alternatively just click here. Anyway, between the pair of us, we're so blind that we both think Blizzard should insert white canes and guide dogs in patch 3.3's game files. Though, given the game setting, maybe that should be an ornate white staff of sightlessness and a guide wolf?

Guiding Elfly around Shadowglen made me remember how hard the game was when I started and, at the same time, how ill-suited WoW is for visually impaired people. Especially as she kept asking where such and such a critter was. I have a mental map of most areas of WoW, which fails miserably when it comes to specific NPCs but is pretty good for mobs. It took a few minutes for Elfly to realise she needed to kill those nightsabers. However once she recognised a specific mob she was slaughtering like the best of them.

The unsung playerbase

My desire to play has forced me to ignore the lack of accessibility and just get on with it. However it's now come to a point, thanks to my ever deteriorating vision, where I just can't do that. The fact that Elfly peppers me with questions about how to do things in-game has also made me think about how Blizzard could improve the default UI. It's little things like the size of the quest text and fantasy font. Yes, it looks nice it's very difficult to read making even the most mundane kill x of y quest annoyingly difficult.

The fact is there are a lot of disabled players in Azeroth. We've interviewed several players with vastly different disabilities and Blizzard's own J. Allen Brack's has promised they intend to make the game more accessible to people. Indeed they've even started making good on that with the addition of a colour blind mode. Unfortunately while the game might rate highly for anyone with a physical disability, the fact remains, if you're visually impaired you have to look at AddOns or tinker with the default UI in order to be able to play without putting undue strain on your remaining vision.

A visual disability is a much bigger obstacle for computer games simply because no two people are the same and it can also affect how you play. I, for example, have no depth perception and have problems following past moving objects like mobs so I picked a caster class. Fortunately Druids also have that added hybrid flexibility which allowed me to try melee combat and ultimately spec Balance. However the issue of depth perception (and lack of) can cause plenty of problems. I've aggroed everything from trash to High King Maulgar and Gruul himself (and don't recommend it) simply because I was unsure of how far away I was. I crossed that invisible line which sets them off, causing a rather bloody wipe, a high repair bill and the ire of my guild mates.

Blind leading the blind

While the game world takes my breath away, from a VIP's point of view, the user interface is a disaster. The font in the chat boxes can be enlarged, but it is still way too small and while you can compensate by buying a bigger monitor or lowering the resolution. This is not a cheap or ideal situation, especially as I actually like to see where I am. The rest of the UI cannot be altered unless you know what you're doing or spend large amounts of time researching AddOns and this is not something for the beginner, much less someone on a ten day trial.

For example, while the action bar is handy and offers loads of extra slots, navigating them is a lot more complicated. It's okay if you have the various spells and icons tied to the number keys (everyone, repeat after me: 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2). But, rotations aside, there are only so many number keys. Assigning a second bar leads to confusion all manner of chaos mid-fight when you're trying to figure out why can can't cast a particular spell because you accidentally moved the mousewheel to another bar. Even trying to find a particular spell can be a nightmare and it would be so nice if they would double in size if moused over.

Yes, it's nice to have NPCs mapped on the minimap but that itself is pretty useless. Bigger is always better so never mind putting the icons on the large map itself, what about things like important NPCs, places to repair and sell goods, flight masters and trainers? Even better, the ? and ! icons above the heads of quest NPCs are great, could we have it for ones who will repair gear as well or buy trash for a meagre pocketful of gold?

The biggest problem for me personally is raiding. Picture this, if you will, we're mid-raid (10 is bad, 25 a nightmare) and someone dies. My raid leader pipes up: 'Combat rez on xxx now!' As the Druid, this means me and it's time to panic. Somewhere in the mass of moving targets, dead trash mobs and my valiant guild mates is a corpse. I've got to find and rez that corpse now and I have no idea where to find them. I usually yell for the raid leader to mark said fallen soul but it doesn't always happen. Welcome to my nightmare.

Then there's the instance factor. Getting to the bosses is half the problem. I used to regularly get lost in Karazhan (I suspect I'm not alone in this however) but I would also get lost in every other instance from Deadmines to Ulduar. I ended up with my own escort to guide me through the maze that was Medivh's Tower and I am now so glad that Blizzard have started implementing proper instance maps. They might just be the Wrath dungeons and instances for now but it's a start and a good one, certainly much better than map-based AddOn I've come across.

But the problem remains, Blizzard need to think about addressing the problems of visual impaired players and think about implementing changes which do not force us to look to AddOns and make basic game play more comfortable. It's not much to ask and I don't know of any AddOns specific to people with visual disabilities. It's my hope that with the release of 3.3 and the next expansion that Blizzard will make good on their promise to make WoW more accessible to everyone, both disabled and otherwise.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, Blizzard, Add-Ons, Features

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