Mandi Bundren's launch-day purchase of the Nintendo Switch came with an added bonus: She could play with her husband, Rich Maroney, who is blind.
Maroney, 38, lost his sight in 2002 due to diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of vision impairment among working-age adults, according to the National Eye Institute. He met his wife, a teacher of visually impaired K-12 students, at the end of her internship at an adult rehabilitation center. From the beginning, they shared a love of games, but there were very few Maroney could join in on. Maroney used to love Resident Evil, but like most titles, he can't play it without his vision.
"My wife gets to play Zelda," Maroney said. "I'm relegated to playing a blindness-specific game on my computer."
1-2-Switch, a party game that was released with the Switch on March 3, was different.
1-2-Switch contains minigames that don't require watching the screen at all. Most ask you to look at your opponent instead, using a combination of audio cues and haptic feedback — when your controller vibrates in response to something in the game — to guide you. In the minigame Safe Crack, for example, players are tasked with rotating the controller to recreate the sensation of opening a locked safe.
Maroney and Bundren, 36, were able to play 22 of the 28 challenges included in the party game.
"One of my favorites was Quick Draw," Maroney said. "It gives you a little vibration right when it says 'fire,' so I'm able to react to it quickly."
The couple can also play Table Tennis, Ball Count and Shave, which requires players to (virtually) buzz hair off the face.
"I actually have a beard, and that one's nothing like actual shaving," Maroney said. "But it's fun for her."
Then there's the game where you coddle a baby until it falls asleep. "Rich was like, 'Hmm, I'll pass,'" Bundren said, laughing.
Visually impaired gamers want to play too
Most games are made only for people who can see. The biggest titles of the past year — think Call of Duty, FIFA and Horizon Zero Dawn — rely on astounding visuals to enthrall and entertain. Games also tend to reward players who can see very well. Even colorblindness brings about severe limitations: Overwatch's colorblind mode, for example, is a disastrous psychedelic fever dream — it's borderline unplayable.
By ignoring the visually impaired community, the gaming industry is arguably leaving money on the table. There are about 7.4 million people with a visual disability in the U.S. alone, according to the National Federation of the Blind. 6.9 million are between 16 and 75.
"There's definitely a market for blind gamers wanting to play mainstream games," said Karl Belanger, a technology specialist for the National Federation of the Blind. Belanger has been visually impaired since birth.
There's a whole genre of video games that cater to the visually impaired. AudioGames, an online community for blind gamers, has over 16,000 users and over 250,000 posts on its forums. Maroney plays multi-user dungeon (known as MUD) computer games like Cyber Assault and Alter Aeon, which offer text-based adventures that translate well to audio-only mode, putting blind and sighted gamers on an even playing field. "Nine times out of 10, you aren't even able to tell that you're playing with a blind person," Maroney said.
Haptic feedback is a major accessibility innovation. So is audio.
There are a few features game companies add to their titles to better accommodate the visually impaired. Haptic feedback is a big one. Nintendo touts the Switch's Joy-Con controllers and their HD Rumble technology as an innovative new version of the vibration feature included in game controllers. For example, Nintendo's more precise haptic feedback can simulate ice cubes entering the controller in a minigame — you can actually feel the "cup" fill with water. One 1-2-Switch minigame even asks you to guess how many virtual metal balls are rolling around inside each Joy-Con based solely on feel.
While PlayStation and Xbox controllers also offer haptic feedback in their respective controllers, few games rely solely on the feature. 1-2-Switch's minigames may seem like silly diversions, rather than serious gaming experiences, but they put blind and sighted players on an equal playing field.
The other subtle innovation in 1-2-Switch is its use of audio. The baseball minigame, for example, uses vibration and a whistle that increases in volume to tell you when to swing. That's a rare feature: Most mainstream, non-text-based games do little to accommodate audio-only play. When they do, it's by coincidence. One particularly stunning example is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which offers sufficient sound cues for blind players to make their way through the game's complex dungeons, as blind YouTuber MegaTgarrett demonstrates here:
What developers can do to make games friendlier to people with disabilities
There are easy ways for developers to make their titles more accessible. One example is a text-to-speech gameplay option that could work with tactile feedback and proper audio assistance. A system like this would go far to let the visually impaired play new titles — not just a multiplayer game like 1-2-Switch, but single-player releases that aren't specifically for the blind, like Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
"Game developers provide custom experiences for people with different sets of skills all the time," said Brian Bors of Stichting Accessibility, a Dutch research institute that highlights accessible video games. "These difficulty settings could certainly include experiences tailored to gamers with disabilities and would greatly increase their potential market."
For example, "subtitles are slowly becoming an industry standard," Bors said. "Complete controller/input customization for console games should be one of the next big steps, but [it] needs the help of console manufacturers because they impose certain limitations in this regard."
"Most of the time, such solutions need to be thought of only once, after which they can be used in multiple games," he added.
Certain genres of games, however, are just naturally more accessible. Fighting games, for example, have proven popular among blind gamers due to their sound cues and relatively smaller 2-D stages. Blind players have even competed in Mortal Kombat tournaments.
"I play a lot of 2-D fighting games, relying only on audio," Belanger said. Rich Maroney still loves Tekken and Tekken 2.
Accessibility isn't just for the visually impaired
"Accessibility, in a lot of cases, helps sighted gamers too," Belanger said. "Madden, for example, could have a mode where the receiver listens to a defender's footsteps — letting you listen to see when you should react."
Haptic feedback can be beneficial to the visually impaired and the sighted alike. While some accessibility improvements are explicitly for the blind, others lead to simply more immersive gameplay. Dr. Lofti Merabat of Harvard Medical School points to a now-defunct 2008 PC gaming accessory called the Novint Falcon controller.
"It was a true force-feedback device," he said. "Shooting a gun [in-game] actually led to recoil, or if you got hit you'd feel the force in your hand. Whereas the vibrate feature on a Wii Remote is just an alarm."
The Joy-Con is a good step forward, but Maroney isn't asking for new controllers, the next Novint Falcon or anything fancy. Just a few small steps in the right direction.
"It doesn't take that much to put voice acting in your game," Maroney said. "It's not that difficult to script a narrated menu. ... Obviously, the blind community isn't a huge market, but it's still a market ... [and it] would be nice to see a game system reach out to us."