Accessibility in Video Games - Hearing

24 July 2012

This group is more than just the Deaf. It includes people who use hearing aids as well, since most hearing aids do not work well with headphones and commercial electronics. Sometimes, there's feedback. Sometimes, they pick up too much. Some people that wear hearing aids are still deaf to certain pitches, no matter how much they crank them up.

As a side benefit, it includes anyone who forgets their headphones at home at least once a week, like yours truly.


Your cut scenes and dialog should always, always have subtitles. Many developers like to simply put the text at the bottom of the screen, with no background. This can be an issue if your text is light, but you have a scene where it happens to be snowing. You can either test every single scene to make sure your contrast remains high, or you can use banding.

Screenshot of a snowy scene. The white text at the bottom is almost impossible to read.

If you use banding, you put a band of color at the bottom of the screen that's used exclusively for captioning. Ideally, it would be placed below your screen, not covering part of the screen, so that the user isn't missing out on any of the action.

A snowy scene, with the captions in a box beneath the game. The text reads: See? This is better. Everyone can read this!

A few notes about styling: If you can, let people customize this. Me, I'm a white-background-dark-text person, but I know others who hate that combination. Also, ALL CAPS ARE BAD. DO NOT USE THEM.

Another side-benefit of using subtitles: If your voice acting is cringe-worthy, I can mute it. I've had to do this with so many triple-A titles, it's not funny.

Good captions

Good captioning is not transcribing. Usually, in games, since there's a script, this isn't an issue. When people speak off the cuff, they pepper their language with mis-fires, um's, er's, and restarts. An actor probably isn't going to do this unless someone's trying to be super edgy.

However, there is one place where I've seen captioning go off the rails: wordiness. People can only read so fast, so try to keep the words on screen down around ten to twelve. After all, they need time to read and watch the action. This might mean cutting words out of a particularly verbose scene.

Also, make it clear who's speaking. Adding their name to the text can get a bit bulky, so a common solution is to use a slightly different font color for the different speakers. Just remember to keep an eye on color contrast. Does that dark green look different enough from that dark red? Just because someone has issues with hearing doesn't mean that can't be color blind, too!


Also, dialog isn't the only important thing going on in your game. Off-screen cues are incredibly important. True story: the first time I played Plants vs. Zombies, I played it on my Touch with the sound off. I thought it was a pretty easy game until the stage where they introduced balloon zombies. I felt like it jumped several levels in difficulty. What the hell?! It wasn't until I put my headphones on that I realized how important the off-screen sounds were. Hearing the balloon fill up with air was a cue for me to start laying down cacti. Without it, I was suddenly stunned when I was being bombed with zombies behind my lines of defense.

If you have an off-screen cue, make sure you caption it, or at least add a visual bell that can be turned off and on. With PvZ, I would have added an icon that would flash with the a zombie icon whenever a zombie made a noise off-screen. If the balloon icon flashed, then I would know to start adjusting my strategy.

Screenshot of Plants vs Zombies, with where I would put a sound icon circled.

Voice chat

Live transcription is a long way off, so if your game features voice chat, a deaf user is probably going to miss out on that. We can live with that for now (though do keep an eye on that technology).

If you offer voice chat, though, make sure to offer text chat as well. Yes, they'll still be missing out on some of the game content, but at least there'll be a way for them to talk to others, and have them talk to others.


Remember how I said that hearing aids pick up everything? That's one of the biggest complaints I've heard from those that depend on them, and it's one of the main reason why they get turned off. My grandmother only wore hers if she absolutely had to, and my father-in-law switches his off whenever he's out of the house. All sounds are blasted at equal volume, whether it's the person sitting across from you, or someone dropping a glass from the other side of the restaurant.

Someone wearing a hearing aid may want to turn off your ambient sounds. Most games include a slider for sound effects, but that includes important sounds, like the sound of a creeper walking up behind you. Consider adding a slider for environmental sounds, like water, wind, or merchants chattering, and then another slider for important ambient clues, like monster growls, clues for quests, or signs that you're running out of life.

Next Time

The physically disabled!


Related tags: 508 pygame


1 Ermoss says...

You seem to have forgotten the most common solution for improving subtitle contrast: add an outline, or heavy shadow below the text in a contrasting color. Typically, this is white text over a black outline, but you'll often see yellow on black on DVD subtitles.

Posted at 6:09 p.m. on July 24, 2012

2 Katie says...

@ Ermoss:

There's one problem with that solution: if the bottom of the screen gets busy, it goes right back to being unreadable.

Posted at 9:35 a.m. on July 25, 2012

3 Ricky says...

I agree, there is not enough thought put into games regarding the physically disabled. And to be honest I can see it getting even worse.

I think developers should start having 'options' in the game settings for accessibility (some may have already) because personally I don't want/need captions and it would annoy me if part of the screen had a white background.

Posted at 4:52 a.m. on April 24, 2013

Comments are closed.

Comments have been closed for this post.