October 16, 2015

"Blind Lady Versus" - Elsa S. Henry on Low-Vision Gaming (GeekGirlCon 2015)

Elsa S. Henry was able to achieve a nearly full house for her panel, “Blind Lady Versus”, at Geek Girl Con this year. In anticipation, the crowd of people, mostly strangers to one another, sat quietly. Unbeknownst to us, however, we’d all get to know one another in fast time as developers, press members, and game enthusiasts alike. What lay ahead of us, besides an interesting talk on the trials and triumphs of gaming with low vision, was an experience that opened our minds and gave us something to smile about, all thanks to the warm, funny Elsa.
Blind Lady Versus
Wheeled into the room by some of the volunteer staff, Elsa was (and still is, for consistency’s sake) blind in one eye and low-vision in the other, thick glasses over her nose. She briefly introduced herself and her accessibility issues. “So,” she began, “There are adjustable controls [in games] so you can make sure that things are brighter or darker and you can have more contrast; you might as well give it a shot. It turns out that I actually did quite well at Tomb Raider [using them]...One of the things that I really liked about Tomb Raider and that I tweeted about obsessively was the fact I could touch a single toggle and suddenly I had what’s called Hunter’s Sight in the game and all of the enemies that I needed to shoot, who were in the dark, glowed...Borderlands is great because not only do all of the guns make bright colors, but they also have really brightly colored sights and most of them are really large. There are other games that do not have these features, which are much more challenging for me. One example is certainly any of the Call of Duty games...”

“I posted Tweets under #BlindLadyVersus, and it was basically a three-week journey into what it was like for me to play this one game… So, #BlindLadyVersus has covered a whole bunch of different video games. I’ve done Dishonored, I’ve done the Borderlands games, I’ve done Tomb Raider games, I’ve done Dragon Age, Mass Effect, I quit Mass Effect 1 because there was a driving mission and that was evil. I’ve done both Portal and Portal 2. I’m never doing that to myself again as a full playthrough.”
"Portal is a really good example of 'Make Elsa Swear'."
Getting In-Depth, and The Power of Sound
“People really responded to it,” Elsa reflected with a grin. “...being able to see, being able to understand spatial physics, being able to use hand-eye coordination, something that’s very important for video games, and you also need to be able to react quickly to what you’re seeing. All of that is really challenging for me.” Elsa quickly asked the room shortly thereafter if they had played the Portal series. A high majority raised their hands. “Imagine you don’t have depth perception! Yeah. There are a lot of games that...actually require depth perception. It’s not just Portal, although Portal is a really great example... Games that [also] require depth perception include Assassin’s Creed, in which you actually need to be able to guess how far a character needs to jump, and while it’s all on a screen, it actually does matter whether or not you can gauge distances, because I can’t even gauge it on a 2D screen.”

The inquiry was brought up as to games that were able to really nail sound components. Elsa came up with an example right away - Gone Home, a game I have yet to play. “The sound in Gone Home was really well done and actually helped me play the game better,” Elsa said in regards to the sound. “Gone Home is a narrative game, so you’re not playing it for the visual, running around and shooting things, but I think it does actually cater to people with low vision... With the sound components, it actually made it more compelling in the terms of the way they told that story.” She followed this up by mentioning that for her, audio components most definitely make or break the game and the experience of it.
"My Sim Can't Have a Cataract"
Having just gotten out of two panels on inclusion and representation of minority groups, I was quick to ask if Elsa knew of any good representations of the visually impaired. The answer I got was one that I wasn’t expecting at all, and one that excited me greatly. “...you should definitely read my role-playing game Dead Scare that’s coming out next year,” she said, “There are blind people fighting zombies with white canes.”

Within the answer to another question, Elsa brought up another issue in inclusion. “The Sims has been around since I was in college…? High school.” She described how one person could build their entire family in The Sims, but she couldn’t. “My Sim can’t have a cataract. She doesn’t have a hearing aid. [...] The fact that The Sims doesn’t have wheelchairs or accessibility aids or anything like that makes it feel like you can’t play a disabled person, and it’s really frustrating.”

Elsa ended her answer to my question with a very sobering call to action: “I think that people need to talk to people with disabilities in order to tell our stories in a more diverse and representative way. I feel like a lot of representation now is either super inspiring or it’s just something that you can take off because it’s a character piece. I think that’s what I really encourage creators to do: tell stories about actual people, and not just the archetype.”
Blind Lady Versus Rocket League (feat. The Magic of Panel Hype)
Following this, Elsa proceeded to load up and play some Rocket League on a PlayStation, the audience cheering her on and giving her tips on where to go or where the ball was. We cheered and groaned all together, many people moving to the front row where I was sitting to cheer her on and take pictures. “This is why my screenname on all my games is ‘Blind Lady’,” she retorted after the end of a goal against her. After a few losses (and one very, very satisfying win), Elsa put the controller down as the time for the panel ran out. A fellow in the next row, a game developer, began exchanging information with her. I smiled to a new friend that I’d made, who had sat down next to me during the game. That’s part of the magic of these panels, especially those where people learn to come together and understand one another; Everyone leaves with a little more warmness to themselves and to those around them.

I want to extend an extra-special THANK YOU to Elsa S. Henry for turning up to the convention and giving a fantastic, funny panel. If you want to poke her on Twitter, you can do so HERE. Thanks for reading, see you guys on Monday!

As well, a thank-you to Misty Jackson for typing up the 2,500-word transcript of Elsa's entire panel!

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