Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Accessibility observations part 4

Today, I talk about the non-alphanumeric spray.

What is the non-alphanumeric spray? This is a phrase I came up with (and which I quite like) to describe one of those moments in a text-based game when the game suddenly prints something like this –


– or a row of 80 hyphens, or any other kind of solid run of characters that aren't letters or numbers.

The author might be using a spray for textual effect reasons. For example, to convey comic book or Q*bert-style swearing, or to present the output of a computer going berserk. Or the spray's purpose might be to provide visual formatting, like a row of hyphens used to draw an ascii line across the screen.

Most screen readers have configurable verbosity settings so that the user can control how much punctuation they want to have explicitly read out to them. For instance, at the most explicit level, a row of 80 hyphens would be read out as:

"Hyphen hyphen hyphen hyphen..." (80 repetitions – the user is likely to skip ahead once they get the idea, if they have the capability, but there will be circumstances in which they won't have the capability)

At the opposite end of the verbosity scale, this spray might be abbreviated or omitted altogether.

Like any player testing out what elements of a game's UI are important to them via experimentation, a screen reader user can set the verbosity to a level that gives them as much or little non-alphanumeric information as they need from your game. What is worth thinking about as an author is that (a) there will be circumstances and pieces of software in which users can't configure verbosity, and (b) that you might want to convey alternative information to vision-impaired players during spray moments – and if you do, what will it be?

Again, this is where having a screen reader mode in your game can help. Ask the player if they want this mode on at boot time, and if they do, then you can customise spray stuff throughout your game accordingly. What I did in Leadlight Gamma in this regard was to strip out excess punctuation and any ascii visual formatting. The combat prose in particular is normally full of asterisks, plus signs and hyphens; I suppressed those for screen readers. I also chopped out screen dividing ascii content. In other cases, I actually went the other way, expanding abbreviated questions so that they'd be read out more nicely in English.

The more esoteric the use of your spray, the more creative you might need to be in your alternate solution. To return to the computer going berserk example, maybe you think you would like the player to hear something like 'Exclamation hyphen exclamation open parentheses exclamation...' (times 20) at this particular moment in the game, to convey the berserkness. But remember that if user software verbosity is set to low, such content could effectively disappear. So it's probably wiser to come up with an alternate piece of English prose to convey the berserkness and drop that in instead if the player has turned on screen reader mode.

I think I've got one or two more small episodes to come in this series.

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