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Sound of Silence – Overwatch’s Lack of Gamer Accessibility

Gaming and accessibility is an important topic that comes up all too often. The subject is big enough there was an entire panel on it at PlayStation Experience. The topic even came up recently here at PCU, when discussing some irritation at Pokémon Sun & Moon. While Nintendo received the brunt of criticism for that faux pas, they are not alone in their inconsideration.

More recently, some gamers among the Deaf community have shown their frustration with Blizzard and the ever-popular Overwatch. While they praised the game for its visuals, character design, and mechanics, they noted the use of audio prompts and voice communication make things more difficult for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing players. While this could be mostly annoying in Quick Play or Arcade Mode, this design can be downright dangerous in Competitive mode where everyone needs to be on point at all times.

The biggest barrier apparently is the various sound cues throughout the game. The audible indicators when someone is using an ultimate ability (or even the ultimate itself) allow Hearing players to prepare or avoid the ability. Imagine not knowing about a fire in a hole or that it’s apparently midday before you decide to run into an area. Even the sounds of jetpacks, jingling chains, and running can be useful warnings that D/HH players miss.

Of course, the usual peanut gallery usually comes out to voice their opposition to the complaints. They question whether anyone should cater to “small portions” of the population or if people should simply accept when they are incapable of professional play. Others throw out the old fallacy, “Well if you get special treatment, then others should too!” As usual, these statements are completely ignorant and full of privilege, all too often voiced by those who are Hearing.

The real question is: what could Blizzard do?

Per some players, one simple answer is “captioning.” What if the words being said appeared on the screen in subtitles, allowing D/HH gamers to receive the same warning as others? Even drawn-out Ultimate abilities, like Junkrat’s Rip-Tire or Torbjörn’s Molten Core, could have some text indicating the on-going threat. Alternatively, even a flashing border on the screen might work. Perhaps it changes colors on if it’s a warning or the actual ability in effect, and lasts for the duration?

These are all great ideas, and yet Blizzard doesn’t seem to have responded. Some have noted that Blizzard hasn’t even been very Deaf friendly when it comes to subtitling their external media. In fact, Blizzard apparently disables Google auto-captioning, which is a rather exclusionary practice, and ignored requests for attention to the matter. Does Blizzard even care about the millions of D/HH gamers?

I love Overwatch. I’ve written about it many times. I’m also HH, even if I’m lucky enough to have enough hearing to recognize the audio cues. As an advocate for the Deaf community, this entire situation doesn’t sit well. To watch a gaming company in this age of technology and access completely ignore the voices of so many customers is disheartening.

Will Blizzard pay attention to gamer accessibility? Maybe if enough people bombard their forums with complaints, we’ll see as much attention as they’ve given requests for game mechanic changes. You would think if they could redesign an entire character, they could add something as simple as subtitles or visual warnings. Given Blizzard’s tendency to ignore the issue or pass the buck onto third-party programs… hopes aren’t high.

Players might simply have to wait on someone to create the right mod, before Blizzard implements anything.

About Brook H. (52 Articles)
Generalist, polymath, jack-of-all-trades... Brook has studied way too many subjects. With degrees in Human Behavior and Psychology, he has also majored in computers, business, and law and worked in administration, theater, security, 911/dispatch, and human services. Brook currently resides outside Baltimore where he tries to balance hobbies, work, local politics, and children. He's a Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing advocate, major gamer (from table-top to computer), studies parapsychology, and is a Horror-movie buff).

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