They have come together to explore how they can enjoy the same video-games as their sighted peers, and press developers to make gaming software more accessible.
Set up by national sight loss charity Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), members of the group are taking part on a weekly online call, sharing their own experiences of gaming and which games they've found most accessible.
"They're an incredibly motivated and positive bunch, and I'm very excited to see where they take things," said James Kyle, RNIB Scotland's community connection co-ordinator. "Already the group are discussing ways to play games together outside of the weekly meetings, making YouTube content for their own channels, and possibly fundraising as a group for RNIB as well."
However, the majority of video games at present aren't accessible to players with sight loss, says James, although this does vary.
There are more accessible games on iPhone and iPad than on PlayStation and Xbox game consoles, for instance, he explains. "But thankfully, the situation is improving. In the past few years, a number of big games have added narrated menu-systems, more flexible 'difficulty options', and more audio-cues to convey extra information to the visually impaired player.
"The current leader is 'The Last of Us, Part 2', an action game released this year for the PlayStation 4 game console. It incorporates audio cues, high-contrast modes, and gameplay adaptations to offer blind players a similar experience to that of a fully sighted player.
"The developer, Naughty Dog, invited the disabled gaming community, including blind and partially sighted gamers, to test and provide feedback on the new features they were developing. As a result, the suite of accessibility features and options were far more useful to disabled players."
New technology should by its very nature be adaptable to different people's needs, says James. Text can be enlarged, colour contrast enhanced, audio description and cues added. "People with sight loss can already enjoy accessible books, films and television thanks to new technology - so why not video-games?
"We already have a broad mix of people joining our group, from those with a lot of useful vision to people with none at all. Your level of sight, of course, can significantly affect which games are accessible. We want our group to be inclusive to not only experienced gamers but people who have never played before as well and are looking for a place to start."
Fiona Joyce, RNIB Northern Ireland’s community connection coordinator, said: “Our new VI Gaming group consists of a broad mix of people from those with a lot of useful vision to people with none at all.
"At our final meeting in 2020 the group drew up their wish list for 2021 and have lots of exciting plans including inviting representatives from the gaming industry to speak at the group meetings.”
* For further information about the RNIB Visually Impaired Gaming Group, phone RNIB’s helpline on: 0+44 303 123 9999; or (in Scotland) contact James Kyle on +44 7552 170 413 or email email@example.com; (in Northern Ireland)
David Barry (28) from Bangor in Northern Ireland
David helped set up the group in November after losing his sight at the age of just 25. The father of three, who has a rare sight condition called keratoconus, hopes that the group will provide a much-needed social space for gamers to share their own experiences of gaming and discuss games they've found most accessible. He also wants to challenge software developers to consider blind and partially sighted people when designing new games.
David, now 28, explains: “Having only recently lost my sight, I hated the thought of losing my hobbies as well. My entire social life is around gaming and I worried my sight loss was going to stop me from having a social life.
“The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has many groups, so I spoke to RNIB Connect’s Fiona Joyce to see if there was a gaming group. There wasn’t, but she reached out to colleagues and before we knew it, she had helped set up the gaming group with RNIB Connect in Northern Ireland and Scotland!”
David says everything is online for younger generations and they’re getting into gaming a lot younger. “I want to ensure I keep that connection with my children as well,” said David, “and show other parents with sight loss that they can do the same.”
As a huge fan of the game Clash of Clans, David recently reached out to its creators Supercell to ask them to make their games more accessible.
“My new year wish list involved contacting Supercell. I thanked them for the experience they’ve given us gamers but asked them to make their app more accessible and I even offered the group’s help in doing that for their apps. They don’t seem to notice, but blind people are spending more and more time on their phones. "Technology is the way forward. You shouldn’t be left out of this new online world just because you are blind.”
David plays on anything from Amazon’s Alexa to smartphones, the computer and the PS5 and believes the essence of the new VI (visually impaired) gaming group is about bringing people together. Over Christmas, David tried to get in touch with celebrity VI gamer Brandan Cole who helped developers create the game The Last of Us Part 2 – hailed as the most accessible game for players with sight loss.
The game incorporates audio cues, high-contrast modes, and gameplay adaptations to offer blind players a similar experience to that of a fully sighted player. David succeeded and Brandan is set to give a talk to the group about playing and accessibility in the near future.
Brandon said: “Video games are one of the greatest forms of entertainment in the world today. From videogames come larger than life experiences, vast open worlds, and incredible stories. Everyone, including the totally blind, deserve access to all those things and more, and that’s why I do what I do. Games should be for everyone, and I will continue to do my part to make that a reality.”
Iain Strachan (56) from Glasgow
Iain is registered partially sighted and is a long-cane user. "I have lost about 50 per cent of my sight since this happened four years ago," says Ian. "I have been a gamer for 30 years, playing personal computer and console games and I've recently started a You Tube channel called 'Part sighted gamer', playing sighted and part-sighted gamers.
"I look forward to our weekly Visually Impaired Gamers meeting where we can all share out thoughts on games what we are all playing and have a chat. It's good to talk to fellow gamers about the hurdles of been visual impairment and trying to find accessible games. I hope we can build our group and keep it going in the future."
Emma McLean (30) from Kilmarnock
Emma has no sight. "I feel comfortable around the Visually Impaired Gaming Group as I can share things. We all listen to and understand each other, even if we all have different degrees of sight loss. I really do feel a part of the group.
"When I had my sight, I loved video games. It was Final Fantasy 8 that got me into role-playing games. I really like fantasy games because I feel I am a part of that world and can throw myself into the characters and be anything I want to be.
"I also like it when you can create your character and make what you want them appear to be. But that’s the designing part of me, as I like to give the character a new outfit or look.
"I guess that’s why I would love to make my own video game. I have created the story but need help to take it forward."