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Subtitles: Increasing Game Accessibility, Comprehension

February 5, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

There's no doubt that video games are popular. Sales are continually growing, with individual titles selling in their millions. Wii Fit, for example, has sold over 8 million copies while Halo 3 sold over 1.8 million copies during the first eight hours of release! Lord knows how many units it has currently managed, but we can be safe to assume it's many millions more.

Now, out of those millions of sales, we can easily assume that the people who buy the games are not going to be identical. There are a high number of players out there who have some kind of disability. And video games should be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

One such disability, which is actually surprisingly common, is hearing impairment. Whether the player is completely deaf, or just has some kind of hearing issue, the game should be able to accommodate them -- and the simplest way to do this is through the use of subtitles.

Before we get into the grit of games and subtitles though, let's have a quick look at the stats. In the developed world alone, the belief is that the number of hearing-impaired people will reach 215 million in 2015. Of those, some 90 million will be Europeans.

According to the Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI) which published a study in 1971, 8.6% of the U.S population was either deaf or hard of hearing. That accounted for approximately 20,295,000 out of a total population of 235,688,000 at the time. No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of people, and with the population of the U.S now around 300 million, we can be assured that the number of people with hearing issues has also grown.

It would be good if we could put this into a gaming context, too. Asking how many of those people play (or will play) video games should put things into perspective. If we take an extremely conservative figure of that 215 million; say 2%, then that gives us a figure of approximately just over 4 million! Again, that's a lot of people.

The State of Things

So what is the state of subtitles within the gaming industry, then? Well, to be honest, the majority of games do have subtitles. We can even go back to early games on the old 8-bit machines such as the Spectrum and Commodore 64 and see subtitles in the games. Although, to be fair, they were the only way the story could be conveyed to the player, as sound hardware wasn't sophisticated enough to produce speech...

However, today we see companies such as Ubisoft openly stating that subtitles are going to be in all of their future in-house games and you can guarantee that many others will follow suit.

The important thing to note about subtitles is that it's not only players who are hard of hearing that use them. All players find them useful, as it gives them the ability to:

  1. Read information, so they are not confined to having to wait to hear important information
  2. Reinforce information when ambient sound in the outside world interferes.

The problem I have with subtitles in video games is that there does not appear to be any guidelines that developers follow. As a result of this, I often come across some which I cannot read due to color clash, or they are too small, or a number of other problems.

This is in direct contrast to the television and film industry, which follows quite strict guidelines to ensure the user gets the full experience. At first the television corporations were only putting subtitles on a few select programs but this is rapidly changing. The BBC, for example, committed to subtitling 100% of BBC TV programs -- 95% of BBC One and BBC Two are already subtitled, and 80% of BBC Three, BBC Four, CBBC, CBeebies and the BBC News channel. Pretty impressive, when you think about it.

However, when it comes to television, there are general standards that media companies must follow. In the UK, for example, there are standards dictated by Ofcom which put forward a strict set of guidelines that all broadcasters must follow.

Some of these are:

  • Subtitling should use the Tiresias Screenfont, which was designed for ease of reading on digital screens.
  • Subtitles on standard definition DTT services should be no less than 20 television lines for the capital letter "V".
  • Subtitles should be placed within the "safe caption area" of a 16:9 display and should normally occupy the bottom of the screen, except where they would obscure the speaker's mouth or other vital information or activity.
  • Pre-prepared block subtitles should be used for pre-recorded programs.
  • Recommended colors are white, yellow, cyan and green against a solid black background to provide the best contrast.
  • Subtitles should normally comprise a single sentence occupying no more than two lines, unless three lines will not obscure the picture. Line breaks within a word must be avoided.
  • Where the source of speech is not immediately apparent, the first subtitle should have a caption to label the source.
  • Different colors should be used to denote different speakers.
  • The speed should not normally exceed 160 to 180 words per minute for pre-recorded programs. Slower speed and more heavily edited subtitles are appropriate for young children.
  • The word "Subtitles" should be displayed legibly on the screen at the start of the program.

Ofcom places such high importance on accessibility that it has also introduced "Audio Description" in its subtitles -- which is like a narrator telling a story, including additional commentary which describes body language, expressions and movements -- allowing you to hear what you might not be able to see, so the viewer doesn't miss anything.

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Louis Paquin
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Excellent list of guidelines. Point #4 about HD TVs vs standard TVs ring especially true, after both Dead Rising and Banjo-Kazooie ran into heavy trouble with their tiny subtitle fonts.

Valve's Half-Life 2 is the undisputed leader for subtitles - every single person who has to implement subtitles in their game should play that game with subtitles on and learn!

Reid Kimball
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Excellent guide sir Gareth! I had not considered guide "#8. Separate button for control" before, but it is a good one.

I am a close captioning advocate, designed the Doom3[CC] mod, which adds captions for dialog, music and sound effects. If anyone wants to see many of the guidelines Gareth suggests put into action please view this video of my mod in action:

I never knew of Gareth before reading this article, but we follow many of the same guidelines. Just goes to show how good and common sense they are I think.

Note: Subtitles cover only dialog, while closed captions cover the full spectrum of sound, including dialog, music and sound effects.

In games, sound effects are just as important, if not more so than subtitles because they can communicate vital feedback for players.

Keep up the good work Gareth.

Dave Endresak
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Great summary of many points I have made over the years covering one of my biggest pet peeves with the game industry.

I'd like to add one point: use subtitles rather than replacing / redubbing the spoken dialogue, including any movie cut scenes within the game. This is my biggest complaint; there's simply no need to redub in other languages, or at least no need to ONLY offer redubbed voices (not with the technology and space we've had since the late 1990s anyway). Even if the original acting is "bad" I'd prefer hearing the original, thank you. I'm particularly annoyed when Japanese games have their voices redubbed, of course, but this point applies to any language.

Film and TV have finally gotten onto the subtitle bandwagon but it's taken a very long time for them to do so. Imported films, including specific genres such as Japanese anime, have learned good and bad methods of subtitling over the years, and Hollywood and other film bastions have finally made subtitling more the rule than the exception. It would be better for the gaming industry to be much more proactive about this issue.

One example of poor subtitles... Bioshock. (sigh) There's no excuse for such a shoddy job on timing. There's plenty of people out of work (like me) who would be very happy to edit and time subtitles for companies.

Blaire Brown
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I swear the last three are most important to me as someone HoH. I can't tell you how many DVDs and even TV shows I watch where captions, subtitles, and the speech don't match AT ALL and it drives me insane. Then there's the caption writers who like to get creative/cute with their translations (I'm looking at you anime translators) and I feel like I'd be better off just turning the CC off and winging it in my head.

John Bannick
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Kudos for an instructive article!

We've added CC to our new games (the older ones had subtitles) precisely because of on-point information such as you present here, and from some very useful guidance from Reid Kimball, above.

John Bannick


7-128 Software

Dan Robinson
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I'm surprised that they don't do this for sports games. I would imagine it would be easy to tag captions on to the commentary. In Madden 09 closed captioning would be very helpful since the announce team provides excellent feedback on player performance. Closed captioning would allow hearing impaired gamers access to the same feedback.

Maurício Gomes
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I loved this article! Specially because I get deeply annoying by games without subtitles...

First, I am not a native english speaker, for a long time I could only read and write english, never hear (because I never heard most of the words, thus I have no idea of how they sound like, and in fact there are several words that I still do not heard), thus games without subtitles screwed me, since I had to hear the cut-scene like 3 or 4 times before getting what word was that the person was saying, but since most of the games has no way to replay cut-scenes (Sands of Time I am looking to you... that do not has subtitles too...) I was pretty much lost in the storyline, something sad, since I enjoy VG stories...

After that problem was not a major program anymore, I have another problem: even in my own langauge, sometimes if there are more sounds than the spoken words, my brain fail to understand (ie: I hear everything perfectly, I am not deaf, it is like a auditive dyslexia to heard words instead of written words), and some games are particularly guild of having characters with bizarre accents, or wall of sound in the middle of conversations, and no cut-scenes.

And yes, Mass Effect button was evil... In fact MOST RPGs still use the SAME button to skip dialog (spoken, subtitled or only textual CRPG-like), and to initiate a dialog...

But any game should take care for that sort of unwanted actions to happen, like games that the camera suddenly inverts itself so fast that you get stuck in a infinite loop of going back and forth (with the camera switching too) with the only way to this not happen was take a action that do not need the button pressed for the character cross the line (like jumping or rolling), and such are really common in 3D games (Sands of Time, I am looking to you again, the multiple-door level... ow, and that one was also guilty of the soluting being hearing a certain sound in a certain place, and I was playing with my parents sleeping and turned off sounds, since the game had a tendency of have sound bugs that made sounds in the maximum volume sometimes... Since it had no closed captioning, I had to expend 1 hour to solve that by pure trial and error...)

Wylie Garvin
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If I recall correctly (its been a few months since I played it)... there were actually two buttons that could skip dialogue in Mass Effect. One of them would also select from the menu, but the other one did not.

It was still a bogus design decision though.

Another annoyance was that if you tried to press the skip button near the end of a line of dialog, you might end up accidentally pressing it right after the start of the next line instead. They should have implemented a short window at the beginning of each dialogue line (perhaps 400 ms) during which, if the previous line of dialog finished playing normally (i.e. it wasn't skipped), then the first skip button press during the window would do nothing. That would solve the problem, without preventing people from zipping through dialogue they had heard before.

Dave Endresak
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If Western designers wanted to be really user-friendly about dialogue options, they would include fast forward options like the Japanese adventures, simulations, and visual novels do. These games have included options to set fast forward to skip all dialogue that has already been experienced, or even all dialogue between decision points regardless of whether it has been seen or not. In addition, the fast forward option is normally turned on or off at will from an in-game menu button, making it very easy to play and replay the game at your own pace. Another common option is the ability to alter the opaqueness of the txt box (for adventure and simulation games) or the opaqueness of the background (for visual novels). Such options allow the player to adjust the game for their individual comfort level rather than being forced to accept settings that the designers deem to be "comfortable."

Gareth Griffiths
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Many thanks for all your comments. Once again you have given me much to think about.

One of the new games which I find really handles subtitles and cut-scenes very well is Fable 2. Here the user is able to hold down the A button to skip scenes. This is actually very useful because it can help minimise accidental pressing due to button mashing but also give the user control to skip the entire scene.

Bradley Meyer
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Excellent article. We've been pushing for hearing-impaired support at our studio for a couple years now, and are finally working on a system as well.

While I think close-captioning is a good start to inform hearing-impaired players of actions within the game, it inherently a). lacks positionality, and b). can take up lots of screen real estate. Much of this information can be relayed to the player through the interface. Our Project Lead has pointed out Metal Gear Solid 4's threat radar as a good example of a visual- based closed captioning system, where a circle around the player contains peaks of varying sizes based on threats near the player. If there's a large spike behind the player, they'll know they need to turn around as an enemy (or other POI) is there. The possibilities for extending this scheme to transmit other information to the player are immense. Even closed-captioning could be used to communicate positioning data, and that's really the point: to give hearing impaired players the chance to experience the game as closely as we envision for all players.

Rochelle Basilieres
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Very thorough article. Very few companies have actually thought or yet supproted those with special needs in the Gaming industry. You are completely right that was IS being done to date still requires alot of refinement to become user friendly, and better the gaming experience, iknstead of detracting from it.

Our company has developed a technology that can also help both hearing and sight sensitive individuals get back another dimension to their game playing through the additon of Motion. We have created a method of adding motion to games that allows the player to experience the subtle and not so subtle pitch, roll, heave, and intelligent vibrations produced by the game, to get you right inside the action of the game, as if you're really there. In essence, they will be able to feel the effects within the game, instead of having to hear them.

We are very excited about what this new tehcnology to can bring to the gaming experience. Check out our Web site for more details, or to find out how we do it.

David Moreau
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I'm using captions in the game I'm playing through now simply because the voices don't stand out from the background noise, and one character has a very thick accent and heavy slang, and I can't understand a word he is saying otherwise. (But I think that was intentional)

Corinne Isabelle Le Dour
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There are a couple of issues though:

The brain process written information slower then oral information (this is why professional TV or movie captioning adapt and shorten lines - keeping main emotions) whereas according to Sony, Microsoft and Sony TRC/TCR, subtitles must match audio a 100%. They should modify their guidelines so we can have something both legible and practical.

More often than not, game subtitle systems are last minute patch-ups (subtitle plays as long as its associated audio file plays) both in terms of tech and layout design. We need to design systems earlier (preproduction).

Last but not least, the polyphony issue: most games use a wide set of AI lines that can potentially play simultaneously; depending on sound engine you can prioritize which lines will play over others. This needs to be accounted for in caption as well, unless you're planning to end up with a lot of on screen text overlapping.

Also check that your font supports all localized languages diacritical characters and have the UI designer think early about subtitle design so it looks good.