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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.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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