The internet is a realm of text. This is true from the way we communicate with one another via typing to the code underpinning the whole thing. It's also effervescently visual, with elaborately layered website graphics, colorful online games right down to the simple act of touching a point on your screen to scroll through an article.
This is especially true of one of the internet's earliest and longest-lived game genres: the MUD. "MUD" stands for Multi-User Dungeon, and these precursors to the MMORPGs were worlds largely mediated by text alone. Picture World of Warcraft distilled down only to text and code, a combat log come to life, and you're on the right track.
Materia Magica, a MUD with a 20 year history, is undertaking a project as ambitious as it is surprisingly straightforward: It wants to make this most visual of genres accessible to the visually impaired. The effort came about due to the dogged efforts of a player who is blind, Lilah (an in-game name; she wishes to remain anonymous), and a receptive community of players headed by the game's staff. She and a sighted partner, a coder by trade, used text readers to level the Materia Magica's playing field.
"zipMUD (a version of the zMUD client; MUDs use third-party-connection clients to log in) had nothing in it to really help us, but we could hear what was going on in the game [via external add-on software]," Lilah says. "So I had to make myself sound triggers, so I could hear when somebody sent me a tell and a different one when someone replied to me. And I was getting more and more elaborate—I made one to tell me when I got poisoned, one when I got plagued. Gosh, I had maybe 2,000 triggers and aliases I used to play the game."
Essentially, where sighted players saw colored text—perhaps red for a bleed effect, for example—Lilah heard a trigger word or sound, one that she set on her end. But this wasn't enough to even up the odds with her sighted compatriots, so the Materia Magica developers stepped in.
"There were always people who had to figure out how to use text readers to play these games, so some people developed add-ons for MUSHclient [a connection program] because it's so easy to script," the game's general manager, Beth Carrigan explains. "One of our blind players [Lilah] is an accessibility professional in real life. She was friends with a sighted player who's a programmer. The programmer helped Lilah get her plugins set up so she could play, and over time, they were just like, 'We can clean this up and share it with other players.' This was all unofficial at this point. The administration realized that this was pretty great, so we helped out and ran with it."
Lilah also wanted her project to be accessible in economic terms. As she points out, "a lot of the blind players are underemployed for their education levels. They'd be afraid to go get zipMUD just to see if it worked or if they liked it and still have to spend money."
When you log into Materia Magica and make a new character, you're presented with the option to plug into the visual impairment code. When it's fully on, it sounds something like this fight between Lilah and a high-level enemy:
It's a lot of auditory information coming at the player at once, but it's not substantially different from the way sighted players read. The visual information provided by read text comes at players really fast, even slower readers. In the case of a blind player, training auditory intake allows for a comparable rate of information processing, simply in a way that sighted people are unfamiliar with.
Carrigan provides context to the clip. "All computers come with screen readers now, and you can also buy nicer ones," she explains. "So what Lilah and her partner have done is use two screen readers: The built-in one, to read all the background scrolling text—like in combat, there's a constant stream of information—and that one's turned up to something like 300 words per minute. Then they use a second one, which kicks out more important things, read over the top of the background noise."
In Carrigan's words, the Materia Magica team's job is to enhance the process started by Lilah by providing "hooks" for visually impaired players to plug into: extra sounds, a tweaking of code, and the like. MUD dev teams can't control the player clients directly; it's different from online video games, where the player and game clients are fully subject to dev control. Materia Magica helps facilitate the translation of visual information to a primarily auditory format through the use of various plugins in a visually impaired package on its website. It includes a host of MP3 files, means to capture map and channel information for later listening, and support for concurrent sounds, among other quality of life additions. Because of the work done by the team on its end, Lilah's work has been streamlined and expanded upon for the easy use of anyone who might wish to access it in the game. It is, in all ways, the same game as the one sighted players interact with. It's as fast as you can read. It's auditory, and it's dense.
Sean Lyons, the MUD's tech lead, places the effort firmly as a community effort. "A lot of the underlying tech was planned for a long time," he explains. "One of our most accomplished PKers [players who focus on hunting down and defeating other players instead of fighting monsters and other enemies] is blind, though he wasn't born blind. We realized that we could leverage some of the work we were already doing to better facilitate his gameplay."
The sheer age of the game, the way it lingers from a bygone era of internet ideology, makes this process possible. It's coded in C, with character logs preserved in old binary code, and there's something undeniably compelling about a new game based around social interaction that came about through code that was written in a time when technology wasn't something to be feared or jaded about, but provided hope.
"I think if people just think outside of the box a little bit, there are ways to make things accessible without spending a fortune."—Lilah
This makes sense, as MUDs have aging populations, leftovers from college geeks and roleplaying nerds from the days of DOS and Pretty Hate Machine. When the primary subjects in this play—Lilah and the Materia Magica staff—speak, it's with a reverence for the community that has persisted for so long in silicon and wires. And without a dedicated group interested in evolving the confines of the current game, none of this would have happened.
According to the MUD's financial manager, Anthony Roma, the blind MUDders have always been a vital part of Materia Magica, but they feel welcome with open arms now, forming sometimes 50 percent of online users some nights; even though the MUD populations have all diminished in the post-MMO world, it's still a testament to what a bit of effort can do in a game.
The lessons to be applied to the world of modern video games is mixed. One of the operative parts of the term is "video," and this isn't an accident: They are visually oriented in the extreme. Still, Lilah has wellsprings of hope that anything is possible.
"I think if people just think outside of the box a little bit, there are ways to make things accessible without spending a fortune. But most people can't even imagine being blind, much less playing a game like Materia Magica while blind," she says. "It's an intricate game that even sighted people find too hard. So instead of saying, 'This is too hard,' I ask 'How can we do it? If it's inaccessible, how can we make it accessible?' If you're blind or visually impaired, deaf, or anything else, instead of thinking you can't do it… Materia Magica is showing that it can be done."
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