Video Game trivia: 7-128’s games for all

Our article yesterday focused on making mainstream games accessible to the disabled. But what about making games that are designed to be accessible from the ground up?

One company that makes games built for universal access is 7-128 Software, a collection of seven full-time employees in the Boston area.

The initial idea for the company came in the mid-80’s, said John Bannick, 7-128’s chief technology officer. He was working at Xerox under Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the first text-to-speech reading machine for the blind.

Musician Stevie Wonder was a longtime user of the machines. One day, they got a call from one of his people.

The machine kept talking about a pirate.

Stevie Wonder was not reading a book about pirates. What was going on, they asked?

Bannick went to one of the engineers. As it turned out, the reading machine had been programmed with a copy of Zork,* which Mr. Wonder must have somehow accidently activated.

“I thought to myself ‘Damn! You could write a text-based game for the blind,'” Bannick said.

Bannick started 7-128 Software in 2007, and the company has a library of puzzle and adventure games, all rated for whether they can be used by players who are blind, visually impaired, colorblind, deaf, motion impaired or cognitively impaired. However, 7-128’s games are targeted to everyone who plays casual games, not just disabled ones, said Bannick.

Though Bannick has been working in user interfaces for 30 years, he’s fascinated by the challenges in making games for the disabled not just accessible, but entertaining. “It’s a whole new realm,” he said.

In one case, the company was doing playability testing for one of the games in the “Inspector Cindy in Newport” series, text-driven adventures that take place in 1890’s-era Rhode Island.

The feedback they got back from one of their blind testers, Rosie, was “This is boring. I want to hear some interesting sounds.”

That was Bannick’s introduction to “ear candy,” as opposed to the usual eye candy. The games now have rich incendental sounds like carriages going by, servant’s chimes or grandfather clocks.

The text also describes the world in a way that isn’t necessarily visual. For instance, the game might talk about hearing steam whistles or smelling horses and perfume.

For the future, Bannick is interested in getting a brain control unit and designing a game specifically for this emerging technology. We here at Kwanzoo will be taking a look at these new devices in the next week or so.

*”But wait,” you’re saying. “Zork didn’t have a pirate. Adventure had a pirate.” Since we are also trivia pedants, we asked Bannick about that. Here’s the reply:

“Since the game was re-coded into the Reading Machine, the coders could have used the word pirate. Or the person who told me why the word “pirate” was being spoken (Steve Baum, then head of Systems Programming) confused Adventure with Zork. I do recall he said that there were not one, but two Zork games in the Reading Machine. So maybe he was using the one title to refer to two similar games. Regardless, it did plant the seed that eventually became the accessibility part of 7-128 Software.

“The interesting thing about it was that at that time the Reading Machine software was written in Data General Nova Assembler. Assembler takes a lot more effort to code. Apparently those coders had a whole lot more time on their hands than we do today.”