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Games Need Closed Captioning

by Reid Kimball
originally posted 03/25/03
updated last on 07/1/05

Videogames need closed captioning. Why? Because you and your team have given every ounce of energy they have into making the game. Your creation deserves to be experienced by the widest possible audience. Unfortunately, outside of your control, there are bound to be players who are dying to play your game, but because they are not familar with your game's native language (English, Spanish, etc) or because they may have a hearing impairment, your game will not be experienced in the same way you intended. Providing closed captions will help keep intact the experience you wanted those gamers to have. Otherwise, without closed captions they may pass up on your game entirely or experience uneccessary frustration while playing.

Before I begin with my specific reasons why providing closed captions for a videogame are warranted, I feel the term closed caption needs to be defined. Closed captions allow a gamer to turn on or off subtitled dialog and sound effects they may encounter. The other form of captioning, open captions are subtitled dialog and sound effects that cannot be turned off because they are encoded directly into the video signal. Additionally, the term subtitles typically refers to spoken dialog in a specific sense, while sfx is for general sound effects.

Many games such as No One Lives Forever provide subtitles for cut scenes that involve the characters of the game conversing with each other. These subtitles appear very much like subtitles on a closed captioned TV program or DVD movie. Adding closed captioned text to most video games is relatively simple and effective. I say relatively simple because a text file document can be used to hold the information regarding whom is speaking, what they are saying and at what time it is said during the cut scene. The key to this solution is having the resources available to develop a scripting system that can extract the text information and print it to the video display. Once that system is in place, the subtitle text file can be easily generated, usually from the game design document or script document of character conversations. I also see this as being very effective for gamers because most cut scenes in games are letter boxed. A portion of the screen, top and bottom has a black bar where the subtitles can be placed without obscuring the images of the video game. More importantly, subtitles will enable the hard of hearing/deaf gamer to enjoy the writers’ efforts to create the conversations between characters. Missing out on any of the many hilarious conversations that appear in both No One Lives Forever games because it was not captioned would be a shame as the writer's efforts would be in vain. As writers are given more responsibility to develop their characters through spoken dialogue, it is important that hard of hearing/deaf gamers be given the opportunity to appreciate the writers’ efforts. As the writing in games improves, there will be worthy discussions about the motivations of a character's actions in much the same way classic novels such as Catcher in the Rye or Of Mice and Men are discussed. Those who cannot hear have a right to participate in such discussions and learn from them. Additionally, key information is often given during a cut scene that will clue the gamer into their next objective(s). If a gamer is unable to hear what their mission is, their enjoyment of the game may suffer.

In addition to cut scenes being accessible through subtitles, also making the audible world gamers inhabit captioned will play a key role in their enjoyment of the game. Suppose a gamer walks up to a locked door. Most games produce a sound effect that indicates the door is locked. However, some games provide no visual clue that the door is locked. I recommend playing any game with the sound completely off and the world will suddenly become very confusing. As part of a closed captioning system I feel it is necessary for objects within a game world to provide textural information that represents the audible information. It seems to be the standard in games today to change the music dynamically from a relaxed state to a combat state. This convention at the heart is used to clue the gamer about what is occurring in the world. A hard of hearing/deaf gamer however will miss out on the audible clue unless it is captioned. Other examples include nearby yet unseen gunfire, footsteps approaching from enemy soldiers and computer panels buzzing and beeping after a gamer interacts with them.

I should point out that anyone can use closed captions if available in your game. Gamers with perfectly good hearing may decide to turn on subtitles so they don't miss NPC dialog during noisy battle sequences. Hard of hearing/deaf players use closed captions to acquire necessary information that would otherwise go unnoticed. Finally, foriegn players who are not native speakers of your game's default language may use closed captions to help them learn while playing or as a backup in case they do not understand the spoken words.

As your team puts the finishing touches on your game, please remember that your #1 goal is to provide a compelling experience for the gamer to enjoy. Keep in mind that not everyone will be able to experience your game due to circumstances beyond your control, but whatever you can do to help will enable them to appreciate your next masterpiece and ultimately, be in the waiting line when your next game arrives.

Lastly, I recommend you take a look at the Doom3[CC] mod I designed with the help of talented captioners and programmers. On the website you will find screenshots and videos demonstrating how the closed captioning works. In roughly two months we developed a complete system for use with Doom3 that provided closed captions for all dialog and sound effects. Since our initial release we have received many words of praise and support for our efforts. I feel proud to have worked with such a great group of guys who believed in my vision and the idea that closed captioning can help make games more accessible and appreciated by a wider audience.

-Reid Kimball


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