Tommy, of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, is blind. Yet a pinball wizard.
Luke Skywalker, in the very first of the Star Wars movies, demonstrates his fledgling mastery of the Force by parrying attacks while blinded.
Neo, in the culmination of the Matrix trilogy, negotiates his way into the Machine City while blind; without eyes, Neo sees what others cannot.
These are fictional characters and fictional accomplishments, but each is similar in representing human vision as a useful but optional component of human experience. Should our sight be deprived, these stories tell us, there is recourse. Our other senses — physical, mental, or ‘spiritual’– step up.
There is much fairy tale in this claim, of course. But this fairy tale is seductive and used in subtle ways to support a politically appealing view of human experience as an egalitarian feature of our species, equally available to all regardless of our physical differences.
In practice and fact, however, human blindness confers human disability and limitation.
Can a blind player be a pinball wizard? No.
But what about a more general question: Can a blind player play a game?
Certainly. Blind players are prevented from interacting with game tokens in the same fashion as fully visioned players, but, at least in traditional games, it is the relationship among game tokens — which token is ahead, which is behind; which is valuable, which is not — that constitutes the game. And accessing and manipulating this relationship among game tokens is an act of cognition, not vision.
In fact, there is a variant of chess — blindfold chess — built on this realization.
It must be noted, however, that in order to perform well at blindfold chess, it is much more important to be skilled at chess than to be skilled at blindness. Blind chess-players seem to have no particular advantage in playing blindfold chess; chess grandmasters, on the other hand, have a great advantage in playing blindfold chess.
And chess is not the only sort of game. For interactive digital games — first-person shooters, for instance — the relationship between game tokens is not the only variable defining the game. To access and manipulate relationships among game tokens, the digital game player must access and manipulate the game interface, which is then equally defining of game form and experience.
Most digital games depend on a visual and tactile interface; some games (e. g., Milton Bradley’s Simon) also depend on an audible interface. But for interactive digital games, to remove the ability to access and manipulate the game interface is much more crippling than to remove the sight of a chessboard.
Certainly a blind player can play chess. But can a blind player play Team Fortress 3?
And then there are a couple of further questions:
1. The possibilities of game design. Can Team Fortress 3 — and similarly real-time, interactive digital games — be translated into a medium that a blind player can play? For instance, the rules of golf have been modified to accommodate blind golfers, but to what extent do these modifications recreate the play of golf? For games like golf (and even more so for first-person shooters), it’s not clear that a blind player can access and manipulate the same play experience as the sighted player. But can games be designed in some alternative way — not to mimic but to evoke experience? For instance, perhaps this might be possible through synesthesia: the subjective interpretation of sensory data in terms of an alternative sensory process, e. g. “hearing” colors or “seeing” sounds.
2. The realities of human design. To what extent does human experience in general — play or otherwise — depend on the human senses? Obviously, human experience depends a great deal on the senses, but we tend to evaluate this dependency as a binary one: either the experience is accessible (in which case it is the same egalitarian experience for all) or it is accessible to some and wholly inaccessible to others (e. g., the blind).
Playing the audio — beeping sounds — version of Simon and playing the visual — blinking lights — version of Simon are normally considered, essentially, playing the same game. If so, then a blind player can be considered to be playing the same memory game of Simon ( i. e., having the same experience) as a deaf player. However, playing the conventional, graphically animated version of World of Warcraft and playing a text-only, MUD-like version of World of Warcraft seem (particularly during the combat portions of the game) very different experiences.
When and how does this difference occur?
If we play World of Warcraft in black-and-white, is it still the same game-playing experience? If we play the game with cataract-impaired vision, is it still the same experience? If we play the game with inferior hand-eye coordination, is it still the same experience? During which portion of turning off the sound and the light and the touch of an interactive digital game is that game rendered into a different experience? Is it during some single critical moment or is it during every moment?
Our most fundamental and universal human experience — our sense of self — suffers from gentle degradations. Between human life and human death are subtleties, sometimes caused by the impairment of our senses, sometimes caused by their augmentation. If we accept this of the human experience of self, why shouldn’t we also accept it of the human experience of play?
The play of a skilled player with superior senses and faculties is not merely quantitatively different from that of an unskilled player in hours played, levels cleared, and scores achieved. It is a qualitatively different experience.
We might even say, politically unappealing though it may be, that the play of a skilled player is a more complete experience.