Text Parser Based
Robert Gordon University
Accessibility in video games remains an under explored topic.
Things have improved considerably in the last five or so years, but it remains a low
priority issue for many developers.
Common resources now exist that give excellent advice to developers
interested in the topic.
However, guidelines by themselves are not enough.
They often drain nuance from complex interrelationships of impairments
When followed to the letter, they may result in software that is inaccessible in
subtle new ways.
I’m a lecturer at Robert Gordon University, with a research interest in… well many things.
One of the more significant of these things is accessibility.
I am also a massive nerd.
As such, accessibility within video games is a natural focus that leverages several of my
Research into video game accessibility though can be costly.
And so is usually done ‘after the fact’
Not a lot of opportunity for experimentation in situ.
As such, it is my belief that extensive, detailed accessibility case-studies into gaming
interactions offers real benefit.
The paper that accompanies this talk consists of one such case study.
Available at http://tinyurl.com/otomf75
Accessibility in video games is perhaps the most significant challenge for
Interaction in games is often tied up in context.
Interaction in games is often tied to immersion
Interaction in games comes with a need to mirror, as far as possible, the physical
realities of actions.
Within a word processor, there is no real difference between pressing a key and
clicking a menu option as far as the interaction itself is concerned.
There is a world of difference between pressing a button and swinging a wiimote in
terms of the experience a game delivers.
These are challenges too offered within an environment where interaction
usually must be precise, time-constrained, and synched to in-game activity.
Text Based Games
It’s not my day job, but I spend a lot of time developing within the niche of ‘text based
Specifically, a niche within a niche – text based multiplayer games.
What used to be called Multiuser Dungeons, or MUDs
This is a hobby for me, not a vocation, but it has offered me insight into numerous elements
of game development.
It is also an area which has scant academic attention since the death of the form as a
commercial entity in the mid 80s.
Although there has been something of a renaissance of text-gaming in recent years, it hasn’t
reached my corner of the digital world.
Text gaming of this nature though also offers some insight into command line interaction
Applicable to dealing with the complexity of working within a text shell.
Many of the characteristics of one are shared by the other.
The Barriers in Text Accessibility
Text interaction regimes offer several challenges for those looking to make an
They have, usually, a steep learning curve.
They are difficult to master, relying on recall rather than recognition.
They require the issuing of complex, precise instructions in written form
They usually lack alternative interactions regimes, or multiple ways to achieve goals.
The general assumption of knowledge is high, with the interaction medium itself acting
as a kind of ‘entry barrier’
These are issues shared, for the most part, with text games and text-based CLI
Within my own text-based game, we have identified and worked with several
potential solutions to these issues.
The Cognitive Burden - Input
Written commands can be difficult to construct.
Requiring precise combinations of literal words and symbolic identifiers.
May not offer consistent affordances
The order of parameters given to a command may differ from one command to another.
The source of the notorious ‘guess the syntax’ puzzle in text games.
Relies heavily on recall rather than recognition.
Relies heavily on assumed expertise.
The existence of commands is not always well signposted.
Difficult to remember what’s been done previously.
And how it relates to future requirements.
Within Epitaph we assessed several compensations:
Context sensitive introduction of commands
‘Hey, you might like to know you can do the following commands here’
Syntax ‘hints’ based on location in the game world
Aliases that allowed for adaptable compensation to individual expectations.
At a simple level, renaming commands.
At a more complex level, offering programmatic interfaces for contextual activities.
Syntax highlighting and verbose help hints
Hyperlinked commands, allowing complex instructions to be issued on mouse click.
Extensive logs of previous activities, and how these relate to future expectations for
Inputting commands is complex, but so too is reading and parsing the output
Often full of extraneous detail
Not very obvious what’s most important
Within games, suffers from an expectation of ‘Chekov’s gun’
For those with visual impairments, ASCII art ornamentations do not work well with screen
Ordering of textual elements can be important when dealing with real-time in-game
Our compensations in this regard focus on colour cues, syntax highlighting, and the ability
to remove flavour text.
Almost anything non game critical can be suppressed.
We also provide the ability to order elements so as to better serve the requirements of fast
responses to ongoing scenarios.
We provide special bespoke systems for compensating for visual impairments.
Narrative combat summaries
The ‘alt_text’ system for providing alternate output for those using screenreaders.
Knowing what can be configured is a challenge.
We provide a comprehensive ‘options’ command.
But you need to know what all the options do to have full control.
Thus, we also offer a ‘screenreader’ command, as well as a login prompt, that
sets all of the options to a default value useful for those with impairments.
The MUD Extension Protocol
A game protocol developed for MUDs generally is the Mud Extension
Protocol (MXP), which allows for raw text to be hyperlinked within
We use this heavily within Epitaph to reduce the burden on players.
However, within Epitaph there is also a command line shell for developers.
This is where most of us spend our time, using in-game implementations of
standard linux commands such as ls, more, cp, mv and so on.
Some of these commands link to external tools which then pipe their output back
into the MUD itself.
MXP is used for both developers and players to reduce the burden on
issuing complex instructions.
Relevance Beyond Gaming
Many of us work within command line interfaces on a regular basis.
Anyone who does any of their work on a remote server will have some familiarity with
the difficulties to a greater or lesser extent.
We assume expertise will be accumulated over time.
However, in my experience it usually atrophies away between uses.
We are only briefly expert in the tools that we use occasionally.
However, the benefits of working on an accessible text game extend beyond
the niche of niches where I dwell.
It offers some design guidelines that can help improve command line interfaces
These are not overly complex to implement.
It just requires the will to do so.
The game which I develop is not yet an accessible game.
Attaining accessibility is an ongoing process, and that is never more true than in a fast-
changing game environment.
However, we have put in place a number of tools that greatly improve our
framework for accessibility support.
The purpose of this paper is not to argue that this how we ‘fix’ accessibility within
Many of the issues here are already addressed in the new renaissance of online
It is primarily to provide a case study of how one particular, unusual gaming
environment has addressed some of the issues unique to its interaction regime.
The more case studies like this we have as a community of practioners and
researchers, the easier it is to extract the nuance needed for effective accessibility