How one gamer relearnt how to play after a shooting left him blind
"I wanted so badly to be able to play my favourite games again."
"I wasn't born blind," Ross explains. Ross Minor is a 19-year-old from Colorado Springs, USA. "When I was eight-years-old, I was shot in my sleep by my father, who then shot and killed my brother, and then committed suicide. The bullet entered through my right temple and exited out my left, into my left palm. As a result, I lost my left eye, the optic nerve and retina of my right eye were severed, and I lost my sense of smell."
As a child, Ross would play video games to help him feel normal, to help him fit in with others. After his family tragedy, that was no longer possible.
"I've been a gamer my entire life really," Ross tells me. "Before I went blind, I would play games like Pokemon and Smash Bros. After I went blind, gaming was still a part of me. I wanted so badly to be able to play my favorite games again."
Determined to continue to play video games, Ross returned to the world of Pokemon.
"I remember first starting up my Pokemon Ruby game after I was released from the hospital," he explains. "I had my cousins help me reset my game. From there, I just began walking around."
Ross realised a few things about the game that helped him progress. He realised his character made a bumping sound when running into a wall. He realised each town had a different soundtrack, which let him know which town was which. He realised each Pokemon had a unique "cry", and each attack had a different sound. And he realised a sound would play when you dealt damage to a Pokemon, and that sound would change depending on whether the attack was not very effective, normally effective or super effective.
Pokemon Ruby, it turned out, had plenty of audio clues that helped Ross play. But how did he learn which Pokemon was attached to each cry, if he didn't know which one belonged to which?
"As a kid, I would listen to the cry, determine what the cry reminded me of, and then see if a move I used was super-effective or not-very-effective," he explains.
"If it was not-very-effective - for example, a Flying-type against a Rock-type - then I would try a Water attack. If that was super-effective, I could determine that the other Pokemon was Rock, Fire or Ground. From there I would think back to when I could see about what Pokemon I remembered were in the area I was in. Then I could connect the cry to the Pokemon I was fighting."
This worked for Pokemon Ruby, but with each new release in the series, a plethora of newer Pokemon were added. This caused obvious problems.
"In newer games, I obviously had no reference to go by," Ross says. "Thankfully, I came up with the idea of looking up which Pokemon were found on each route, then used the process of elimination technique I mentioned before."
Pokemon proved crucial in Ross' rehabilitation. It was a social link, a conduit through which he could still play with his friends despite being blind.
"Pokemon has always provided something special to me because it was something familiar to me after I went blind," Ross explains. "When I returned to school, I actually still had something I could socialise and relate to my friends with. A lot of the time, my friends would go play on the playground, but I couldn't do that anymore. I still was able to play Pokemon, however."
Ross' endeavour to keep playing Pokemon rekindled his love for gaming as a whole. "Once I realised I could play Pokemon, I began to enjoy the challenge," he says. "That's why I began trying out other games like Super Smash Bros, and eventually Mortal Kombat."
Like learning to play Pokemon, learning how to play Mortal Kombat involved a process of elimination - but it worked in a different kind of way. Ross learned which moves hit low, mid and high by playing against the CPU and blocking in various positions. The internet helped, here.
It turns out Mortal Kombat X is particularly accessible for those who can't see the screen. Thanks to earphone panning, having a plethora of sounds that can easily be distinguished from one another can help a game's soundscape inform its landscape (each Pokemon has a unique cry, each move in Mortal Kombat has a unique sound etc). If you can hear movement in the left earphone, you can visualise what's happening by constructing the picture from there.
The running animation is crucial too.
"If you play GTA and run your character into a wall, your character will keep running, the footstep sound will keep playing, essentially giving me no information on whether I'm hitting a wall or not," Ross says.
"In Pokemon, I can run into a wall and it will make a bump sound, letting me know I've stopped moving."
It may seem like a small thing if you've never had to pay much attention to it, but the haptic feedback or "bump" sounds that inform you that you've hit a solid boundary serve an incredibly important function in wider accessibility. Games that eschew these for a continuous run are actively making themselves less accessible to blind players.
"In the most recent Pokemon games, Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee, the games are not accessible for this very reason," Ross explains. "The run animation continues, even when running into a wall. They also removed the bump sound, so there's literally no way of knowing if you're running into a wall or not. I feel like if you have footstep sounds, but keep playing them as your character is running into a wall, it's just bad game design."
Mortal Kombat benefits from the use of stereo sound, which helps communicate what's happening where on-screen. Using headphones, Ross is able to tell where the enemy is by listening for their footsteps. If it's to the left, Ross knows to turn left. If it's in the centre, he knows he's looking at the source of the sound.
In Mortal Kombat "there are sounds for everything," Ross continues. "Your character doesn't continue to make the running sound if you're hitting a wall, and it has a great stereo sound to let me know where I am on the stage. Games like the new Soulcalibur are not accessible because they don't use stereo sound. It's 2019 and games have been using stereo sound since the days of the PS2, maybe even earlier." So it's not that the technology to facilitate accessibility doesn't exist; it's that it's being eschewed for newer kinds of sound design that actually stunt a game's accessibility. The most recent Pokemon games are actually the least accessible ones to blind people because they opted to forego the things that made them accessible in the first place.
As well as being an avid gamer, Ross is a Paralympic swimmer and musician. He has swum competitively in Arizona, Indiana, North Carolina, Canada and even Italy, and he trains for 20 hours a week in Colorado's Olympic Training Centre. As for music, he plays the piano, drums, guitar and sings "a little". He lives with Dixie, his guide dog who he calls "a real goofball".
The sense I get is Ross refuses to let his disability prevent him from trying to make a real change in the world. There's a real optimism here, a desire to educate and inspire others. Despite Ross' tragic story, he wants to use his blindness to help inspire others. In fact, Ross recently posted a video to his YouTube channel that shows him playing Mortal Kombat X based on audio cues.
"When I was a kid, playing video games was a way for me to feel normal, to feel part of the sighted community," Ross says. "As a kid, and even as an adult, people find it awkward or intimidating to interact with a blind person. My goal in life it to remove those social barriers."
"I have a braille tattoo on my forearm that says, 'It takes pain to grow,'" Ross says. "While it may be a controversial saying for some, it resonates deeply with me. I didn't master Pokemon in one day. I didn't join the Paralympics because I thought it would be fun. I didn't just magically walk out of the hospital all sunshine and rainbows. I had to go through physical therapy. I spent years memorising Pokemon and Mortal Kombat. Everything I've accomplished has been through blood, sweat and tears. But through all of that, it's what made me the man I am today. Things are going to be hard before they get easy. Throughout the journey, however, it's the challenges that shape you into the best person you can be."
Through it all, video games have "sort of kept my compass facing north", Ross says.
"After going blind, it would have been easy to give up and never amount to anything. Video games have given me a goal to reach. In my teen years, I was fortunate to be able to create a YouTube channel and be able to share how I play video games blind. It's given me so many opportunities to meet new people. There's a handful of blind gamers like myself who create videos on YouTube in the hope of teaching other blind people how to play, as well as to show sighted people an alternative to the gaming world. I've since branched out from gaming content to create videos on how I do all sorts of things blind, but my roots are still in gaming."