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Captioning Computer Games

This article was originally published in Oct 1998 as a “Gary Robson on Captioning” column for a magazine called Newswaves for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People, which is no longer in publication.

Zork Grand InquisitorWhen movies first appeared in the theaters, they had no sound. A sequence of flickering motion was followed by a slide containing some dialog or narration (gee — captions!), which was then followed by more flickering motion. Deaf and hearing viewers had the same experience at the movies, except for the accompanying music.

When sound became a part of the movie experience, the movies began to rely on the sound to communicate the plot, and deaf people could no longer share the experience. This trend was sealed by the time television took off. It took many years for closed captioning to come along and save the day.

Fast-forward to the computer age

When I started playing computer games in the mid-1970’s, they were mostly textual. If a game had two distinctly different beep sounds, that was pretty impressive audio technology. When playing a text game, a deaf player and a hearing player were on equal footing, because there was anothing to hear. Does this sound familiar so far?

Even as recently as a few years ago, game writers assumed that the majority of the people playing their games would not have computers with speakers, so sound performed a purely ancillary role. Even at that point, it made no difference whether you could hear.

Now, with sound cards for your PC selling for under $20, and virtually all new computers having sound capabilities built in, history is repeating itself. Computer games have critical instructions, tips, and clues in audio form. With many of these games, it is virtually impossible for a deaf player to get past the introduction.

Enter closed captioning

I was recently approached by Activision to test their newest adventure game, Zork Grand Inquisitor. Why me? Because the game is closed captioned! Not just captioned (i.e. subtitled), but closed captioned, meaning that the captions can be turned on and off.

In “normal” play, Zork Grand Inquisitor has a black bar at the bottom of the screen. When you turn on the captions, they appear in this black bar, and faithfully reproduce the dialog and some of the sound effects. In fact, words that are extremely difficult to make out in the audio are clearly visible in the captions, making the captioning a great tool even for the hearing player.

The captions appear as clear, readable colored text on the black background, in upper- and lower-case. They appear “pop-on” style like a captioned video rather than “roll-up” like live news or sports.

In the time I spent playing, I found no significant dialog missing, and only one glitch in the captioning: a particular sentence that flashed on and off the screen before I could read it. The captioning was remarkably well integrated into the flow of the game, and after playing for a few hours, you forget that non-captioned games even exist. This is the way it’s supposed to work!

cc logoOne minor complaint, though. Nowhere on the box do we see the familiar “CC” symbol. How is a deaf person to know that this game (clearly labeled as having “Qsound”) is captioned?

I congratulate Activision for taking the initiative and for doing a good job of implementing captioning in Zork Grand Inquisitor. They’ve set an example that I hope all the other game companies will follow.

Captioning at Disneyland

This article was originally published in September 1998 as a “Gary Robson on Captioning” column for a magazine called Newswaves for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People, which is no longer in publication.

A recent vacation with the family turned into a research project when I took a look at the Disneyland park map and saw “CC” and “RC” (reflective captioning) notations for some of the attractions.

Many of Disneyland’s attractions (such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin) don’t need captioning. Other attractions are almost pointless for deaf people without them.

Two rides (Space Mountain and Star Tours) and one show have CC, but not the NASA movie in the Mars exhibit, the slide show at the Indiana Jones ride, or the many other places that could really benefit.

When I approached one of the people working “Honey, I Shrunk the Audience” about the captioning, she had no idea what I was talking about. A second worker told me that I had to go to City Hall for a remote. A third said “Don’t bother, it’s broken today.”

I went to City Hall anyway, and they provided me with a remote control for a $20 deposit, which was returned at the end of the day. They also provided a second set of batteries, just in case.

Next stop: Star Tours. In line, none of the numerous screens and “mini-shows” have any captioning. Some text appears below the big screen, but it is sporadic and doesn’t match what they’re saying. At the front of the line, there are several monitors above the doors. It took a few tries pushing the remote’s button (and eventually changing the batteries), but I did get captions. They were traditional except that they were in upper- and lower-case rather than all caps.

Star Tours is a simulated ride with a big screen in front. The ride itself has no captioning at all. Personally, I think captioning would have been far more valuable during the ride (or in the one-hour line) than during the two-minute preview video!

Reflective Captioning

Unlike CC, reflective captioning (RC) is offered in the show itself. The guide lists it for the Country Bear Playhouse, Honey I Shrunk the Audience, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

We set off to the Country Bear Playhouse for the next phase of our research.

The RC system uses a large display in the back of the room that shows the captions reversed with bright green letters. If you request RC, they give you a floor stand with a piece of glass on a flexible neck. You place the stand in front of you and adjust the glass so that the caption text is reflected in it for you; nobody else sees the reflection. I set mine so the captions appeared right under the stage, and it worked pretty well.

There are eight reflector stands for the two “Country Bear” theaters. If you have a large group, let them know in advance so that they can get extra stands from another attraction. Sharing is difficult unless you’re with someone about your height and you don’t mind cuddling with your heads close together. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to adjust so that you both see the caption text.

The captioning was well done, with speaker identification so that we knew who is talking (or singing). Unfortunately, the live speaking, like the “Exit to your left and check for your belongings” at the end, is not captioned.

Overall, the few Disney people who understood captioning were very helpful. Most of the staff had no idea what captioning is, and the amount of captioning could best be described as a “good start.” Next time you go to Disneyland, don’t forget to tell them about the importance of captioning. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of it there soon.

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