Computer Games for Blind Children

by Greg Trapp

Editor's Note: Greg Trapp has been a staff attorney with the Protection & Advocacy System of New Mexico since 1992. In 1993, he taught Disability Law as an adjunct professor at the UNM School of Law. He presently serves on the Board of Directors of the Albuquerque Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, serves on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Blind Lawyers, is Chair of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind Statewide Rehabilitation Advisory Council, and serves on the IDEA State Advisory Panel. Greg, who was blinded as a teen, is very interested in promoting opportunities for blind children.

A recent experience has opened my eyes to the remarkable ability of computer games to teach blind children. I was working with a special education client when it was decided that he needed a break from a lengthy diagnostic evaluation. I suggested he come to my office to see my speech adapted computer system. I loaded a computerized version of Monopoly and started to play it with my young client. Fascinated by the game, he quickly learned the locations of several new keys. He also showed an interest and excitement for learning more about the computer. Intrigued by this experience, I decided to look for additional computer games which might be played by blind children. This article describes some of the games I found during my search and, hopefully, does it in a way which will be useful to all parents, regardless of their computer knowledge.

My search was confined to NFBnet, the bulletin board system (bbs) of the National Federation of the Blind. NFBnet contains a large number of computer games which work well with speech synthesizers and which can be downloaded for free as freeware, shareware, or as a demo program. While freeware comes with no strings attached, the author of a shareware program hopes you will pay a modest fee to register the program to receive updates or additional features. A demo program is a sample version of a commercially available software program. Demo programs limit features or restrict usage to encourage the purchase of the program. You can telnet to NFBnet at [NFBnet.org], or access it by modem at 612-696-1975. However, if you do not have a clue what it means to "telnet," think a "modem" might be one of the Three Stooges, and think that an "unzip utility" should never be mentioned in polite circles, than I suggest you ask for help from a friend or relative who understands such things.

Before I begin to discuss the games I found it is necessary to first make some disclaimers. Of course, being a lawyer, disclaimers come naturally to me. My first disclaimer is that I approached the project with certain preconceived notions. Accordingly, I did not examine the several "sword and sorcerer" games which I found, nor did I do more than a cursory examination of a couple of the numerous war and adventure games which are on NFBnet. While these games may teach persistence and patience, I believe that there are other games which provide greater educational benefit. I downloaded about two dozen games which I thought had the greatest educational potential. The games I downloaded were those which I thought might help develop basic keyboarding, math, linguistic, and/or social skills. However, since I am not a trained educator my assessment of the educational value of these games is only my lay opinion.

The first two games I will describe will run on any PC-compatible computer and do not require the computer to have a speech synthesizer. The other games I describe require a speech synthesizer in order to be used by persons who are blind. For my review I used a 486 computer equipped with Vocal-eyes and an Accent synthesizer. The games I examined are for use with the DOS operating system. The games will work on Pentium, 486, 386, or 286 computers, and most will even work on older 8088 computers. By contrast, the latest video games being sold in computer stores require the newest Pentium computers running Windows® operating systems. Although blind computer users should be shifting to Windows®, these DOS games can still serve a useful purpose. The first game I want to describe is called "Piano." Piano is a very simple game which turns a computer keyboard into a piano. A significant benefit of Piano is that it does not require you to have a speech synthesizer on your computer. All you need is a PC-compatible computer. Piano can introduce very young children to the computer keyboard and teach some basic keyboarding skills. Piano might also help to develop your child's finger strength and dexterity. Piano would be most appropriate for pre-school and early elementary ages, though it might also benefit some older children. The disadvantage of Piano is that the tones it produces will probably annoy you long before your child tires of playing with it.

Like Piano, ABC-talk does not require you to have a computer equipped with a speech synthesizer. Instead, it contains a digitally reproduced human voice which is heard through the computers internal speaker or sound card. By selecting menu choices "B," "C," or "D," ABC-Talk will help a child to learn the alphabet and to learn where letters are located on the keyboard. For instance, by selecting menu item "D," ABC-Talk will voice the letter which is typed. ABC-Talk only voices letters, not any other keys on the computer. Because ABC-Talk and Piano do not require a speech synthesizer, they can be an affordable way to teach some basic computer skills to young children. For instance, you could probably purchase an old 286 computer for under $50, and use it to help your child develop some basic keyboarding skills.

The rest of the games I examined require a speech synthesizer and screen review program in order to be used by the blind. The best of these, in my opinion, is Monopoly. The game is based on the well-known Parker Brothers board game. However, because the computer does all of the banking and keeps track of the property, the computerized version moves with a faster and more exciting pace. Yet, the game retains all of the endearing qualities that have made the original such a lasting success. Monopoly blends elements of luck and strategy to make for an interesting and challenging contest. It requires frequent math and probability calculations, such as the choice of whether to pay a flat tax rate of two-hundred dollars or a calculated rate of 10 percent. In addition, good sound effects and the fun of rolling the dice make the game enjoyable for children who are too young to understand the rules and nuances of the game. Monopoly can be played by up to four players, allowing for development of your child's social skills. Though Monopoly 6.4 is on NFBnet, Monopoly 6.2 has a "listen to the status" option specifically designed for blind computer users. This option may help younger children to keep track of their property. However, Monopoly 6.4 works very well with speech, and I do not think the feature would add that much to the game. The only drawback to Monopoly 6.4 is that the counting of spaces seems a little bit slow.

Of the math games that I looked at, MOBIUS96 was the best. MOBIUS96 is designed specifically for blind computer users and works very well with speech. The game provides an entertaining trek up a mountain while the players are asked different math problems. MOBIUS96 has terrific sound effects and an amusing plot. Your computer must have a hard drive to run MOBIUS96. Though not necessary, a sound card would make the program even more enjoyable. The demo version limits the degree of difficulty to single and double digit math problems. Accordingly, the Demo version is best suited to younger students. However, the full version of MOBIUS96 offers additional skill levels and can be purchased for $20.

A less entertaining but more challenging math game is MATHWO1A. This game quizzes players on a wide range of math problems, with adjustments available for time and degree of difficulty. My primary concern with MATHWO1A is that it did not run especially well with Vocal-eyes, though this could probably be improved by adjusting speech settings. For instance, there are some conflicts with keys normally used by screen review programs, and the player will have to take some time to learn how to make the program work with speech. Both MOBIUS96 and MATHWO1A have tremendous potential to improve your child's ability to make math calculations.

One of the more absorbing games is DOSBJ, a computerized version of the traditional blackjack card game. The game begins with the player selecting the number of decks to be shuffled and the amount of money to be wagered. Unfortunately, the game does not allow for more than one player to play at a time. Instead, the player bets money against the computer. The primary educational benefit of DOSBJ is that it can teach mathematics and probability through game theory. If you are troubled by a gambling game, you might be comforted by knowing that the game can also teach the real life lesson that the house always wins in the end.

Another excellent game that works well with speech is Hangman. After selecting the educational option from the menu the player is offered a definition of a word and given a limited time to provide the answer. The difficulty can be adjusted by choosing either "amateur" or "expert," and by adjusting the time allowed to provide the answer. There is also an orchestra which plays music as the player is thinking, though the orchestra should be turned off in order for the program to work best with speech. Hangman is an entertaining program and is an excellent way to improve your child's vocabulary.

There are a number of other games which deserve mentioning. One of the most appealing is DOSLife, which is a computerized version of the board game Life. It works well with speech and may be entertaining for older elementary students. Another game that some children may enjoy is DOSFBALL. DOSFBALL is a computerized football game specifically designed for blind computer users. It allows the player to be the quarterback and choose his/her favorite professional team. Unfortunately, the game is seriously dated in that most of the team members are now retired. DOSFBALL also throws in some random and unnecessary comments which distract from the flow of the game. Another football game designed specifically for blind persons is FAN95. Though FAN95 is a demo which permits only 10 minutes of play, it provides greater realism and entertainment. The full version of FAN95 costs $30, and would be a good game for a parent who is a sports fan to play with his/her child.

If football is not your cup of tea there are several baseball games which may be selected. One of the better of these is DOSBASE2, which uses a variety of clever sound effects to make the game more interesting. However, DOSBASE2's sound effects place greater demands on your computer, making it necessary for your computer to at least have a hard drive. Like DOSFBALL, DOSBASE2 is specifically designed for blind computer users. For older baseball enthusiasts, there is BBTRIVIA and WSBB11. BBTRIVIA challenges the player with 250 trivia questions. For a registration fee of $15, the game can be upgraded to 1,500 questions. WSBB11 is another demo of a program specifically designed for blind computer users. WSBB11 is an elaborate game with wonderful sound effects. Accordingly, WSBB11 requires a computer with at least a hard drive and ideally a 486 or Pentium with a sound card. The demo version of WSBB11 is very impressive, though it limits play to five innings and interrupts each inning with a commercial. WSBB11 costs $35.

Another game which deserves mentioning is Geo. In Geo a player identifies a geographic entity such as a country or sea, and the computer answers with a response that begins with the last letter of the previous answer. The game continues until either the player or the computer runs out of possible answers. Unfortunately, the game is badly dated as it does not include the changes that have taken place since the collapse of Communism. Even more regrettably, Geo misspells Santa Fe (spelling it as "Sante Fe"). Nevertheless, despite its problems, Geo can make learning geography fun.

Many of the games are supplied as files which have been compressed using a program called PKZIP. Therefore, if you intend to run these games on your computer, you must obtain the PKZIP program or utility. PKZIP is available on a variety of bulletin boards, including NFB-net. If you haven't a clue how to begin, find a friend to help you. Also, there may be a blind NFB member in your area who would be able to help you get started and even demonstrate the games or play a few with your child.

Computer games can provide an excellent way for your child to become comfortable with the computer while gaining valuable skills and knowledge at the same time. They also provide blind children more of an equal opportunity to interact with sighted peers. The games which require more than one player can be a social outlet for interacting with sighted peers. Even the solitary games give the blind child a common experience which can be used as a starting point for making new friends.