How My Experience with Video Games Changed When I Lost Hearing

Futuristic, colourful sound waves against a black background.

Welcome to Press Play, POPSUGAR Australia’s first-ever gaming initiative focused on accessibility. Our aim is to shed light on the experiences of people with disability who play games, while helping to identify the features needed within games to make them truly accessible to all players.

The initiative includes interviews with key figures in the gaming space as well as first person pieces produced by writers with disability who can speak from experience about these features. Press Play is supported by our newly launched text-to-voice feature. You can find all the pieces here.

There are a plethora of things we take for granted every single day, things we don’t notice until they’re gone. Our bodies and the things they can do are included in that list. We assume that everyone can walk without issue, or smell the roses given to us by our partner. But these things can disappear on a moment’s notice, and for me it was my hearing.

I lost hearing in my left ear around the age of 14, and it greatly impacted my life, including the games I played. Someone with a full range of hearing would likely never notice how important directional sound is in video games — I definitely didn’t until I lost my hearing. I used to play competitive shooters like Overwatch and CS:GO, and directional sound was a key element in how I would play.

Losing my hearing completely decimated my ability to play games to the same degree as before, as I used to rely on hearing footsteps and gunshots to locate my enemies. I lost the ability to compete because I could no longer rely on my hearing. However, I learned there were games that I could still enjoy — games where sound played a smaller role or that had robust accessibility features built into them.

Relearning Video Games

I was stubborn at first, trying to play games exactly the same way as I did before. Over time I came to realise that was an avenue I couldn’t pursue anymore. Quite often we forget there are options beyond the things we’re used to — that was one of the reasons I was so adamant to force myself to enjoy the games I was used to.

It took me recontextualising what it is that I found enjoyable about video games to relearn how to play them. Was it the combat I enjoyed? Or was it the story? I had never truly considered what it was about games I enjoyed until I could no longer enjoy them as I had before, and it took a while to find the games I would come to love.

The process started with me focusing on slower-paced single player games that let me take my time, instead of pumping up my adrenaline. Stardew Valley let me do exactly that, and in slowing down I found that sound isn’t everything to a game. The story, characters and writing can be much more enjoyable than anything that is entirely combat-oriented.

Although I found joy in these games, there were still moments where my hearing was an issue. The difference is that the barriers to entry were minimised because of the lack of a competitive element.

How Accessibility Features Have Helped

I still had an itch to play competitive FPS games, and eventually I discovered the mobile version of PUBG — which, by default, has the direction of footsteps and gunfire clearly displayed on screen.

This was an eye-opening experience because I now knew that there were options for me. Being able to play games where directional information is given to the player without a need for audio means that a lot of deaf and hard of hearing players such as myself get the opportunity to enjoy the games in ways people can take for granted.

Over time, games have slowly introduced more and more accessibility features. There are things I would have never considered, like clear and easy-to-read subtitles, to the more obvious visual cues replacing audio ones. There are even mainstream FPS games that have implemented accessibility features — like Apex Legends, which shows where attacks are coming from with a very clear arrow.

Accessibility features give me the ability to play the same types of games I did before I lost my hearing. It’s a wonderful feeling, knowing that my disability is not as much of an obstacle as it used to be. And the more games that implement accessibility, the more games that I and many others can enjoy.

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