[Game Critique #04] Notes on Blindness VR

Qianou Ma
9 min readMar 18, 2021
05–418/818 CMU Design Educational Games Critique Blog Assignment Post #04: Notes on Blindness VR

Game Metadata:

Credits of images used inthis article @ Béatrice Lartigue

Learning Objectives:

This VR game experience is built from the audio diary of John Hull published in 1990, which recorded professor Hull’s struggles with and understanding of blindness during the three years after he lost sight in the 16 hours of material. The amazing visual and audio design of this game enables players to really immerse in the perspectives of the blind, which gives rise to various learning opportunities in fields such as social and emotional learning, disability awareness, cognition for the conceptual, procedural, and dispositional objectives.

For example, using this VR game, students might be able to learn …

Conceptual knowledge:

  • What are the five senses and their roles in people’s lives?
  • What it is like to be visually impaired, how the blind or people with visual impairments use their other senses to perceive and experience the world around them?
  • What could be some qualities that a person with visual disabilities could gain? What could be some qualities they could lose? (Blind people rely on their senses of touch, hearing, taste, or smell, which become sharper to compensate for their loss of vision.)
  • Many blind people could see light. (A portion of visually impaired people are totally blind, i.e., can see only darkness.)

Procedural skills:

  • Be attentive to the auditory and sensory modalities other than vision.
  • How to identify objects if they were visually impaired and how they may need help and support from others.

Dispositional skills:

  • Understanding, acceptance, and respect for blind & visually impaired people.
  • Empathy through perspective-taking of others from diverse & special backgrounds.
  • Understanding how the perspectives of the blind might influence social interaction.

These learning objectives were adopted from different lesson plans about understanding and raising awareness of blindness from various organizations (e.g., Open your eyes by Sightsavers). Additionally, these objectives are aligned with National Standards like the Common Core English Language Arts, C3 Framework for Social Studies, Next Generation Science Standards, and Social-Emotional Learning standard by CASEL.

Game Elements:

Mechanics: this game offers a first-person immersive experience and it doesn’t entail any competition element like all previously analyzed VR games (Anne Frank House, Mission: ISS, and ecosphere). A tape-recorded male voice (John Hull’s narrative) overlaid with the sound design and guide the player to experience 6 different modules (1. How does it feel to be blind? 2. Feeling the wind 3. On panic 4. Cognition is beautiful 5. The choir 6. Epilogue), some controls like handles or fixed head position are used in modules 2, 3, and 4 to navigate and interact with the environment.

Dynamics (gameplay): the game environment is mainly dark, with objects presented in clusters of glowing blue particles. Special colors or brightness were used to emphasize or highlight specific objects in the first several modules, like Hull’s child (1. How does it feel to be blind?) and the bird (2. Feeling the wind), and more colors were used in the later 5th & 6th modules.

Minimum textual guidance was provided to help the player use the handles to blow wind and reveal the scene (2. Feeling the wind) and fix head position to stare at footstep to move (3. On panic) or reveal items in a room (4. Cognition is beautiful). Various cues were used to guide the player’s attention, such as the pauses in narration, increasing visual richness, binaural sound design, the gradually revealing animation of objects triggered by interaction and attention, and etc., which help the player experience the world in a special way.

For example, in the 2nd module (Feeling the wind), the player is told to “Hold the trigger to create wind and reveal scene. Follow the bird.” A glowing bird flies around an initial dark space with only a rivulet on the ground, and the player can press the trigger on their handles to blow wind (represented by translucent petal-shape flows) to chase the bird. When the wind flows hit obstacles (like a wind chime and a swing), they trigger the sound effects and reveal the visual representation of the objects in some blurred clouds of particles, and an empty world becomes more and more dynamic and rich.

Player experiences: the player is automatically taken onto a ≈30 minutes tour of all 6 modules in mainly 3 environments in a park, a house, and a church (individual modules can be replayed afterward). The absorbing storytelling and fascinating visual and binaural sound design of this game create a very immersive and unique experience that really helps the sighted person to take the perspectives of the blind.

For example, the guided attention in the 1st module (How does it feel to be blind?) makes the player much more sensitive and attentive to sound from all directions and provides a convincing argument about how much information that sounds can convey. It’s so fulfilling and mind-blowing to finally be exposed to the panorama of sound that when the narrative goes “when there’s no activity, there is no sound, and then that part of the world dies,” the player really feel it as the world sudden turn into complete darkness, and the contrast created such a strong tension.

Many aesthetics elements of MDA are well captured in this game, such as sensation, fantasy, discovery, narrative, and submission. The richness of the auditory perception and the preciousness of human cognition are also powerfully conveyed in this game. As quoted from Béatrice Lartigue, the art director of this project:

“The world is drawn with particles. The space is revealed by the wind, the rain or the vibrations of sound through space. In virtual reality, the world around the viewer is concentric. And it’s even more true when your perceptions of this world bring it to life.”

Learning Principles:

There’re some learning science principles that this game successfully incorporated, and some others that this game may or may not attempted but unfortunately failed:

Succeed:

Application: Practice applying new knowledge > no application

Players are passively guided to pay attention to the auditory modality of cognition in module 1, after which they are given opportunities to actively practice this new way of perceiving the world in module 2, which is really clever and engaging.

Anchored learning: Real-world problems > abstract problems

This game is based on a non-fiction narrative, so the whole context is very realistic and the game did a great job of translating abstract notions of empathy into concrete and realistic experiences.

Questioning: Time for reflection & questioning > instruction alone

The recorded narrative isn’t played as a non-stop stream, the silence and pauses within and between the modules were very effective as to trigger pondering in players.

Signaling: Provide cues for how to process the material to reduce processing of extraneous material.

This game uses various visual and auditory cues like brighter or differently colored highlights, or diminishing background music when the narrative is playing, which effectively emphasize the thing that players should pay attention to.

Multimedia: Graphics + verbal descriptions > verbal descriptions alone

Modality principle: Verbal descriptions presented in audio > in written form

Redundancy: Verbal descriptions in audio > both audio & written; Eliminating redundancy: Avoid presenting identical streams of printed and spoken words.

Temporal contiguity: Present audio & image element at the same time > separated; Synchronizing: Present narration and corresponding animation simultaneously to minimize need to hold representations in memory.

This game did well in terms of all these multimedia principles, the visual and audio are nicely synchronized, and the binaural audio design is particularly well integrated with the presentation of visual stimulus in a 3D space.

Failed:

Activate preconceptions: Cue student’s prior knowledge > no prior knowledge cues

Some narratives in this game lightly touch on sighted people vs. the blind, but there are many misconceptions or prior knowledge on blindness that this game can address or trigger, such as how some visually impaired people can see some light and how blind people perceive the world with other cognitive modalities.

Spacing: Space practice across time > mass practice all at once

Segmenting: Present lesson in learner-paced segments > as a continuous unit

The default of this game is to consecutively play all 6 modules, which is understandable in terms of coherent storytelling, and 30 minutes total gameplay may not be too long, but it gives players little control on self-pacing during the first pass and it’s more of a one-time mass practice experience.

Scaffolding: Sequence instruction toward higher goals > no sequencing

Within a module, the instructions are nicely sequenced; for example, in module 2, the whole acoustic world and the interactiveness are gradually revealed. However, across the modules (except the transition from module 1 to 2) or on a more global level, the modules feel more like discrete units rather than sequential instructions that build upon each other.

Metacognition: Metacognition supported > no support for metacognition

Not much metacognitive supports were provided, as players are not asked to assess, monitor, or reflect on their own learning.

Overall Critique:

Notes on Blindness has a great potential to succeed both as an engaging game and as an educational experience. It presents such an immersive experience that players don’t need to put a lot of effort in order to see from the perspectives of the blind. For example, the 3rd module (On panic) is a really good opportunity for sighted people to learn empathy and experience the helplessness blind may feel during daily life, the complete darkness, the disturbing silence, and the sense of loss all contribute to an uneasy feeling, and a barking dog can become a ferocious creature. Except the 4th (Cognition is beautiful) and 5th (The choir) ones feel a bit plain and long, all modules are interesting and well designed and definitely leave a deep impression on players.

This game did not incorporate many educational objectives, although it could weave facts about blindness, human cognition, and respectful behaviors in daily lives, which all fit nicely with the game. Additionally, this game is essentially a one-time experience, so it may fail to provide enough practice opportunities for any skills or concepts to transfer to real life. It is understandable as this game was primarily designed to provide a narrative, but it is thus not providing the best educational experience.

References:

Lesson plans & learning objectives:

Kenneth R Koedinger, Julie L Booth, and David Klahr. 2013. Instructional Complexity and the Science to Constrain It. Science 342, 6161: 935–937.

Richard E. Mayer and Roxana Moreno. 2003. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist 38, 1: 43–52.

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Qianou Ma

I go by Christina too, and I’m a Ph.D. student at CMU HCII. Find my Chinese blogs at WeChat 一千只海鸥