On-screen keyboards used to be one of the primary accessories for accessible gaming. If you couldn’t use a keyboard for whatever reason, your only alternative was either shelling out for a switch-system or sticking to a pointing device, traditionally either mouse or trackball, and hoping you can get by inside most games. Technology is advancing at breakneck speed and there are many affordable alternatives to the clunky, slow and often difficult to make work on-screen keyboard.
The most obvious and first to try is looking at different keyboards. There are many on the market and the standard off-the-shelf keyboard your computer came with, is probably one of the most inaccessible options. Try a few alternatives and see if a different keyboard might make using a keyboard an option. Good choices are:
- Microsoft: Microsoft Sidewinder X4 Keyboard (UK Layout) (£33.91),Microsoft Sidewinder X6 Keyboard (£40.78)
- Razer:Razer Lycosa Gaming Keyboard (£54.89),Razer Black Widow Gaming Keyboard (£64.98),Razer Anansi MMO Gaming Keyboard (£89.99)
- Logitech:Logitech G19 Gaming Keyboard (£106.50),Logitech G110 Gaming Keyboard (£65.99),Logitech Gaming Keyboard G510 (£79.99)
Keypads are not cutting edge technology, but they can be cutting edge gaming aids. I have a box full of them, a good few cheap and simplistic Numeric keypads, Belkin and Logitech mostly, a couple of old Belkin N52’s, a Belkin N52te and in current daily use, a Razer Nostromo. Keypads can be incredibly versatile and with a small GlovePIE script, even the non-programmable ones are completely mappable. I am a big fan and before you start cluttering up your UI with a huge on-screen keyboard stealing your screen real estate, see if there is any keypad out there that fits with your abilities.
Multi-button programmable mice
If you are a point and click gamer, there are fantastic gaming mice on the market that may supply more than enough keys for most games. A good budget options is the A4 X-748K Gaming mouse 3200 dpi/USB (£23.18). The Razer Naga Gaming Mouse (£59.60) is probably one of the most versatile on the market. There are designs specifically catering for MMO’s, these are usually the best choice for point-and-click gamers as they have the most programmable buttons.
Trackpads are not something that immediately comes to mind when you think about PC gaming, but the Apple Magic Trackpad (£53.02) might change your mind. It is a multi-touch gigantic trackpack (similar to a trackpad that you get on a laptop, just much bigger). It will work with all Macs running Mac OS X Snow Leopard versions 10.6.4 and higher and there is a driver to install that will also have it running on Windows 7, Windows XP, and Windows Vista. If you cannot hit the keys on a keyboard, mouse or keypad, but can manage larger gestures, this is a great keyboard alternative for gaming.
Some games have a built-in onscreen keyboard for playing. It is not a QWERTY keyboard, but the keys of your keyboard are mapped to buttons located in your UI and the vast majority of the time, these types of UIs are fully mappable. MMO’s are very good for having an interactive UI with point and click on-screen keys and the Dragon Age UI follows the same design. Before pulling our your on-screen keyboard, see if the game has an interactive UI for clicking first. I started up Defense Grid, pictured above, and only after loading up the on-screen keyboard did I realise that there is no need for it. It can be, and I have, played it with a mouse only.
Speech recognition has come a long way over the last few years. It will recognise more than you think and even if your speech is not crystal clear or you speak in a non-standard accent, you may be surprised that the software still understands you; particularly if you invest a few hours of training. The most well-known brand is probably Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5 (PC) Home Edition will set you back £58.75. There are plenty of free alternatives; Windows 7 has built-in speech recognition and then there are opensource programs like Sphinx and ASR.
I started writing an article about on-screen keyboards last week and quickly realized that I have invested a lot of time and money in all of the above options just to avoid having to pull out an on-screen keyboard. For some disabled gamers, none of the alternatives mentioned above are viable, but sometimes what keeps us gaming in one particular way is habit rather than a lack of alternatives. Keep looking for alternatives if something does not suit your way of gaming. They may not be there now, but at some point in the future they will be. The things we use to play on is changing and as options open up, so does accessibility. Keep exploring your options.