On April 10th, I hosted The Daily WTF: Live! in Pittsburgh. It was a blast. We had a great crowd, and some great performances.

John Lange attended the storytelling workshop I co-taught with Kevin Allison, of The Story Studio. His story- about gaming, and friendship, and technology- really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to make sure he got a chance to share it.

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Hello everyone, my name is John, and today I wanted to tell you about my friend Phil. I first met Phil at his gaming store that he runs in the North Hills. He runs a store that sells D&D games, board games. If you’re not familiar with D&D it’s pen-and-paper games that you play at a table, you’re sitting there with everyone, and everyone around the table is playing and talking and having a good time.

When I met Phil, I came into his shop and his shop is like a library, almost, with books all along the walls, and tables all through the middle, all round, so that everyone can sit around them and play games. It has the smell of a library, which is surprising- you’d think it would smell way worse than that. Less of a dusty, dry library, more of a lived in, used library, all the time.

I’m sure it was the first time I met him, Phil has this very distinctive laugh, that you walk in and you’ll almost always hear it’s like a: “Aaaahhhhahahaha”, and you’re just like, “What is that?” Over time, as you get to know Phil, and y’know he’s talking to people and laughing at what they say, or more often laughing at what he says, because he likes his own jokes. It’s a great thing.

Now, when I walk into his store, the first time I walked in there I had to be 16 or 17; he’s not much older than me and he runs this store. I’ve been going there for years and years though, and every time I walk in it’s like going back to my childhood almost, back in high school playing D&D with my brother and his friends. Every day, or every few days, after school we would play. Everytime I walk into the store, it’s the same feeling, the same smell of the books, and the games everywhere, and Phil there laughing at his own jokes- it’s awesome. It’s so great.

One of my favorite parts of it though, is whenever I go to the store I talk to Phil, because that’s what he does all day, he talks to people. We talk about games a lot, he has to talk about games, because that’s what he does. He’s also really good at it. He likes games a lot, he knows about them, he knows what makes individual games special. “What is great about this game or that game, what’s really fun about it?” You can go in there and ask for suggestions, and he always has great suggestions. You can say, “I’m going vacation with some family, we’re going to have 8 of us, and no one really plays games, but we want something to play that’s easy, quick, fun.” He’d say, “Oh yeah, here play this. It’s great.” Or, “I have these friends who are really hardcore into games, but we want something new,” and he’d say, “Oh, I have the perfect thing for you over here.”

Every time he suggested a game to me, it’s been great. There are always games being played around there. He and I talk a lot, because we’re both into how games are played, how people play games, what’s important about a game to people. And we really like talking about games, and we really like sharing games with other people. We talk about the games we play and how we play them.

Since I’ve been going there, over time, Phil has been losing his eyesight. When I first went in, he could tell who I was. At the time I had a long pony-tail, which is, y’know- surprising. 1990s game store, a big guy with a pony-tail, which is very distinctivie. I don’t know how he could tell it was actually me with his eyesight going, but he could.

Over time, his eyesight got worse and worse. At one point, he was holding bills up to his eye, pushing them up to his eyeball, getting them wet trying to read what the number was. At this point, he just says, “What are you handing me? How much does it say? What does it say on the register? What bills are you handing me? Ok, good, we’re fine.” And he used to be able to sorta see shapes, and at this point, he’s blind. That doesn’t really stop anything he does, he still talks about games all the time, he knows all the games that are coming in, he knows about the rules, he has people playing them all the time, he plays every game he can all the time.

So I go in and talk to him and we talk about stuff, share the things we’re doing, everything that we like to do, and y’know, he even does things that you would think are a little bit harder to do. Things that you would think are a little bit harder to do- like, he’s watching the “Walking Dead” and yelling at them for doing the stupid things they do all the time. Right, everyone yells at the screen when they’re doing that right? He can’t see the stupid faces they’re making when they’re making their terrible decisions, but he still yells at them just the same for what they’re doing.

So I was in his store, and he’s been trying to get more onto social media. He has an iPad, and he’s got it on Instagram and FaceBook and he can type updates and take pictures, and we tell him they’re fine- he doesn’t know- and do stuff for the store. It’s great.

The iPad has this screen reader feature that just tells you the text on the screen. It’s built in, apps just can plug into it if they want to do stuff with it. So he can get around on the iPad, on the Internet totally fine. The iPad reads to him everything that it has, and he doesn’t have any problems with it. At the time- this was a couple of years ago- a game had just come out, that I had heard of, and had played on the PC. It was an old 90s game that got a remake.

In this game, you’re the leader of this insane Viking band in this world where there are actual gods, and you’re trying to role-play as the chief of a clan that’s trying to become the “chief of chiefs”. There’s not clicking around play, it’s sort of like choose your own adventure. You come up to these problems, they have these ridiculous things, like you’ve met a village of Duck People, do you want to subjugate them or help them with trade… and you always help them. Don’t do anything bad to the duck people. It’s terrible later, trust me.

And, it’s great. It’s a really fun game to play, and it’s the perfect kind of game for Phil. One, because it’s all words and choosing, you don’t have to see what’s going on, you can just have it read to you. And the other, because he really likes this kind of roleplaying. In this game, you can’t have your current sensibilities on, how being fair works, or how justice works. This is a crazy world with crazy gods that are mad at you if you don’t slaughter enough sheep in their name.

It’s a lot of fun to play, and a lot of fun to roleplay. And it had just come out on the iPad, and I told him about. Look up this game, called King of Dragon Pass, and go there, and we’ll see if it works. So we look it up in iTunes, and it comes up and it’s there, and it’s talking about it, but it doesn’t say anything about accessibility for people with visual impairment.

I say, “Let me look up on the Internet, and maybe it says there.” At the time, there weren’t any reviews of it out yet, other than people that had played it in the 90s when it came out on the PC. There was nothing on it. They didn’t have a demo. It was $10. Phil said, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to waste $10 on something I don’t know that I can play.”

So I couldn’t share that with him. I couldn’t share that game with him, that I knew he would love, and that he would love to talk about with everyone that comes through. That was one of the first things that we couldn’t share. Even video games were something that we both enjoyed. Not just reading, not just RPGs, playing with people around the table, we enjoyed video games. He grew up in the Pac-Man, arcade era, where people were going to arcades back then. I grew up in the StreetFighter II arcade era, where again, people were going to arcades again fro a brief time.

And just, we enjoyed all kinds of games with people, whether it was video games or pen and paper, or anything. So this was one I couldn’t share with him. It didn’t need a lot of work to do that- if it would just read what was on the screen, that was good enough. We were playing another game recently- because I think about that a lot, what could the developers have done to let him enjoy this game, and initially, I was thinking, “Well, change the screens around a little bit, move things around so that it reads in order, y’know all the stuff they say to do in HTML with meta-tagging so you can do it properly for the visually impaired and for readers.”

We were playing a game called Concept, which is a lot like charades or Pictionary. You’re trying to get someone to guess a name, a movie title, what-have-you. The way you play it you have this big-board which has a bunch of pictures, and you’re just putting little icons on the pictures, to tell them, “This concept is something about a person, and there’s a picture of a boy, and a picture of a movie camera, and a picture of a triangle.” Oh, it’s a movie about a guy with a triangle, a wizard? Harry Potter, maybe?

He can play that with us just fine. He’s lived a pretty hefty amount of his life not being able to see, and just listening to what’s happening. He can remember things, we can just say, “Oh, there’s a piece os the person, there’s a piece on the one that looks like an eye.” He can guess with everyone else, there’s no extra burden in him playing, because that’s the stuff that happens in the game anyway. He can play just totally fine.

I realized the makers of the game didn’t have to do anything. They didn’t have to move anything around, they could just have it read out what’s on the screen, he’s so used to dealing with this on websites and everywhere else, that it just reads what’s on the screen. If it just read the words on the screen, he could do the rest of the work needed to play this game.

So, I think about that a lot, whenever I’m doing designs for things. I don’t do a lot of front-end development at the moment, but I have in the past, and so I think about how I can meet Phil halfway, on making these things. How can I make it so Phil can use my product? I think about him a lot. I even think, “How can I open the door enough and come out on my front porch so that Phil can meet me?” Because that’s all I have do, just open the door and be there, and he’ll show up.

So I hope that when anyone here, or who heres this, will do the same thing- think about Phil when you’re designing things. Just open the door a little bit. Meet him somewhere. It doesn’t have to be half-way. Just meet him somewhere so he can use whatever it is you’re designing.

There’s a happy bit on this. Remy asked me about this story, and I was looking up a couple things to make sure I remembered everything correctly, and now there are now reviews of King of Dragon Pass online. It’s on a bunch of top ten lists for the visually impaired, because it is a really good game and they do do the screen reading. I was really happy to be able to tell this story, but I’m also super happy that I get to go this weekend and meet up with Phil, and tell him about the game, and tell him, “Yes, you need to play this now.”

Thank you.

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