When it comes to video game accessibility settings, one of the few settings options that most games include in some form is subtitles. On screen text, usually displaying spoken dialogue, with varying levels of other information also included.
Now, before I started researching this topic, I vastly underestimated just how many gamers make use of on screen subtitles. According to a 2019 Twitter thread from Ubisoft’s David Tisserand, in a sample of Ubisoft games, 90-95% of players leave subtitles on in games that have them on screen as default, and between 50-60% of players turned subtitles on in games where they were off by default, link to the tweet thread down in the video description.
When most people think about video game subtitles, I imagine one specific use case comes to mind, deaf gamers, and yes, that is a very important group of users who rely on subtitles to be able to play video games. But, there are actually several groups of gamers who use subtitles for a variety of reasons, and who all have specific and unique needs with their subtitles.
So, today on Access-Ability, we’re going to take some time to talk about some of the different types of gamers who make use of subtitles in video games, what their specific subtitle needs are, and why video game subtitles shouldn’t be treated by developers as one size fits all.
So, first of all, let’s talk about dialogue transcription only subtitles. These are exactly what they sound like, subtitles that simply take spoken dialogue, and reproduce it as on screen text. These are the most simple and basic form of subtitles, and they’re really useful for a lot of different groups of gamers.
These subtitles are sometimes used by hard of hearing or deaf gamers who prefer a smaller amount of text to read, but these subtitles are often the subtitles of choice for groups outside of the deaf community.
If you’re a gamer playing a game with voice acting, but are not a native speaker of that game’s spoken language, dialogue transcription subtitles can sometimes be easier to follow along with than spoken dialogue, and the fact that these subtitles stick to just spoken words means there is not unnecessary extra information to read.
As a gamer with autism, these are often the subtitles I use when gaming, or enjoying other kinds of media. I struggle with audio sensory processing, and sometimes simply find that if a game has too many noises happening at once, I can’t focus properly on dialogue. Dialogue transcription only subtitles help me to follow along with dialogue, without my brain getting lost in other auditory information.
These kinds of subtitles can also be useful for gamers with conditions such as ADHD, as they can provide a safety net while consuming media. If your mind drifts away from the game for a moment and you miss part of a sentence, it’s there on screen for you to reference and keep track of. They can act as a really useful secondary source of information for basically any neurodiverse users who struggle with focusing on and processing information in real time.
Additionally, these subtitles are often useful for neurotypical gamers who just happen to be playing late at night, or in a setting where they need to be quiet. That’s an obvious example, but it’s worth noting.
Next, let’s move onto closed captions, which are more commonly aimed at supporting deaf and hard of hearing gamers. Rather than only including spoken dialogue transcriptions, closed captions show additional information to the player that may be helpful to them piecing together a scene. Closed Captions will usually include information such as the name of the speaker, descriptions of important background noises, and other audio only information a player may need.
Where regular subtitles would likely only tell you what a person said, closed captions will typically tell a player who is speaking, what they said, and describe sounds they may have been reacting to.
Closed Captions do necessitate a larger amount of text being placed on screen at any one time, and as such many non deaf users prefer to use transcription only subtitles. It’s a trade off between the quantity of information being presented, and the speed and ease with which the subtitles can be read. Neither type of subtitle is fundamentally better than the other, they are both just useful to different types of players.
While Closed captions are usually used by the deaf and hard of hearing community, they are also useful for other groups. Gamers with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, for example, struggle to recognise people’s faces. For those gamers, the labels of who is speaking may be useful, but the descriptions of sound effects may not be needed.
Additionally, the movie industry has in recent years moved to a new standard, called SDH, or Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. These are basically a more regulated form of closed captions, which have to meet specific guidelines, and the most in depth form of subtitles for deaf users.
SDH subtitles will typically include everything included in closed captions, but also include descriptions of tone setting ambient sound, more sound effects, and try to provide a more full description, in real time, of the experience given by the audio in the piece of media.
Now, when it comes to video games, not all audio information is given to players in the form of subtitles. From on screen prompts to controller vibrations, sometimes text isn’t the best way to give audio information to players. This is true for deaf and hard of hearing players, but also for gamers with other more specific conditions. Sometimes, you want a piece of information to be available, without needing to turn subtitles on to get it.
While in a cutscene, closed captions may be an effective way to describe where a sound effect is emanating from, but in the midst of gameplay, sometimes critical information needs to be delivered in a form that doesn’t take the player’s attention away from the action. If a player is being shot at from their right, on screen visual prompts can be vital for deaf and hard of hearing players to know how to react. However, these on screen visual prompts are also really important for gamers who have full hearing, but only in one of their ears. Players with hearing limited to one side may struggle to process directional audio, and visual on screen prompts can be vital for them too, even if they can hear all of a games spoken dialogue without issue. Some gamers may not need full on screen subtitles for dialogue, but may still need on screen prompts for audio information. Visual cues for audio information should never be tied inseparably to subtitle use.
Furthermore, there are examples of additional information that can be put across in subtitles, but certainly won’t be useful to every player. Marvel’s Avengers for example earlier this year included a few examples of non verbal subtext being included in subtitles, such as explaining that a character was deliberately slurping their drink overly loudly in a deliberate attempt to annoy another character. I found these subtitles really useful as an autistic gamer, but a lot of other subtitle users found their inclusion annoying, as it was information they did not need, cluttering up the subtitles for them. Additionally, because these non verbal subtitles were not their own setting, they were used very inconsistently, only when other subtitles were not already on screen.
Lastly, and this is important for games with multiple voice acted languages, it is important that subtitles accurately match the dialogue a player is hearing, if their subtitle and voice acting language match. You sometimes see this issue in games translated from japanese to English, where the subtitles match the translated Japanese audio track, rather than the new english voice track. For subtitle users who are able to hear spoken dialogue, it can be actively distracting when the subtitles they read differ from the words they hear, which can cause significant issues.
This is far from a comprehensive list of disabilities and groups who benefit from subtitles, but hopefully it gives you a sense of the wide variety of groups who find subtitles useful, and how varied the needs of subtitle users can be.
All too often, when we talk about a game including subtitles, that’s where the conversation ends, as though good subtitles are an on and off toggle. No, if you want to do subtitles properly, you need to keep in mind that different types of subtitles benefit different users, and in an ideal world, players could pick and mix the aspects of subtitles which are useful to them.
If you want to do Subtitles right, you need to give players a variety of options they can toggle on and off. Do you want dialogue only? Closed captions? SDH? Just character name speaking tags? Non verbal subtext descriptions? Descriptions of sound effects? On screen visual cues for gameplay? The amount or type of information given by subtitles can wildly change their usefulness, and if you want to help as many players as possible, you need to let players opt in and out of the information they find useful or distracting.
Subtitles are used by more players than you think, and it’s important that we think of them as more than an on or off setting to offer players.