Elsa S. Henry, a game designer and community manager for Storium, launched Blind Lady Versus awareness campaign about what it’s like to be legally blind and a lover of video games. Elsa live-tweets her video game experiences, discussing the challenges she faces as someone with low vision. Her mission is not to call out game designers for being exclusive, but to encourage them to create games that are more accessible so that everyone has the chance to play their games.
Elsa sat down with me to discuss Blind Lady Versus, disability awareness and even #GamerGate.
First, let’s get into geekdom and what you love about it. What are your favorite fandoms and sections of the geek world?
Elsa: Sherlock Holmes was my first and most beloved fandom.
What other things are you in to? I know you love gaming – but what else?
Elsa: RPGs. Board Games. I’m a total cosplay nerd when I have the time. I am also a sci-fi fantasy nut. My favorite modern author right now is Seanan McGuire.
Tell me about your vision problems. When did they start and how have they evolved over the years.
Elsa: I was a rubella baby so I was born with the full trifecta: congenital cataracts, hearing loss and a heart defect. My sight isn’t degenerating as quickly, but given that I am blind in one eye, I definitely have worries that I won’t be able to see out of the other forever.
How has that impacted your life in general and your enjoyment of geek culture?
Elsa: Well, I can’t drive, so my work options have been limited, which also means that my enjoyment of geek culture can be limited. I don’t have a game store or a comic book store near me and our movie theater is limited. Getting to cons can be challenging. But at the same time I choose to work from home and I DO get to be a disabled games designer. So my access isn’t entirely harmed.
I know that coping with disabilities involves having some dark times, but you’ve turned your disability into something that has a positive impact on society. You’re an advocate and you’re also so open about what it’s like to live with disabilities. Which brings us to Blind Lady Vs. Tell me the motivation behind that.
Elsa: So, last year in the spring Tomb Raider came out and I asked around because I wanted to play it, if it was accessible and nobody really knew. But they told me, “I think you could play it.” So I did, and I live-tweeted my experience under #blindladyvstombraider. People loved it. Also people told me they learned something about games that they hadn’t known before. So I decided it needed to be “a thing.”
It took me over a year to create the Patreon, and to find a way to make it financially viable, because video games are expensive. My next step, I guess, is that I want to branch out into TV console games.
Have you noticed patterns – things that all games have in common that create challenges for visually impaired gamers?
Elsa: YES. If we could stop changing camera angles in the middle of combat scenes that would be marvelous. Also, if you want me to shoot a thing and your gun sights don’t have contrast with the background, then I can’t play the game. I’d say that contrast between backgrounds and enemies can totally be a problem.
In your experience, which game is the worst for people with vision problems? Which game has been the best?
Elsa: That’s a hard question to answer, but I’ll tell you the game that makes me swear the most: Portal 1 & 2 because you need spatial skills and I don’t have any.
Borderlands 2, hands down my favorite game as a low vision player who likes blowing things up.
All of the guns have easy to see sights, and the siren (a class) has a power that lets you freeze an enemy so you can kill them. Plus, as that power gets better, you can kill enemies with it and I like that dying isn’t that big of a deal in the game.
You touched on the response to Blind Lady Versus a bit, but can you get into that a bit more? I can tell you as someone who is also blind and a lover of video games, it was really a hit to me when I realized I couldn’t play first person shooters anymore. I’ve found your live-tweets to be inspiring because it gives me hope that industry will adapt to make gaming more accessible. What have others shared with you?
Elsa: A lot of fully blind players have told me they love that, through my live-tweets, they get a glimpse of what it’s like to play a game. That really warms my heart because hell, I’d love to make games more full blind accessible. Also, when it comes to the RPG/board game parts of Blind Lady Versus people really like when I share my game hacks.
How many games have you played for Blind Lady Versus?
Elsa: I think there are 10 reviews and an 11th coming out shortly!
Tell me about your work as a games designer.
Elsa: I’m currently writing a game called Dead Scare, which is about a bunch of housewives fighting the zombie horde during the 1950s. There are rules for disability in there. I’ve got some other stuff coming up, none of which I can talk about right now, but I’ll tell you to keep a lookout for my name coming up in various places soon. Dead scare is being published by Exploding Rogue studios, by the way
In addition to your advocacy for people with disabilities, you are heavily involved with #GamerGate and standing up against all of the harassment involved with it. I know there is an extensive amount of negativity, but I want to talk about the positives. In the midst of the threats and dehumanization of female gamers, there seems to be a lot of solidarity and community building happening. What are your thoughts on that?
Elsa: Okay. So, first of all, yes I’m one of the women the gamergaters have targeted. It has gone from my Facebook and being harassed there, to my twitter, to my inbox. And the threats are all terrifying. But what I’ll say as a positive is that, while we’re presently in the midst of an all out war against women in the industry, it is definitely causing people to take notice. The New York Times published a call for women in the industry to speak with them about their experiences. Anita Sarkeesian having to cancel a speaking engagement has gotten a LOT of attention. But as one of the “little people” one of the people whose name isn’t as well known, I’m asking people to remember that it’s not just Anita, or Zoe, or Brianna. There’s a whole boatload of us resetting our hate mail counters every day.
That’s really important. I think it also harkens back to the ‘Fake Geek Girl’ stereotype.
Elsa: YES. When I published a piece a few months back about Guardians of the Galaxy and how superhero movies don’t really treat people with disabilities well, I got a lot of backlash because I didn’t like the portrayal of Alicia Masters. Apparently, because I hadn’t read the comics and found the portrayal of a blind woman problematic, I wasn’t a real geek.
But going back to gamer gate for a second – Yes there’s solidarity forming, but it’s forming for specific women and we need to be careful that the solidarity is for everyone who is being attacked.
Yes, it’s been very focused around the “big names.” As you say, everyone who is participating in the hashtag is receiving threat.
Do you think there will ever be a resolution to GamerGate? Do you think there will also be people who will direct their hate and self-loathing onto women in the industry and geek culture in general?
Elsa: I think that GamerGate will end in one of two ways: either a) the trolls will eventually get bored – this is my preferred ending. Or b) someone gets seriously injured in real life.
Also, what do you say to the people who remark that the harassers aren’t representative of their perspective and then in the next breath they say “but they do have a point…”
Elsa: What do I say to them? I tell them that until they can play nicely with others, they need to get out of my sandbox. What I mean by that is just this – If you’re going to give credence to the harassers, then just don’t. Don’t say anything. Also, everyone needs to stop playing devils advocate. I literally got threatened with having my head blown off with a gun. I won’t play the devils advocate game.
There’s a lot of rape culture going on here, the idea that if a woman speaks up about anything she’s fair game to receive death and rape threats. This really goes deeper than gaming culture. I’m not sure a lot of people are paying attention to what this all says about the broader perspective of how women are viewed in society. What do you hope will come out of GamerGate, not just for the gaming industry, but for culture in general?
Elsa: So, 1) I think culturally speaking we have to remember that women’s bodies don’t seem to be given the same amount of ownership that men have. Cultural commentary surrounds our bodies all the time, whether it’s how to handle rape, whether it’s questioning that an assault happened, whether it’s asking why a woman didn’t leave an abusive husband, or honestly not asking if a pregnant woman is ok with being touched. So, the idea of threatening a woman’s body isn’t actually that far fetched when we look at it from that perspective. I hope that people will be horrified enough by the public nature of what is happening that they start questioning their own actions.
That wraps my questions. Thanks for chatting with me and I look forward to more #blindladyvs tweets.
If you’d like to discuss Blind Lady Versus with Elsa, you can email her at elsa(at)storium(dot)com. You can support her awareness campaign on Patreon and follow it on Twitter with #blindladyvs.