One of Fernanda Damstra’s earliest memories is from when she was 5 years old, watching her cousins play video games on her grandparents’ Super Nintendo. The teenagers monopolized the game, and Damstra’s hands itched to take over the controller.
When they did, the Michigan native was already losing her vision due to septo-optic dysplasia. By the time her 12th birthday rolled around, she was completely blind in her left eye, and could see only shadows out of her right.
But none of that stopped her from mastering the video games she’d always wanted to play – from the iconic Super Mario Bros. to more complex role-playing games like the Persona and Kingdom Hearts series.
“It was just a lot of fun, something interactive and a way to challenge myself,” she said. “I started to play whenever I got the chance.”
Most mainstream video games are highly visual, with detailed graphics and animation providing most of the clues needed to complete each level. But Damstra learned to play them without sight, relying instead on the sound effects that accompany different actions.
“A character’s walk sounds different when they hit walls or walk downstairs or walk in caves,” she said. “There are different sounds when enemies are approaching or loading a weapon – it’s just learning those clues and learning how fast you have to react.”
If it sounds simple, it’s not. “It’s a lot of trial and error,” she said. “Dying and redoing it over and over until you understand what’s going on.”
Today, Damstra is 24 and has her own channel on Twitch, an online community where users broadcast themselves playing video games and chat with other gamers. For games she’s unfamiliar with, Damstra will ask her online audience to give her hints about things she missed because she’s blind.
“My favorite part of Twitch is interacting with people,” she said. “If I’m lost I can say, ‘OK guys, where is the door? Where am I going?’ and they’ll help me out.”
This week, Damstra’s Twitch presence will be amplified thanks to a partnership with AbleGamers, a nonprofit that uses video games to improve the lives of people with disabilities. On Wednesday, October 26 at 4 p.m., she will play Luigi’s Mansion on AbleGamers’ Twitch channel, which has more than 5,000 followers.
In Luigi’s Mansion, a Nintendo classic that Damstra chose for its use of sound, players must help Luigi rescue his comrade Mario inside a haunted mansion overrun by ghosts.
Viewers will observe how people with disabilities can use different skills and strategies to play video games, said AbleGamers Editor-in-Chief Brian Conkin.
“Video games help empower people with disabilities to defeat personal challenges,” he said. “People can strive for greatness through gaming – whether it’s a blind gamer learning to play fighting games by sound or gamers with limited physical mobility playing speed-running games.”
Conkin and Damstra were connected through BlindNewWorld, the social-change campaign founded by Perkins School for the Blind to change society’s misperceptions about blindness. Right away, Damstra identified with AbleGamers’ view of gaming as a source of empowerment for people with disabilities.
“When I play video games, a decision that I make could give me a good or bad ending, or a character could live or die,” she said. “I am in control. If I don’t move, the story won’t continue.”
Damstra hopes her upcoming Twitch session, and the increased exposure that comes with it, will disprove anyone who doubts the abilities of people with visual impairment.
“I want to show people that it doesn’t matter if you’re blind – you can still have fun,” she said. “You can do anything you want to, you just have to put forth the effort.”
Watch Fernanda play Luigi's Mansion on the AbleGamers Twitch channel.