The first video game I remember playing is the adaptation of Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). I had supposedly already been honing my skills in a little game called FIFA 99, but it is five-ish year old me that I remember, holding the controller of the original PlayStation as I embodied an Emperor turned llama by the name of Kuzco. I was getting my first real taste of the realm of interactivity. When I wasn’t playing, I was watching my older siblings hack and slash their way through the Prince of Persia series, run and gun through Remedy Entertainment’s legendary shooter Max Payne, and of course, do whatever it is they did in the early Grand Theft Auto games. Sitting on my bed, eyes glued to the screen while my brothers irresponsibly but lovingly showed me mature games that I would remember forever, was just as important as playing them myself. Nearly two decades later, I am still that kid in front of the TV, playing through magical experiences that remain unmatched by any other form of entertainment. That kid exists everywhere. That kid has powerful memories of interactive experiences. Funnily enough, that kid has also been fueling the persistence of specific industry-wide problems.
When thinking about these problems, I first think about the catalog of video games I grew up sinking hours upon hours of my free time into, and how it has enabled me to be fluent in the video game language. This idea, of fluency and proficiency, is core to accessing the video game experience that caters to the seasoned player. For a long time, this meant every game I had ever touched, and for an even longer time, it meant the discouragement of other people from ever touching one. It wasn’t until I had gotten my hands on one of my favorite games of the past console generation, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016), that I recognized this part of the problem. It was the first game I had ever played with a thoughtful range of gameplay options that could significantly alter the experience. Aside from difficulty options that facilitate, for instance, a play-through solely dedicated to the experience of narrative, I was suddenly offered options that could minimize the level of effort I was used to. Those with trouble aiming and shooting could enable an assistive feature that allowed you to enter/exit an aiming mode, locking onto a nearby enemy by simply pressing a button. Sequences involving driving a car could be made less complicated by having the camera center itself whenever needed. Even the popular but problematic button mash had a work-around; holding the button instead of tapping it. Needless to say, I paid these features little mind. My first play-through was a “normal” one. Later, while attempting some of the in-game challenges as part of the PlayStation Trophy list, I figured out that enabling any of the assistive features wouldn’t nullify the completion of a challenge. I considered it, then rejected it, as I went on to take the ‘real challenge’. I had brushed these options off as features designed for people who I thought needed them, and while these options are an essential help for disabled gamers, I was being fundamentally ableist. I realized that there is no ‘real challenge’. I realized that games, and gamers, had been maintaining a space occupied exclusively by that kid, who has held the controller in their hands from the age of five.
With this space comes the game that assumes you are physically capable of or have years of experience with controlling the camera while moving and shooting. With it comes the game that thinks you understand or are capable of perceiving so called universal visual and audio cues. Generally speaking, this space has produced games that teach in a language presumed to be readily available to the player. It’s important to recognize that this person is always different. Often, it is the gamer prevented from progression due to problematic and immutable control schemes. Other times, it is my partner, whose experience with video games comes from wildly different and specific types of game design. Introducing her to the video games I love would be easy, I thought. “Here’s a game called The Last of Us”, I said. “Yes, it is very intense.” “No, you’ll get used to the controls.” Shame on me for pitching a survival game characterized by a grounded, realistic experience, but at least I got the ball rolling on my questions regarding why she wasn’t able to finish the post-apocalyptic survival shooter but did complete and enjoy Nathan Drake’s final journey in Uncharted 4. Part of it is, admittedly, the difference in tone; exhilarating tales of pirate treasure in an Indiana Jones style narrative certainly made the gameplay a little more digestible, as opposed to the constant threat of infected humans looking to cut your journey short. At the same time, Uncharted 4 was also clearly designed more thoughtfully for a wider audience, one that reflects the gaming community more accurately. The implementation of the game’s accessibility features enabled gamers of all kinds to adapt the required level of language mastery to their own playing field, strengthening the communication between the game and the player.
Strong communication makes all the difference, and one way of achieving it is getting rid of meaningless vocabulary. Accessibility aside, meaningless vocabulary plagues the idea of difficulty in games. See, that kid knows what to expect when a game offers the choice between “Easy”, “Normal” and “Hard”. They are examples of language that is assumed to be straightforward, which it seemingly is for the experienced and able-bodied player, and yet they rarely come with clear communication about what kind of experience that results in. The player who was introduced to this kind of language at five years old by both engagement and observation has cultivated their own ideas of the standard range of difficulty options, having barely even touched the ones presented as ‘easier’, while intimately familiar with the ones intended to be the ‘real challenge’. What follows is a gaming space in which challenge is somehow exclusively the territory of the able-bodied and proficient player, a space where the concept of challenge is grossly misperceived as requiring the ‘standard’ level of proficiency in order to even attempt it. Challenge itself is not, or should not, be what separates the “Easy” from the “Hard” playthrough. Challenge is a way of examining the intended experience, and providing a range of appropriate degrees of challenge in a dynamic and flexible way. A game designed primarily for a challenging experience fails in its concept if its level of challenge is supposed to be universal. If the name of the game is success through frequent failure, the player needs to be on board with the level of challenge that poses, and if your primary argument against making such an experience a more widely accessible one is that no game is for everyone, you are that kid. You are watching from the privileged space that you occupy, contributing to a problem that caters concepts of challenge in gameplay to you. Challenge, at its core, can be universally accessible when properly broadened and planned for. Challenge is about communication and trust.
My partner has started playing through 2018’s God of War. I like to think of this game as a decent example of effective communication to the player in terms of delivering a tailored experience. Besides the game’s thoughtful range of accessibility features similar in nature to those of Uncharted 4 (including the hugely important option to remap certain buttons on your controller, as well as a number of subtitle options), it also approaches the difficulty options in a way that not only communicates the intended level of challenge, but the intended experience as well. My partner went for the first one, entitled “Give Me a Story”, described by the game as an experience for “players who want to experience the story without too much of a gameplay challenge”. This proved to be perfect for her, as she looked at the other options, “Give Me a Balanced Experience”, “Give Me a Challenge”, and “Give Me God of War” and found herself knowing what to expect from those well enough to make a decision not just based on the desire for a lower level of challenge, but also on the fact that the other options came with similar descriptions that offered a clear idea of what kind of experience that would translate to. In a conversation about the game, she told me that she thought what she had played so far was quite hard, but that she was confident she could do it. In other words, the level of challenge was appropriate for her. She found satisfaction in the kind of gameplay challenge she had experienced so far, partly due to the fact it was designed that way, and due to the excellent in-game explanations that have been helping her know exactly what to expect. The combination of these two made it so that she trusts the game to give her a challenge that she is on board with, all the while providing the experience she signed up for: the story. There was no meaningless vocabulary. The game was teaching her its language in the way you would teach a real one; based on the knowledge the student currently has and needs in order to progress.
I myself had the privilege of growing up with the controller. I was and am that kid, and I have had the privilege of being in an exclusionary space I helped maintain. Now, I believe we can all create a healthier and richer space. One characterized by trust, communication and thoughtfulness, as we approach matters of accessibility and difficulty with the purpose of broadening the experience and offering the tools a player might need to tailor it to their own comfort and joy. Gamers and game developers all over the world are having productive and forward-thinking conversations about these tools, and the intricate process in which these tools are made available. There are several game studios taking this process on from the early moments of game production, resulting in a cycle of development where the people involved have the time and resources to think through the accessibility of their game, and implement features that, no matter the vision, open up the floor to people who need or want a different way in. At the same time, we have been taking but small steps towards creating a truly inclusive space. To create it, that kid too needs to approach the conversation from outside of the one they’ve been confined to. How? First, by listening, because as much as I have to say about accessibility and difficulty in video games, there are people in this community that have been saying it much louder and for much longer. It’s about time we lend them our ears.
Valuable resources for game developers and gamers regarding accessibility and difficulty:
A list of essential accessibility options covering auditory, motor and cognitive impairments:
Articles about difficulty, and difficulty in conjunction with accessibility:
A presentation about accessible design:
Websites dedicated to reviewing games on the basis of their accessibility: