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Accessibility, Difficulty, and Exclusion

Gamingtodaynews1f - Accessibility, Difficulty, and Exclusion

This will be a bit all over the place, but I'll try to break it up somewhat. I apologize if I ramble, because my ADHD-riddled brain is going to dart about whether or not I want it to.

I like challenge in games, though I'm fully aware not everyone does. Since Sekiro came out, the notion that difficulty options should always be available (at least in terms of "easy, normal, hard" or whatnot) has been taking stronger hold. In particular, I've heard it thrown around that games are maybe the only form of media that can gatekeep you from their content if you're not skilled enough. Some people will use film (and art films in particular) to say that not all movies are for all people, but it's simple enough to respond that there's not really a barrier to watching the film at a basic level.

Now, before I get into my analogy, I want to say that I'm all for many games having difficulty options. I think organic/nonintrusive difficulty is preferable, but I know that some people really enjoy the sliders in something like The Last of Us 2 or the settings in Celeste. That's all fine, but I think the notion that all games should follow suit is weak. There are a few reasons, but let me use another comparison that works better than the film analogy many use.


Sure, nothing is technically stopping anyone from moving their eyes across a page, but if you give a huge swathe of people something like Ulysses, Infinite Jest, or King Henry IV, I imagine the majority wouldn't finish it. Of those who did, many wouldn't understand what they read or grasp any of the subtext or symbolism (for example).

Surely some people could read something like Sparknotes or Cliff's Notes, listen to a synopsis/analysis, or maybe watch a film/show version of it, but none of those aforementioned things is actually reading the novel. Considering that 43% of Americans don't read above a 6th grade level and that many organizations recommend writing no higher than an 8th grade level, this is highly exclusionary. Of course, nobody generally complains about this because not all art is for all people. Video games can run the gamut in terms of difficulty the same way a novel can. It can be accessible to most people by being (at a base level) simple/easy enough/etc., or it can choose to be more niche. Choosing to be niche isn't an inherent flaw nor should it be condemned. If someone sighs and says they like the world of Ulysses but it's a shame that the language is beyond them, it'd be recommended they read/watch something similar, read a summary, watch a film/show, or one of a few other options. It's not the same, no, but it's as good as it can be. The closest crude analogy I could give here is watching a Let's Play or picking up another game with a similar setting.

Another argument I've heard (and I'll relate this back to the analogy here in a second), is that difficulty options existing don't take away the enjoyment for someone who's played on harder levels of difficulty, but I somewhat disagree. First of all, if someone reads a summary or Sparknotes version of Ulysses, it's not the same as having actually read the book. I don't think many people would argue that. (Sure, you could make a case for translations not being the same, but localization is a different issue altogether). Imagine if you were part of a book club and someone had only read a synopsis of the book; it'd be frustrating to those who did read the book to have them involved in the discussion, as they may miss out on some major elements that would only be evident from language choices or moments that wee glossed over. Sometimes, part of the scenario is the challenge. If you are trying to share an experience of camping using only what you can find in nature and someone pulls up with an RV suggesting it's the same, there's a massive disconnect. Part of the conversation is on the difficulty or obtuse aspects of art (or activities/hobbies), and that "shared trauma," so to speak, informs the group who are sharing it (like with Sekiro or going through something like a Caedis Silvas Extreme Haunt).


So, using the RV comparison here and relating it back to games and accessibility for a bit here, there are people who can't help but optimize the fun out of a game. If a game allows me an easy way out, it certainly affects my enjoyment of it. I'm the kind of person who sat at the loot cave in Destiny because it was efficient, not because it was fun. For an example that relates to difficulty, once I realized I could basically "cheat" through Celeste, I couldn't play it anymore. I knew I'd end up being lazy and taking the easy way out whenever I got vaguely irritated. Not having that option in other games makes me get better at the game and feel accomplished.

Now, I'm not saying Celeste should change, because it shouldn't. The game just isn't for me in the same way that reading Hop on Pop or The Fault in Our Stars isn't for me. That's totally fine. What I will say, though, is that the argument that these options never take away enjoyment or their inclusion can't exclude others is flimsy. In the case of Celeste, by including those options the game quite literally became NOT for me– so it's impossible for all games to be for all people.

And all of this doesn't even go into other considerations, like developer resources and how refining a single difficulty is infinitely easier than doing multiple difficulties. Think about how often games take the route of giving the enemies more health and/or making them do a lot more damage to change the difficulty (which can sometimes work, but not usually). Once you do, you see a further erosion of the notion that nothing is affected by adding difficulty options to every game.

To put a final point on all this, my wife is someone for whom accessibility options are paramount in all aspects of her life (she suffers from a chronic illness and is in constant pain), and when I've discussed the notion of every game having difficulty options with her before (focusing on FromSoft games as an example), she scoffed. She knows I love Dark Souls and she's played the opening area for a bit, but failed miserably. Since then, she's beaten several games including both Ori games and is working on Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair at the moment.

When I asked her to explain the scoff, she said, "Accessibility isn't making something easier, like I'm incapable. That's kind of insulting. Dark Souls is hard and the reason you like it has to do with overcoming that challenge. That's the ethos of the whole game, right? Well, even though I sucked at it, when I go back and beat it, I want to have that same feeling. I want to know I really beat it, not just had it suddenly made simpler as if I'm not capable. It's one thing to want colorblind options, but it's another to want it to be something it never set out to be that'd destroy the basic loop of the game. If they did that, it wouldn't be Dark Souls anymore and beating it wouldn't be special."

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