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  • Accessibility And Difficulty: Barriers To Art

    [10.31.19]
    - Daniel St Germain
  • Who should be able to experience art? The gut answer - the ideal answer - is everybody. No one should be prevented from experiencing art. Yet every form of art has a portion of its audience that is prohibited from it in some way. In many cases, we have adapted accessibility countermeasures to try and minimize that prohibited group, but even in the cases where they work, they can fundamentally change the core experience. More to the point, video games have an additional unique barrier to entry and enjoyment; difficulty.

    Sekiro; a shinobi stands before a dark pit with a ghostly purple warrior chanting at its center.

    Every game has a difficulty. Anything within such an interactive medium is going to inherently possess some level of challenge or strain. This difficulty can come in the form of a puzzle, a level, a boss, or even the core controls within a game. Each of these different aspects of a game might have varying degrees of difficulty alone or in conjunction with one another throughout the experience.

    That fluctuation and variation is a major part of why difficulty is such a (pardon the pun) difficult topic to discuss; it's subjective. A boss in Dark Souls 3 (From Software/Bandai Namco, 2016) or even an entirely new game and system like Sekiro (From Software/Activision, 2019) will likely be very different for a player with multiple hundreds of hours with games by the same studio, then it would be for someone jumping into the library for the first time.

    Conversely, someone with any number of hours in Stephen's Sausage Roll (Increpare, 2016) will undoubtably be more adept at the puzzles within and have a greater comprehension of the mechanical systems than me.

    Truth be told, even writing this is opening up a potential rabbit hole with every other sentence. The difficulty of a puzzle game with only one set solution requires a different conversation than a traditional coin-op game with only one set difficulty. Both are different than the classic difficulty system of Easy/Medium/Hard difficulty selection. Then there are games with adaptive difficulty that tweak the challenge on the fly, and procedurally generated games where the difficulty is partially random based on context and circumstances.

    All of those different game genres, systems, and mechanics are lying under the hood of any discussion about difficulty. But if talking about one then demands talking about them all, it becomes impossible to have meaningful discourse about the problem of prohibitive art due to game difficulty.

    So, I guess what makes the most sense is to divide this into parts. (I sure hope this doesn't get out of hand.) Discussions of difficulty can often devolve into multiple parties using the same words with incongruous definitions and ideas behind what they say. So, first I want to really break down what difficulty and challenge can mean - explain the nuance under the hood and see how it can differ between experiences. From there, I'll go more into the "why" behind difficulty, talking about what it can mean to players and to games. Then finally, we'll arrive at the crux of the discussion; accessibility, acceptability, and accountability.

    StevenÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>Æ’ÃÆ'‚¢ÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>¢ÃÆ'¢â‚¬Å¡ÃÆ'‚¬ÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>¢ÃÆ'¢â‚¬Å¾ÃÆ'‚¢s Sausage Roll; a small grid island with two grills and sausages, and a small orange man.

    Part I: What is Difficulty?

    In short: A subjective mess.

    In long:

    Difficulty, as a word, can mean the state or condition of being difficult; or a thing that is hard to accomplish, deal with, or understand. That second definition is going to be a lot more applicable within the context of games.

    Games can generally be understood - at least for this conversation - as an interactive experience that poses a challenge for the player to overcome. This can take the form of a level in Steven's Sausage Roll (Increpare, 2016) or other puzzle games, a floor in Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen/Florian Himsl, 2011) or other roguelike games, a mission or quest in Borderlands (Gearbox Software/2K Games, 2009), or a match in competitive games like League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009) to name a few examples.

    This challenge has two states, success/progress/achievement or failure/punishment/loss. But if every game was only ever filled with the success/progress/achievement state then not only would there be no need for this to all be written out, there would be no difficulty - or arguably even games - at all.

    A game is created by the inclusion of a possible loss-state into a task.

    Borderlands First person view assault rifle exchanging fire with three bandit thugs in a desert town

    Jesper Juul, game designer, educator, and theorist wrote, "Failure can be described as being unsuccessful at some task in a game, and punishment is what happens to the player as a result."

    He explains four types of punishment:

    1) "Energy punishment: The loss of energy, bringing the player closer to life punishment.

    2) Life punishment: Loss of a life (or "retry"), bringing the player closer to game termination.

    3) Game termination punishment: Game over (often coupled with setback punishment).

    4) Setback punishment: Having to replay part of the game; losing abilities (Juul, 2009).

    This can be applied on every level of gameplay. Missing a shot leads to losing ammunition, mistiming a jump leads to taking damage, repeated mistakes or a big enough single mistake leads to death, too many deaths leads to a game-over or putting the game down. With countless minor instances along the way.

    But when most of us say that a game is difficult, we're not taking the time to pinpoint what type of loss or punishment we are undergoing - we just experience the path of: Hey this is pretty difficult. Wow, this is really difficult. OH MY GOD, THIS IS GAME DUMB.

    Binding of Isaac; two floating bloody worms dash in front of a crying baby in a dark cave

    Difficulty, as a more layman idea, is the challenge posed by gameplay. Harder, more complex challenges are more difficult, while easier and/or simpler challenges are less difficult. If the challenge is killing an enemy, then that enemy having more health, damage, armor, turns, resources, etc. is empirically more difficult. It would take more effort/resources from the player to overcome that obstacle.

    But that's kind of where the objectivity and empirical talks ends - when in relation to itself. An enemy B can only be truly be more difficult than another enemy A if it is the same type of enemy but with higher numbers. It is an upwards change in scale, and as such B will be more difficult than A. A downwards change in scale would mean they are easier, less difficult. However, if you have two different types of enemies then everything immediately goes to the wind.

    So many different aspects of a game's difficulty are also far more fluid than just numerical values. Things like the level's design, the context of the player and the context of the enemy all factor in to how one interprets the challenge. Considering this, stating A is more difficult than B essentially becomes a vacuous statement that is mostly predicated entirely on that player's subjective experience.

    Sausage Roll; A large island, specked with bodies of water, numerous pink blocks grills and flowers.

    Just to elaborate really quick, the level design might mean changes in environment, layout, win/loss conditions, etc. Context of the player can mean anything from previous player experience with this or other games as well as how strong/weak the player-controlled character is. Context of the enemy means how they interact with the player, environment, or other objects/enemies around them. In short, two wolves together in a forest fight differently than a wolf alone in an empty room.

    As an example, in Doom (id Software, 1993) facing off against 5 Cacodemons in a large open room with nothing but a shotgun is a very different experience than facing off against 5 Cacodemons in a narrow hallway with only a plasma gun. Both are fundamentally the same number and type of enemies with only one weapon at your disposal, but which one is harder sort of hinges on the player response and how those Cacodemons behave. Like with so many other parts of life, context is everything.

    Needless to say, this makes talking about difficulty in video games for anything more in depth than, "hey, I thought this thing was hard..." "Hey, I also thought this thing was hard." An extremely difficult (pun intended) conversation to have. To illustrate this, imagine a conversation between two players.

    One, a fresh-faced real time strategy and city management game fan says, "Hey, is Sekiro difficult?"

    The other person, a Soulsborne* series and From Software veteran says, "Yes, Sekiro is difficult."

    This exchange can mean something entirely different if you just swap who is saying which line... preferences, experience, mechanical skill, reaction time, and so much more all play an important part in how we each assess and communicate the difficulty of a game with ourselves and each other.

    *(the collection of From Software's game catalog spanning from 2009 to 2016 and beyond Including Demon's Souls (From Software/Bandai Namco, 2009))

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