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  • Accessibility And Difficulty: Barriers To Art

    [10.31.19]
    - Daniel St Germain

  • Dark Souls 3; a knight walks in profile against a castle, an eclipsing sun lights the sky orange

    Part VI: Does it have a Place?

    I spoke briefly with Dr. Bell and Dr. Kelly Tran about some of their thoughts on this topic. Both are women who have spent countless hours investigating, researching, and critically analyzing the medium of games over the past years and are now instructors of various undergraduate level videogames and media courses. Our conversation gravitated towards talk about the place of difficulty and difficult games. Particularly how these games fit in with regards to their popularity, frequency, and commercial feasibility - or potential lack thereof. Ultimately, both doctors endorsed the positives of having a variety of games and elaborated on the merits.

    Like with so many other forms of art, homogeneity isn't quite a virtue. Either in terms of creators or the experiences (games) themselves. With Dr. Bell saying, "Different games serve different purposes. We need really amazing interactive narratives that everyone can enjoy, we need mindless games for some to use to unwind, we need multi-player games to encourage group communication and social engagement, and we need really challenging games to test our skills." This also extends to the countless genres not mentioned like puzzle games, strategy games, rogue-likes and countless more.

    Dr. Tran adding, "I would argue that we should consider the quality rather than quantity of the experience. Especially with the variety of games available, we can have experiences that appeal to different kinds of players."

    While not every game needs to be a perfectly accessible experience that any passing player could pick up and enjoy, neither should every game be as aggressively challenging as Sekiro. The ideal, and in this case the reality, lies somewhere in the more complicated middle ground between the two extremes.

    Even when a difficult game cannot be beaten, there is still merit. In some ways, the journey can be more important than the destination. As games are inherently interactive, the player's own experience with the game can craft its own meta-narrative. Two people beating Sekiro have very different stories to tell if one player breezed through it while the other repeatedly struggled and overcame each challenge as it presented itself. A third player may have decided to spend their time in Sekiro endlessly sparring with a fellow immortal stranger, ignoring the larger story and world of the game. The designers of a game can craft and direct a singular, precise way to play - but every player will still bring their own context to the table and leave with a different story.

    It can at times be a tough pill to swallow, especially when games we want to enjoy or want to become invested in try to mechanically strongarm us in a certain direction - desired or otherwise. "[Games] may encourage the player to behave in a certain way, such as love and protect Clementine in the Walking Dead (Telltale Games/Telltale Games, 2012). But other forces, such as a player's beliefs, culture, background, prior experiences with games, physical world needs, shape their interpretation, enjoyment, or behavior."  (- Dr. Bell)

    Mods* can and have also been used within some communities in order to make games more accessible or change them entirely. An example of the latter, Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks, 2011) has had countless mods over the years adding, changing, and retconning all manner of the base game. For the former, controller functionality mods for the original Dark Souls make the game far easier to play rather than using a mouse and keyboard. There are also mods for Sekiro that can universally slow down the speed of enemies in combat, making boss encounters more digestible and overwhelming enemy encounters more manageable.

    (*To be clear, mod in this context is being used to mean community created content particularly in single player games - not modified gamepads or game files used to give uneven and unintended advantages in multiplayer games. Those would be more akin to exploits or hacks.)

    I know there are some within the Sekiro community that would consider such mods as ‘cheating,' a classification I find rather difficult to endorse. Firstly, it is a single player game where progress for one player makes no impact on any other player. Secondly using any mod, even one that makes the game harder, disables achievements on platforms like Steam, which would be the main tangible way of showcasing progress or prestige within the game and community. Thirdly, people shouldn't be discouraged from playing games they enjoy or in ways that give them the most out of the experience - within reason (another rabbit hole).

    The Walking Dead; Lee kneels down to talk to Clementine, worried as she asks about her familyÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>Æ’ÃÆ'‚¢ÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>¢ÃÆ'¢â‚¬Å¡ÃÆ'‚¬ÃÆ'Æâ€<sup>TM</sup>¢ÃÆ'¢â‚¬Å¾ÃÆ'‚¢s fate

    Mods hold an important place in the game industry and communities big and small despite how individuals or even developers may feel about them. "People ‘enjoy' modding games, but they are not always engaging with it in a way that the designers may have predicted or encouraged," says Bell. With Tran adding, "deliberately subverting the expectations of a game, through modding or otherwise, is one of the most interesting and even empowering things that players do." Mods, to refer back on the literature analogy from earlier, can essentially act as fanfiction of the medium of video games.

    Community-created mods ultimately both open up the game experience to more players, as well as open up the game experience itself. Skyrim with mods may be more approachable as the player can have more options to solve a problem, but there are also mods that add in more problems to be had. (In this usage, ‘problem' means gameplay challenge.) But few people would consider these mods as outright cheating. Cheating as a concept, according to Tran, "can have widely varying definitions... depending on the values of both an individual and of the community around a game." At best, it needlessly divides communities over misunderstandings and can create subgroups. At worst, it can cause vitriol and toxic behavior to spread throughout and beyond a community and make an entire game harder for new players to approach.

    Skyrim has now come out almost 8 years ago, and perhaps was never really considered a gameplay-challenge focused game like Sekiro. Despite their multitudinous differences, there are key similarities between the two. Both are strictly single player, and both can provide wonderful experiences to their players. Both have mods that impact gameplay, and both have passionate communities that have followed the game since their release. But I sincerely hope that it doesn't take 8 years for everyone to be more okay with mods allowing others to more easily play games like Sekiro. The game deserves better and we as a video game community and industry can do better.

    Skyrim; vision blurs as an Orc player casts a lightning spell towards an attacking imperial soldier

    Part VII: My Conclusion

    At the beginning of this piece I asked the relatively benign question of who should be able to experience art? A question that, undoubtedly, has been made far more complicated by these past 5000 or so words without ever getting much closer to a concrete answer.

    But the main contention of that question lies in its nuance. Not everyone is going to be able to experience all art - not only by virtue of volume (there are enough movies, books, songs, etc. that no one could take in all of even a single medium in a human lifetime), but by virtue of access. In this particular case: access via difficulty. This piece has covered what difficulty can mean for a game and how that can translate into the player experience across different games, styles, and contexts. While it is important to understand where difficulty can come from and the purposes it can serve to improve an experience, it is important to understand that it creates variety within the medium. Variety that, even if it means not every player can enjoy every game, is ultimately beneficial for the impact video games can have as a form of art.

    I have an admittedly broad personal definition of what can be categorized as art, but games as an art form exist in a strange limbo between puzzle, movie, book, and visual piece. Some may argue that the moment you press compile, or export, or save a final version that a game is a complete work of art; that a painting is art up to and including the last brush stroke touching and leaving the canvas. Or a book is art in any state even long before the last word is written in.

    I would disagree.

    Art, to me, necessitates an audience. The book is inert and merely ink on paper until someone comes along to open it, read it, and consume its language to the best of their ability. The painting is various chemicals and oils on a sheet until someone takes it in with their eyes and mind, and they interpret what their brain lets them see. A game is nothing but slumbering code until a player presses the start button to bring it to life. Whatever experience may come after is entirely unique to them, and forever exists as part of their unique version of the art.

    Sekiro; the shinobi speaks with the sculptor, who imparts a mysterious premonition of things to come

    For better or worse, that game may resist. It may literally fight the player every step of the way from start to finish. Like a book with every page stuck together, hiding a world within to spite the reader as they gently but determinedly pry the pages apart. Ultimately, that difficulty in making it through the game is an important portion experience of the game itself. Games like Sekiro tell a story through their mechanics - a struggle against far greater, deadly, and sometimes seemingly supernatural forces as someone learns to adapt to new situations with new tools and blossoming abilities. In so many ways, the player mirrors the main character, struggling through their own journey both within and without. That's an experience worth persevering through. Even if it means others cannot do the same.

    /St. Germain

    References

    Carpenter, A., 2003. Applying Risk Analysis to PlayBalance RPGs. Gamasutra.com.

    Crawford, C. 1984. The Art of Computer Game Design. Berkely, California: Osborne/McGraw-Hill.

    Green, C.s., and D. Bavelier. "Action-Video-Game Experience Alters the Spatial Resolution of Vision."

               Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 1, 5 July 2010, pp. 88-94., doi:10.1111/j.1467-

               9280.2007.01853.x.

    Hunicke, Robin, and Vernall Chapman. "AI for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in Games."           

               Https://Www.aaai.org, Northwestern University , 2004,           

               www.aaai.org/Papers/Workshops/2004/WS-04-04/WS04-04-019.pdf.

    Juul, Jesper. "Fear of Failing? The Many Meanings of Difficulty in Video Games." Www.jesperjuul.net,

               Simon Fraser University, 2009, www.sfu.ca/cmns/courses/2011/260/1-

               Readings/Juul%20%20Fear%20of%20Failing%20Video%20Games.pdf.

    Steiner, George. "On Difficulty." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 36, no. 3, 1978, pp.

               263-276. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/430437.

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