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  • Advocating For Accessibility In Video Games

    [04.22.21]
    - Morgan Baker

  • How can we use "Fundamental Alterations" to promote & frame accessibility in video games?

    The concept of a "fundamental alteration" can be similarly applied to games accessibility. We can ask: Would the accessibility feature fundamentally alter the nature of the video game?

    Sounds kinda simple, right? Well, let's apply the paradigm to a couple instances.

    Instance 1: First-person shooters & audio cues

    In CS:GO and Valorant, the playerbases consider listening to footsteps a skill. To many, the notion has not been challenged. Listening to footsteps has always been a part of FPS gameplay, who are we to think differently?

    But is listening to audio a fundamental aspect of a first-person shooter?

    Well, Epic Games says no. Back in 2018, Fortnite added the ability to toggle "Visualize Sound Effects" in the accessibility menu, which added visual cues for items/actions such as treasure chests, gliders, gunshots, and footsteps. Additionally, colors within the visualization helps distinguish which sounds are neutral vs. dangerous. Opacity is also used to indicate distance of the sound.

    Through their decision, Epic Games showed that hearing is not a fundamental component for Fortnite, and as so, added exemplary accessibility into their battle royale. Though the UX is groundbreaking, it also challenges the notion of whether or not attentiveness to audio cues is a core component to the FPS genre.

    Fortnite, white directional indicator with a footstep showing someone is ahead.
    Fortnite, two yellow directional indicators with a treasure chest icon, showing a chest to the upper left and mid right.
    Fortnite (2020)

    Let's take another example. In 2020, Ubisoft released Hyper Scape. Similar to Fortnite, this FPS includes three-dimensional combat, which calls for complex audio/visual cues. After consideration, developers at Ubisoft determined that audio is not a fundamental aspect of Hyper Scape.

    As so, audio cues have directional indicators, which come in a variety of colors depending on the audio cue. Ubisoft took it one step further, making this a built-in component that is automatically implemented for the entire playerbase, thus following the standards of Universal Design.

    Around the crosshairs at the center of the screen, two white directional indicators point to the right.
    Hyper Scape (2020)

    Instance 2: Difficulty and assist modes

    This may be one of the most controversial topics in games accessibility, thanks to a wide debate back in 2019 (a la Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice). Still, the concept holds, as we can ask: Does adding more difficulty and/or assist modes alter the fundamental nature of the video game?

    To many developers, no. For example, Guerilla Games includes a robust selection of difficulty settings with corresponding descriptions in their title, Horizon Zero Dawn. Settings range from a "story" driven playthrough all the way to an "ultra hard" experience. Director Mathijs de Jonge shared that this was purposeful, stating, "We wanted to have a certain level of accessibility and understandability for players." Though the combat may be one of the core components to Horizon Zero Dawn, the developers show through their decision that adding more difficulty modes does not fundamentally alter combat and mechanics.

    Difficulty settings. Top to bottom: Story, Easy, Normal, Hard, Very Hard, Ultra Hard. Setting descriptions on the bottom of the selection screen.
    Horizon Zero Dawn (2020) for the PC

    Keep in mind, difficulty adjustments can come in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Take Celeste as an example. After listening to the community and learning more about accessibility, Matt Makes Games decided that in-game assistance does not necessarily alter the fundamental components of their game, stating that though they "spent many hours fine-tuning the difficulty... we want to empower the player and give them a good experience."

    The game does not include an apparent selection of difficulties like Horizon Zero Dawn or many other games. Instead, the creators added an Assist Mode, which allows players to adjust aspects such as speed, stamina, number of dashes, and overall invincibility. The design choice empowers gamers as they fine-tune the game to meet their individual needs.

    The accessibility feature shattered the notion that difficult platforming games cannot implement extremely thorough in-game assistance. In fact, Matt Makes Games challenges all previous notions, sharing that "if Celeste is inaccessible to you due to its difficulty, we hope that Assist Mode will allow you to still enjoy it."

    Celeste Assist Mode: Game speed, infinite stamina, air dashes, dash assist, and invincibility.
    Celeste (2018)

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