The gaming community, or idea thereof, is so wide and diverse it’s almost unfair to consider it a subgroup or subculture anymore (compared to, say, comics or anime). There are many types of games at many skills levels, but some of us would have the majority of the community believe that only certain games matter, or only certain types constitute “real games.” This is not only wholly incorrect, but it is also a gatekeeping tactic that is ableist in nature.
I wish to discuss two aspects of this. First, I’d like to briefly touch on how this is ableist (or discriminatory against disabled people). And second, I would like to discuss how to make games more accessible to as many disabled people as possible. It’s not enough that a game should be diverse in its content, but it should be accessible to as many diverse groups of people as well. What good is representation in a game you can’t even play?
The idea that “casual games” are not real games is a fallacy. These games fall into a few categories such as pick-up-and-play (think mobile games like Bejeweled Blitz or time management games like Diner Dash); social sim games (Tomodachi Life, Miitomo, Animal Crossing); card collecting/item collecting/monster collecting games; ‘easy’ skill games (the Cooking Mama series); party games or skill-building/training games (Art Academy, Brain Age); or purely story-driven games (Journey, Firewatch). All of these games require some amount of skill whether it’s physical or mental—even if it is the ability to press a few buttons and move a joystick or D-pad.
Games can be anything fun that run the spectrum from purely enjoyable to downright challenging. Here is how adhering to any idea otherwise is ableist.
Not everyone has the ability or time to play a long-form game, a complex game, or a game that requires an immense amount of mental gymnastics and hand-eye coordination. There are all different kinds of people with all sorts of different abilities, and it’s time we start teaching ourselves what that means.
Sometimes, people simply cannot sit through hours of grinding or a five-minute cutscene. Sometimes, someone cannot engage with a high-pressure game. Some are unable or unwilling to do tons of math in RPGs in regards to armor or skill levels, or cannot follow a lengthy story arc because of a short attention span or because they are infrequent gamers. Some people have chronic pain or fatigue and are unable or unwilling to spend long amounts of time in one position, or can’t hold a controller because it cramps their hands (this happens to many gamers, disabled or not).
This is where “casual games” become a blessing. People who cannot follow lengthy story arcs might find great enjoyment in, say, a mobile game that’s a connect-the-item type, or a basic time management game. Someone who already has a stressful life might find solace in a relaxing sim-style game with purely enjoyable social interactions (à la aforementioned adorable animal sim games). These kind of games can even be downright therapeutic for many people.
Disabled people are shunned from every community every day—even from their own communities that should be welcoming. If someone finds a safe place somewhere and is summarily told that they’re not welcome, it is generally abuse based on a prejudice. In this case, ableism. To falsely claim that games that are (more) welcoming to disabled people—especially games that have provided safe spaces and have been shown as therapeutic—are not “real games” (whatever that even means anymore) is so twisted it becomes hard to fathom.
This kind of intolerance of disabled people is nearly unheard of in other facets of life. I haven’t seen a shop owner declare their store is only reachable by 50 flights of stairs because “Only real people who walk are allowed.” How ludicrous would that be? While ableism is still a huge facet of modern society, it is definitely worse in some circles than others, and many of those circles tend to overlap.
Even with all these “casual games,” or what I will here on refer to as “more accessible games,” there are still aspects the game development community at large could and should address to make them more accessible and more playable.
Some of the easiest things to toggle are in-game settings like sound volumes and text speed. But I very, very rarely see settings for, say, text size (visual impairments), the ability to mute specific sound effects (misophonia), or toggles to specifically even-out all noise to a single level (no more quiet scenes or loud scenes, just all the same level). This could be immensely helpful—and not just for differently-abled people.
This would be useful with, say, small screens, excessively noisy/quiet environments, or even for people who don’t like/can’t handle SURPRISE JUMP-SCREAM ORCHESTRAS blaring in their ears. This alone could make games more accessible to many people—even people who are not disabled or would not consider themselves part of that community. Then there are other in-game options that could be handy, and some (but not all) games employ such as skill settings, and even “free-play” modes. If every game had a relaxed free-play mode, we’d all be much happier. Free-play-style games, though unbelievably few and far between, are often very therapeutic for many individuals coping with things like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
No-pressure games are so desperately needed within the “adult” area of gaming that those who do seek them out are disappointed and relegated to, eugh, toddler games. Don’t get me wrong—these can be fun, but sometimes you want something that feels genuinely geared toward an older audience. Journey and Never Alone come to mind.
Animal Crossing is an example of a more free-form style of game, but still has flaws. The primary flaw is its dependency on real-time and how it effects in-game events adversely like beloved characters leaving, which can be heartbreaking to someone with social anxiety who has found solace in a virtual animal friend.
Perhaps some of these kind of things could be toggled on and off as well, or certain changes could be made to allow a “lock” to be put on certain characters to keep them from being removed from the game. This kind of thing wouldn’t change the appeal or gameplay whatsoever, and would, again, be a huge boon to the entire community. It would make this particular game truly free-play and remove the intense pressure some can feel to impress a friend or keep up a friendship in the game.
There are external things that can be done to aid people as well. The ESRB ratings are handy, but can be flawed. Something can receive an M or T rating for its storyline and be otherwise devoid of any negative or adult-oriented imagery or material, or it could be an E and have loads of cartoon violence unsuitable in some households. And while there is usually some description alongside the rating of the most common reason for the rating on the game in question, it can be nearly impossible to list everything in a game on the back in a tiny little box with tiny print (again, also ignoring how this is disadvantageous to the visually-impaired). A long-form description, therefore, would be a phenomenal option and would ideally be replete with trigger warnings on content type and specific scenes.
But where should we have this information so it’s handy and accessible to everyone? Perhaps a two-fold approach with a searchable online database and a long-form description with the trigger warnings perhaps kept in-store behind the counters. This could allow access to nearly everyone who would wish to know whether or not that awesome suspense game you’ve been begging for might have references to some … traumatic life experiences. I know many who had to stop playing Gone Home because there was a passing reference to some childhood trauma of one of the lead characters that left the players in tears.
Players should not be walking blindly into a game they think they’re going to enjoy that has a low rating and still mentions or references something totally traumatic or triggering. And game makers should be striving to make games that are devoid of such things.
If game makers say they can’t possibly make a “good story” without trauma, well, perhaps they shouldn’t be making games. If large text would “destroy the mood” being created, it’s obviously not immersive enough. Because I don’t know about you, but when I’m engaged in a piece of media, even the biggest subtitles couldn’t mess it up. Because the creators of the media are just that damn good. If a “relaxed play” mode won’t compel your story forward, your writing is crap. It doesn’t take constant running and beheading to tell a damn fine story.
Games, when we boil them down, are meant to be fun for whoever is engaging with them. Some are touching stories with impressive emotional range lead only by visuals and music. Some are brain puzzles and helpful skill-building tools. Some are just downright cute.
But it’s still only some.
Games should not be inaccessible to large portions of the population because game designers are afraid of adding in accessibility tools and proper content warnings. Games should not be inaccessible because it’s not profitable to add in a few small things. Game companies can easily afford alternate costumes, elaborate cut-scenes, and expensive soundtracks. It’s time we also ask for minor additions like basic accessibility, which would only add to profits. It makes no sense that this has not been done yet, and we as a community of nerds need to start advocating for these features—disabled or not.
Somehow, with the many different kinds of games out there, gaming still falls incredibly short. And so does our community. There are a small handful of us trying to make it better, and some of us even run charitable organizations that help disabled gamers get into gaming (like AbleGamers), but not quite enough.
Let’s do better.
All of us.