Next February, I’ll be turning 45.
I started young – my first gaming memories are of begging my parents for quarters and pumping them all into Missile Command, Centipede and Pac-Man.
Games have been an ever-present part of my life since then, and I feel fortunate to have been able to watch the medium grow up along with me.
However, the question of whether games will keep growing with me is unclear, and the issues on my mind are related to both accessibility and convenience — and no, the two aren’t the same thing.
So, first a little more about me. Maybe you’ll relate?
After years of gaming, working with my hands, and way too much typing on a keyboard, I’ve gotten twinges of carpal tunnel off and on, and more tendinitis than I’d care to admit to. Similarly, my eyes used to be super sharp, but now I have two different pairs of glasses.
For me, physical issues like this fall under ‘accessibility’ since I’ll bounce out of a game that has unreadable text, or any title that requires controller vibration or buttonmashing – it’s too painful.
In terms of my life and schedule, I have my editing duties at GameCritics (in itself, nearly a full-time job), a part-time gig that I do on nights and weekends, I have an 11-year-old who homeschools, and my wife was able to transition her full-time office job into a remote format, but along the way she’s had to absorb duties from several other departments. As such, I do anything I can to lessen her workload – errands, filing, and the like.
Basically this is a full plate, so when I do have a few minutes to devote to games, I want to play something that respects my time – I have no problem quitting a game that requires me to spend ten hours perfecting a single boss battle, and cutscenes that can’t be paused tell me that game doesn’t care if I need to attend to something in the real world.
I didn’t have these concerns when I was a teen replaying every game I owned while school was out for summer, and the same was true when I was in my twenties and had both time and money to burn – my life back then was amenable to meeting any demand that a game would place upon me, reasonable or not, and I was happy to do it.
But now, in my mid-forties? I want things that meet me halfway, and the kinds of options that make it happen are what fall under ‘convenience‘.
We’re already seeing some positive signs that developers are thinking about accessibility and convenience alike, although much of this progress is thanks to the tireless efforts of disabled players and accessibility advocates who have been fighting the good fight for years. I can’t possibly thank these gamers enough, and I don’t have enough space here to name them all.
So, one of the highest-profile examples of accommodating design choices can be seen in one of 2020’s biggest games – The Last of Us, Part II. Naughty Dog’s title offers an incredible wealth of options for accessibility and convenience, and they’re incredibly appreciated.
As these images and video show, dozens of things like text and UI scaling, visual contrast, behavior and awareness of enemies, and even aspects like falling off of ledges are able to be altered. It’s an amazing suite of choices that allow a wide array of players to engage with the content.
However, many great examples can be found in smaller-scale, lower-budget titles, and sometimes these options are literally the difference between having a great experience and deleting something after ten minutes.
One of the most notable examples for me was 2018’s Overwhelm. This indie caught my eye, but the difficulty was brutal – I was about to delete it when I checked the options and found that I could adjust the game speed and give myself infinite lives. Did it change the base experience the developer intended? Absolutely, but it meant that I ended up enjoying and finishing the game, and even went on to review and recommend it. That would not have happened if those settings weren’t there.
There are more great make-or-break examples – Celeste and Scourgebringer come to mind. In both cases, the vanilla experiences can be quite difficult and frustrating, but their developers offer settings that players can opt into, and both experiences go from potentially maddening and inaccessible to something that far more players can enjoy.
Of course, all of these things are in addition to traditional difficulty modes, and it’s important to call out the fact that there is no shame in playing on ‘Easy’. With all of the stress in our daily lives –not to mention the horrific dumpster fire that is 2020 — it’s perfectly fine to engage with a game for relaxation and escapism without being aggressively challenged. We all have more than enough ‘work’ in our daily lives, it doesn’t make sense that our fun should be work too.
At this point, I can already hear voices rising in opposition – the gitgud crowd who object to anything other than gritting their teeth through the hardest modes, the defenders of ‘authorial intent’, the ‘not every game is for everyone’ pedants and more. To them, I say three things.
First, what I’m asking for here are options. If you don’t have the willpower to not put a game on its easiest settings, that’s on you. Don’t be angry that choices exist, because even if they’re not right for you, they are likely very right for someone else. People shouldn’t be denied the joy of fully engaging with a game because you have insufficient self-control.
Second, there is no one ‘correct’ way to enjoy a videogame. If you prefer stacking the odds against yourself to feel the thrill of a hard-fought victory – more power to you, sincerely. However, not everyone enjoys that experience. Some people play for atmosphere. Some play for lore, dialogue and characters. Some play to engage with design concepts, and some people only have 15 minutes at a time. There are countless ways someone might derive satisfaction from playing in a way that suits them, and none are wrong.
Third, I’d say that even if you’re a person who doesn’t care about any of the things I’ve called out in this article, you very well might later. People get busy, and their lives fill up with work, spouses and kids. People get injured or sick. Disabilities happen. And aside from all of that, everyone will inevitably get older — reflexes slow and eyesight fades.
You don’t have to take it from me, though…
I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older and my responsibilities increase, I have less patience for playing ultra-hard games. Because time is limited, beating my head against a wall and not progressing no longer feels worthwhile.
— Phil Holmes
I’m “only” 41, and I think my habits have changed in that I’m less reluctant to choose or switch to Easy mode nowadays. I’m not really looking for a challenge and banging my head against an artificial wall just seems like a waste of time to me now.
— Tim van Ingen
I’m 55. Before I had CTS surgery four years ago, I used to love the challenge of beating games on their hardest settings. After the surgery I can no longer do that, but I can still enjoy playing on normal or easier difficulties. I believe every game should have an easy mode. I’m also a big supporter of accessibility options in games — the more the better. While I’m not disabled, I do take advantage of changing settings especially for QTE sequences, changing button presses to holds, or turning them off entirely when available.
These comments and many others like them are just a drop in the bucket — the fact is that a person’s life can change in any number of ways over the years, but videogames aren’t going anywhere and neither are the people who love them.
With this in mind, there’s no reason that growing older means someone has to stick with match-three and turn-based titles. There’s a lot we can do to make sure that players on all walks of life can enjoy the latest action-adventure, the scariest horror title or the newest narrative journey regardless of what life throws at them, so the sooner that designers and players (who are all getting older themselves!) can start thinking about the medium in ways that move beyond arbitrary skills tests, the better off we’ll all be.
— Huge thanks to Jon Cheetham, who provided the TLOUII screenshots and videos!