You know what I miss? Joysticks.
Many years ago, a video game system snuck into my house disguised as a computer. While my Commodore Vic-20 had a keyboard, many of its games—especially the "good" ones that came in cartridges you shoved into the back—used a Gemstik joystick. This joystick had one button and four directions, and I liked having something to grip as I snuck stolen gold bricks away from panthers or brought scorpion eggs to safety. Having to push and pull on something in order to move took more effort, made me feel like I was running for my life in ways my Nintendo Entertainment System's D-pad could not.
One could blame these feelings on simple nostalgia. The rose-colored glasses effect is probably part of it, but there's something else, too. Gripping the nunchuck attachment to my Wii remote reminds me that it's really nice to have tactile feedback in my weaker left hand; such feedback helps me be aware of where my hand is. Though I can play a lot of mainstream games with no or very minimal modifications, there's something particularly enjoyable—accessible, even—about the old-fashioned joystick.
While they aren't universally accessible, joysticks come in handy for many people with disabilities. Joysticks can drive wheelchairs and cars. Software like JoyToKey maps keys and mice to joysticks and other game controllers; the Jouse2 is a joystick-operated mouse. Haptic joysticks with force-feedback can make virtual worlds like Second Life accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. A 2004 study of problems that people with intellectual disabilities had with control devices in virtual environments (PDF) found that participants playing games that required forward motion performed better with the joystick than with the arrow keys on the keyboard. (Although, for games which provided forward motion, the mouse outperformed the joystick). When reviewing the literature, the authors write that:
Hall (1993) recommended that for navigation [by users with intellectual disabilities] a joystick limited to two degrees of freedom had the greatest utility. The more functions a device has, the more difficult it is to operate. So, for example, when using a spaceball which has six degrees of freedom, the user with intellectual disabilities frequently became lost. Brown, Kerr & Crosier (1997)…also favoured use of the joystick finding it more suitable for navigation tasks than the keyboard" (300).
It's no secret that video game technology is always improving. But as bit counts increase mitotically and controllers acquire more and more buttons, we trade old problems for new ones. (See "Why adding 3D graphics to games was a bad idea"). In so doing, we kick out gamers who cannot access games with these new "improvements."
"As with so many other genres, going 3D [in fighting games] killed accessibility for me," writes a gamer with low vision in the Game Accessibility forums. "A simple zoom-out effect as in Killer Instinct (MAME version) is bad enough and the truly 3D playfield in many newer titles makes me lose to even sighted newbies…Another observation is that contrast does matter, in One Must Fall 2097, for instance, the power plant is a better map than the stadium or arena in terms of accessibility, because the latter has much worse contrast against most robots." Customizable color and contrast options could benefit a wide variety of gamers, from those who are color blind to those with migraines.
A game's complexity, whether technological or mechanical, has little to do with how challenging or fun it is. All Breakout asks players to do is move right and left to keep a ball in play, and its influence still pulls on us today. Even the narrative structures that allowed us to finish, "solve" or "beat" games made them easier to play, and were a new development once upon a time. What good would endgames have done for the arcades, where we sacrificed our quarters to the high-score gods and avatar death paid dividends?
But new technology can also open up games to some people even if they make those same games unplayable by others. While uncaptioned dialogue is unintelligible to gamers who are deaf, hard of hearing or have auditory processing disorders, some gamers who have difficulty reading text find voiceovers more accessible. One solution to this problem is to present information in text and voiceover at the same time.
I certainly don't advocate forcing game development to go back in time. Still, looking closely at what they want players to do in their games can help developers design different ways of doing those things. As design professor Don Norman, author of The Design of Future Things said in an interview for CNN, "What we should do is understand the job the person is trying to do." Adjustable difficulty levels can make games fun for both casual and hardcore gamers. Keeping the core experience of a game project in mind is key to making a game as playable as possible.