What does it mean when a videogame is accessible? There is accessibility in the vital sense: closed captions, colorblind modes, modular difficulty, freedom to rebind troublesome controls, adapted peripherals, and so on. Like, I have early onset arthritis. My joints swell, my feet hurt, my knees ache, and everything is a bit harder than it used to be. I often can’t play games for very long without painkillers. Rebinding controls and customizable difficulties assist me a lot in the actual part of playing at all.
What does it mean when an able-bodied person asserts a game isn’t accessible? Interrogating this makes me feel uncomfortable because it’s a good thing for us to be on the same page. It is difficult to truly untangle what different kinds of inaccessibility looks like, because efforts to make videogames more accessible help everyone. Yet: is accessibility discourse that centers the needs of able bodied people really worthwhile? Are these needs and wants really rooted in access?
What’s accessibility look like for me? I slip on two arm braces, take painkillers, fiddle with my key bindings, maybe try easy mode, or “save scum” my way through a game. I keep coming back to a beginner’s guide setpiece where, in Davey’s impatience, he essentially simulates the unflinching, impossible inaccessibility of Coda’s original game ideas. It’s more than implied that, in doing so Davey infringes on, distorts, and misinterprets the original design. Though skipped, the game is still expressive. It’s like a suggestion; an intellectual model; an imaginary tension. When I spam save states or credit feed because my hands can’t do it, I think about that difference. Every videogame is played differently.
I had an experience, recently, where close friends of mine were “enjoying” Dark Souls: Remastered, and I was having an attack. My hands and feet didn’t feel like mine; leaden, magma coursing through pulsing phantoms. It hurt to stay still and it hurt even more to move. I wanted to play Dark Souls as well, but physically could not. I’m lucky, at least, that I only experience debilitation like this around once a month.
It’s funny in retrospect because that situation was a microcosm of discourses around Dark Souls. When a new Dark Souls comes out, it dominates the videogame news cycle. This is not abnormal: when a blockbuster is engineered to blot out the news cycle, and a company has the resources to accomplish that, it will. When part of the videogame community, not participating in this cycle can make someone feel left out. This is especially magnified by how attention congregates on social media, but regardless, the stakes feel higher because they’re manufactured to be higher. Factor in that one’s ability to play correlates to their ability to generate revenue (either as game writers, personalities, youtubers, etc) and tensions can run high.
Now, some fairness. Dark Souls can make a person feel awful. I react like being pranked by an estranged friend when Fromsoft is up to their dull tricks. It’s a fine line. I can understand why someone would feel like it’s unacceptable and disrespectful to expect anyone to wade through Fromsoft’s selfish shit. Four games in, is the escalation unsubtly represented by Slave Knight Gael a continuation of a singular vision? Or is it a kind of coercion; a guarantee that people are willing compete against the machine, a staged competition design to make anyone so inclined feel good about themself, and come back again and again? Even still, is feeling uncomfortable with, or disagreeing with, fundamental design of a videogame, a matter of accessibility?
When a game makes me feel awful, I feel an imperative to figure out why. I do not think it’s healthy to decide, “Well, the game isn’t doing enough for me.” A game that is not for me is probably not much deeper than it appears. Though, there is no situation where it’s all, 100%, entirely my own fault that I feel bad with a game. It’s just an inconvertible that I’m responsible for my health and happiness.
Yes, videogames can be expensive. They can be stressful. But they’re videogames. They’re voluntary states. Unhealthy habits and coping are a matter of inaccessibility toward mental health education and therapy. Unhealthy discourses mostly come out of the dysfunction of communities that put profit motives first.
Could Dark Souls open itself to different playstyles and to people with different needs? I think it could and might even be better for it. I can’t say definitively. That version of the game doesn’t exist. Honestly though, I don’t really think Dark Souls needs to do anything. Instead, we don’t need Dark Souls.
Think about all of the biggest game releases in recent memory. The videogame releases that are manufactured blockbusters. On average, who’s privileged to play those games? I don’t really feel like the mainstream game industry cares about someone like me who struggles to use their hands. That’s what inaccessibility feels like.
What can be done, for sure, is creating and participating in videogame discourses that embrace and promote non-active, non-action games alongside action games. Videogames that wait for a player: interactive fiction, role playing games, puzzle games, strategy games, and so on. Videogames that I call static games in contrast.
It’s not really an either or situation, though. Videogames can become more accessible and we can promote already accessible games. I do wonder if corporate videogames should be treated as public goods (they’re not public goods; videogames should have a public sector). A lot of political discourse around videogames gives them the responsibility of public works, while these corporations continue to be notoriously awful at accountability and transparency. It is still good work to try to hold them accountable, and to articulate injustice, but it is also vital to create and promote immediate solutions to clear, present-day issues, and not rely on the rubber banding whenever fairness, decency, and justice become briefly profitable.
Is it unethical to make games that are inaccessible? Who do artists have a responsibility to; even still, do artists have responsibility at all? I’m don’t really believe in definitive answers toward aesthetic purposes. These are questions to be breached at a personal level, though I have considerations. Public works, or works that masquerade as them, have as responsibility to meet the needs of their public, and that includes access for disabled. Private, individual works, don’t necessarily have the same scope and aims. (As an aside, it seems goofy to suggest hundreds of dollars in luxury technology is inherently accessible in any way. I cannot afford to purchase a game during its “conversation window.”)
Basically, there’s degrees of consideration going on. I’m worried that well-meaning calls for accessibility aren’t heading toward solutions that radically transform the gaming community into forms naturally more accessible. They’re more concerned with band-aids and compromises that make games less of a time investment, this strive for consensus ensures exclusionary styles of play still proliferate as the most worthy of attention and respect.
Rather, accessibility can’t be treated as an individual venture, that shames and disprivileges creators who don’t have the resources to accomplish tricky compromises to demanding mainstream playstyles. A diversity of creation, promotion, and uplifting otherwise already accessible or static games as equal to games that command challenging amounts of dexterity seems to me a more lasting solution than demanding every developer make a narrow set of game genres in multiple different ways.