Game Accessibility and ludology

Ludology has been around for a long time. It is the study of games. Any games, not just computer games. This includes wrestling and mock fighting games that young animals play. It really gets to the meat and bones of games and “play” in general. So what has the study come up with? What revelations has it brought the human race? And especially; how do we apply these findings to the design of accessible games?

Why are games fun?

One of the things I always found intriguing is the answer to why we find games fun to play. Why do we find games fun? It is hardwired in our genes. Imagine a race of creatures that does not like to play. They do not wrestle their brothers and sisters and do not bite each others ears in mock-fights like wolfs tend to do. Now a race comes along that does. Who do you think will get to the food first? Who is the better hunter? Who do you think will eventually produce more offspring?

Games teach us valuable things. They show us economic and social systems. They keep our body fit and our mind sharp. They give us the opportunity to try new tactics and fail miserably without dire or fatal consequences. In a safe environment we can explore the wonders of the world without the risk of us ruining the chance to reproduce. This means that if we find games fun, we will be strong enough to stick around.

Games test our ability to perform within a given field. They challenge a certain skill and challenge us to get better at it. This test is often called the “core gameplay” or “basic gameplay”.

Adventure games test our creative problem solving skills. First person shooters test our eye -hand coordination. Strategy games test our tactical insight. Simulation games test our resource management skills. Some games test multiple abilities at the same time. These games have several highly different game mechanisms that together form the core gameplay. The genre “tactical shooter” implies a squad based shoot em up that will test both your tactical insight and your eye hand coordination, usually with a high time pressure as well.

But what happens if you have a handicap that stops you from getting better at something. What if you are blind, but the game tests your hand-eye coordination? In that case, I have bad news for you. This particular game cannot be made accessible to you. Because it tests a skill you do not posses.

Ship more than one game!

Ludology learns us that a game is testing a certain skill and providing fun by doing it. Sure, the game designer could add audio information next to the visuals of the game. But it would be a different test, hence a different game. Now it is no longer a game that will test your hand-eye coordination. Now it is a game that will test your hand-eye coordination or your hand-ear coordination. The game is now a different game. Play is also affected for the non-blind gamer, they are now also playing a different game.

Computer games these days rarely ship alone. You usually receive about three or four games per box. People don’t realize this because all the games look alike and all the stories within these games are the same. But they really are different games. An option in the menu that gives you hints on where to go next in Metroid? Congratulations, you are now playing a different game! An easier difficulty setting that lowers the strength of the enemy AI or gives you more health? Congratulations, you have actually bought about three or four games in one box! A different game per difficulty setting.

But how does this definition relate to multiplayer games? There is an option in most fighter games to give on of the players a “handicap”. This usually means he starts the game with lower health. Does this mean both players are actually playing a different game… against each other? Surely that does not make any sense? Well actually it does according to Dimitris Grammenos. In his 2006 article “The Theory of Parallel Game Universes” he explains the possibility of two competing players playing different games, parallel.

All right, but how does this definition relate to the fact that some of these things can be switched during actual game play? The definition gets a bit murky here, I confess. But still. If you are playing a card game and you and your opponent suddenly decide halfway the game to change the rules, are you still playing the same game?

Why is this distinction important?

What do we learn from this? Why do I bring this up? I think that realizing that not all games can be made accessible for everybody is the first important step to making those games that can be made accessible, accessible, and making sure that game designers ship out “just one more game” in their box. A different game that tests a different thing, in a different and possibly less fun way, but makes sure the rest of the game is still enjoyable just like the original game.

Game designers should, for themselves, define what the game should test the players in and, if they want to make the game accessible, check whether or not the accessibility feature can be implanted without changes the initial test of the game. If it is impossible to implement accessibility features without changing the core gameplay, another game should be created, a variation on the original game; one with a different test to make up for the loss of the original test.

This is not just a semantic distinction. To give but one example, a strategy game has making strategic choices as its core gameplay. It tests the player his strategic insight. During the mission briefing one of the characters from the story blurts out a warning during gunfire that the player can miss if he isn’t paying attention. If the player misses that piece of information he will have a harder time during the mission. The auditive warning is however not accessible to the deaf player.

The game designer should now decide whether or not this extra test is part of the core gameplay. The designer can easily decide that this is just an extra gimmick, not part of the actual test and (since there is still enough core strategic gameplay left to make the game test enjoyable) to just give the information flat out in the subtitles.

A different approach would incorporate this extra test into the core gameplay, especially if such tests come up often enough. At this point, simply giving away the information in the subtitles would detract from allot of the gameplay and challenge of the game. The deaf player cannot train himself into paying more attention to the sounds; he needs a different challenge. Distorted, hard to read, subtitles would be a very simple example of such a challenge.

Other forms of fun

Computer games are different compared to other games. Apart from the fun of the gameplay itself it usually also offers tons of fun from other sources. Games are a lot of art forms combined: music, sound, movies, animations, drawings. Sometimes large paintings are painted as a background, sometimes whole orchestras create the music for a game, animation studios create the cut scenes in between levels, professional voice actors bring the characters to life and actual script writers create the most amazing, sometimes interactive, stories. There has never been a media in the history of mankind that combined this many art forms in one experience. It would be a shame if all the enjoyment that could be derived from computer games, all that hard work that could just as well be enjoyed separately, was tossed aside because you cannot enjoy the ludolic part of the game. If you strip away the interactive part, what do you have left? A very lengthy movie. These “lengthy movies” have become quite popular lately, being called “let’s plays” on youtube. Pointing to the fact that games can be enjoyed, even if you strip away the interactive part of it.

Check out this link to see what a ‘let’s play’ video is about:
http://kotaku.com/who-invented-lets-play-videos-1702390484

Conclusion

After reaching the conclusion that you need to actually create two or more games to make your package accessible, because certain tests can not be made accessible to a certain public and need to be replaced by other tests, you should make sure that all the other forms of fun are still there to be enjoyed. All that hard work that all those people in you team did; all those different kinds of art, should find their way to the user in one form or another.

 

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