Just like Microsoft, Brenna 180s on the topic of motion controls and accessibility.
I don’t like the word gamer, and I don’t like the people who insist that gamers come in types, and can be clearly defined. The word almost always seems to lead to exclusions, which I find morally objectionable. “I’m a gamer,” so you’re not. “You’re a casual gamer,” whereas I’m a real one.
To me, a keyboard and mouse, or a control pad, instinctively makes a kind of sense. I say instinctively, but it’s not – it’s learned.
Nevertheless, gaming is an aspect of my life that stands as a dividing barrier between me and people who aren’t interested in it. I hate explaining what I do for a living to people who don’t live on the Internet, or think Space Invaders when they hear “video games”. I hate having someone come along behind me while I’m playing a game and say something like “if you stood that close to lava you’d be dead”. I hate that some of my friends don’t want to spend time with me in my favourite hobbies (guys I need reliable Australian Destiny raid partners, stat).
This last one is the real sticking point. Some people just have no interest in games – any kind of games. They don’t see the point. I do see the point, obviously; I also see the point of literature, and cinema, and board or card games, and knitting and gardening and pretty much everything else people derive enjoyment, enlightenment and distraction from, skilled or mindless, fruitful or wasteful.
I’ve always felt that part of the problem is the entry barrier. To me, a keyboard and mouse, or a control pad, instinctively makes a kind of sense. I say instinctively, but it’s not – it’s learned. I already know how to play almost any first person game on PC – it’s just a matter of sorting out things like crouch and jump. I can guess where jump is on a control pad, as well as aim and fire, brake and accelerate. Twin stick navigation in a 3D space is second nature to me.
These are all things I learned, but when I put the controls in the hands of someone who’s never done it before, I find it hard to believe I was ever so clueless. Running around staring at the floor or ceiling. Slamming into walls. Constantly asking “which button was it again?” – and not finding the answer “left bumper” helpful.
I have come to believe that simplifying game controls somehow (by cybernetic implant would suit me) is the only way gaming will ever really go mainstream the way it deserves to. A control pad, with its dozen keys, is just too intimidating. PC is better, as almost everyone can use a mouse, and interface design is getting better and better. Touch will one day be good enough to take over from pointers, I hope.
And yet I don’t want to sacrifice the complexity that makes games so satisfying to me personally. I don’t know why it is fun to press three keys to perform an action at the right time – there are academics who spend their whole life nailing down why and how games are fun, and whether that even matters. I just know that it is, and while I certainly derive pleasure out of games that use brains rather than reflexes, what I really like is when I’m using both.
This seems to me to be one of the hard problems of gaming as an entertainment and artistic medium, because we do want it to grow and become more inclusive (if you don’t want this, you probably haven’t considered how awesome it would be if the games industry weren’t constantly teetering on the edge of financial ruin), but getting from hopeless beginner to twin-stick pilot to the stars is the kind of leap athletic careers are founded on.
Or is it?
Is it really that hard?
I’ve walked around for most of my adult life believing the world is divided into people who know how to use an analogue control pad (or WASD, or both) and those who can’t.
For some reason, it’s only recently occurred to me that I was ever in the latter camp, and yet somehow here I am, perfectly capable of picking up and getting the hang of any game put in front of me.
Serious accessibility talk
We talk so much about “accessibility” in terms of making games appeal to a broad range of people, that we often forget there’s another use for the word: gaming presents many obstacles to less physically-able players.
Developers and manufacturers can design products in such a way that makes them more accessible – via colour impairment modes, subtitles, customisable controls, and flexible hardware support. Some do, and they should be lauded for their efforts, but there’s still a huge gap in the market where less able gamers aren’t being served.
AbleGamers is a charitable organisation that raises awareness, shares information and provides valuable resources on accessible gaming, while Special Effect works to bring games to people living with physical disabilities. Check out both links to learn more.
I’m not very well educated on disability issues so if I’ve used incorrect or offensive language in this side bar, please correct me.
Clearly the entry barrier is not insurmountable: I’m not that clever, and I managed it. The people who leave witheringly stupid comments on video game websites did it. Those wankers you meet at gaming events who are incapable of processing the most basic information presented to them have managed it. Tiny children manage it all the time. It’s clearly not that hard.
It’s not like learning a language. It’s not like mastering a creative art. It’s not rocket science. That’s not to say high-level play doesn’t involve skill, talent, intellect and physical prowess. But bashing through Dynasty Warriors on easy difficulty without getting stuck against a rock for an hour? Not. Hard.
I think anybody can master a control pad, I really do. Having, for several years now, been a vocal proponent for motion gaming and other more accessible means of getting people into games, I’m balking. It’s not for games to make themselves easier for people; it’s for people to be less wussy about games.
Thinking back to my own efforts to learn twin stick and WASD controls, having grown up with the simple control pads of the 8-bit and 16-bit era, I remember trying both for the first time – in front of more experienced players. I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I remember giving up in frustration, embarrassed, and only coming back to it a generation on.
I have a lot of confidence issues, but I doubt I’m the only one who’s been put off. I know when I offer a control pad to someone who doesn’t normally game, they often get flustered – or if they’re very confident, they might get angry instead. They say things like “I can’t do it” or even “My brain doesn’t work like that” or “There are too many buttons for me” – things I remember thinking about myself.
I believe anybody can learn to use a control pad or WASD, given practice. How much practice? I think that depends on quality, not quantity. I learned to use twin sticks properly playing GTA 3, I know that, and I’m pretty sure it was Morrowind that really taught me to WASD.
The question of what kind of content the games industry needs to get behind – in addition to, not replacement of, what it already provides – will be addressed another day.
In both cases, I was playing alone, and I was obsessed with exploring the game world. I was playing for myself, alone. Not because my brothers were trying to get me to co-op something they liked and were already good at. Not because I was researching something for work. And not in a competitive environment, with screeching trash talk and the constant judgment of the game itself that I was not good enough.
I’m coming around to my point now, which is: increasing accessibility in games, opening games to more people, isn’t about getting rid of “confusing” control pads (or, as I’ve argued elsewhere, turning the difficulty down to suit the lowest common denominator). It’s not about assuming they’re incapable of mastering an act literal pre-schoolers can manage and insisting they wave their arms about like excited windmills. It’s about giving them a reason to try.
Build content people want to play, and believe me, they will come. After all – we’re all here, aren’t we?