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Difficulty vs Sensory: Autism in Gaming

While reflecting on the “Designing for Disability” study by the YouTube Channel 'Game Maker’s Toolkit', created by Mark Brown, a thought struck me. As someone recently diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum, what is routine in video games for most players requires more effort on my part. The same is true of those suffering other disabilities.

For example, those with low sight are unable to detect the subtler visual clues that video games provide. Therefore, their progress may be impeded due to no fault on their part. Additionally, when one suffers from a hearing deficit, relying on audio cues is a no go with poor audio mixing only exacerbating the matter.  

Furthermore, other gamers on the Autism Spectrum can easily become overwhelmed by particularly demanding gaming experiences that deliver various threats en masse.

The time has come to once and for all stub out the phrase “Git Gud”

However, while these players are physically capable of responding to the threats presented to them in a reasonably quick fashion, this is unfortunately not the case for those with motor function complications like Parkinson’s as pointed out by Mark Brown.

So, in combining Mark’s vital research with my own, as well my personal experiences, this study aims to demonstrate how nothing is truly universal: video game difficulty included.

The Visual

As with all visual mediums, the old adage of “show, don’t tell” applies heavily to video games. Therefore, the best games contain a wealth of visual clues that allow players to figure things out for themselves. However, when sight issues plague a player, these subtle clues may go by completely unnoticed.

Figure it out yourself, Boy!

For example, Mark Brown insinuated the difficulties players with colour-blindness experience when attempting to read enemy attacks (2018). This includes those suffering from Protanopia, which affects their perception of reds, who will suffer multiple frustrating deaths in God of War (2018) due to being unable to identify the unblockable nature of red attacks.  

Furthermore, players with low sight will undoubtedly find progression an arduous task. Silent Hill 2 conceals items necessary for progression in among its indistinguishable environments. As a result, those with low sight will most likely pass these by, being unable to separate them from the environment, unintentionally denying themselves access to the rest of the game.

The Aural

A common method implemented by game developers to combat the above issues is to use sound to their advantage. This includes the clang of two colliding swords to inform a player that they have performed a successful parry. While this is of great help to those whose sight has failed them, the same cannot be said of those with auditory impairments.  

An audio cue is always helpful, but poor audio mixing negatively affects this solution for those who rely on sound. To elaborate, if the audio cue is softer than the music, said music will drown out the cue. I agree with Mark Brown’s insinuation that games should let players adjust all volume levels (2018) as this ensures that no player will ever miss a vital cue.

In addition, certain decisions can make progression impossible for deaf players. Mark Brown cited a puzzle in The Witness that ‘requires you to listen out for sounds in the environment’ (2018). I agree with Mark’s statement that this sudden reliance on sound ‘can be a game-ending roadblock’ (2018) as deaf players will be caught out, being justifiably unprepared.  

The Autism Spectrum

Arguably the best game of this generation, DooM (2016) is unfortunately unplayable for some…

As I am on the Autism Spectrum, I find it more difficult to process things compared to those who are not on the Spectrum. For instance, where someone may believe that an NPC has provided them with too little information, I may see it as too much. Therefore, I may have trouble completing certain sections due to a sense of feeling overwhelmed.

Similarly, those on the Spectrum are more prone to sensory overload. Visceral action titles such as Doom (2016) often feature excessively loud music accompanied by dazzling lights. The National Autistic Society suggests that these may cause stress and anxiety in autistic people (2019). This is true as I often avoid titles I deem too stressful or overwhelming.

The Motor

In the situation exemplified above, the inability to react was psychological. However, for those with motor function deficiencies, their inability to react is physical due to the restrictions placed upon their finger mobility. Consequently, the control that these players have over how the events in a game play out is limited to a frustrating degree.

Referring back to the example of action titles, these games frequently require quick reactions. Case in point: Devil May Cry. This series requires constant mobility through jumps and dodges. However, those with finite motor function are not physically able to hit the designated button with the same speed as those with infinite motor function, and so will become used to death.

Furthermore, achieving the skill-based combos that these titles push is not easy for these players. Holding the shoulder button, mashing a face button, and pushing an analogue stick simultaneously is simple for me but, as Mark Brown states, these actions may be ‘difficult, painful, or impossible’ (2018) for those who are motor function impaired.

Conclusion

When one lives with a disability, they perceive everyday tasks differently from those deemed more able in body and mind; the same is true of video game difficulty. Those with perfect sight can pick up on a game’s subtle, visual nuances more easily than those with sight impediments. This does not mean those players are bad at video games.

Those with perfect hearing can use a game’s soundtrack to their advantage more easily than those with hearing impediments. This does not mean those players are bad at video games. Those not on the Autism Spectrum can process on-screen information more easily than those on the Spectrum. This does not mean those players are bad at video games.

Cranky Kong representing an outdated viewpoint, much like his outdated face…

Finally, those who retain full control over their motor function capabilities are able to react much quicker to the aforementioned obstacles than those who are limited in this area. Again, this does not mean those players are bad at video games.

No one individual experiences the world in an identical manner to another, so avoid the phrase “git gud” where simply finishing a game is reason to applaud a certain player for their skill.

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