Game Difficulty as Gatekeeping

by Michael G.

You don't have to care about video games for this to be potentially interesting.

I feel bad that this is my first blog post in well over a year because this isn't anything near the most important current issue to me, but it's something that matters to me just enough to justify writing and little enough that I'm not terribly worried about whether or not I could do a better job. It started as a bunch of drafted tweets, so it's a bit messy. My grammar and punctuation are clearly off in various places.

Recently, because of various video game releases, gaming circles have been talking for the umpteenth time about whether or not it's ok for games to just be hard, whether or not they should have easy modes, and so on. I haven't bothered to read any of the new stuff, but made a comment to friends on Twitter that game difficulty is essentially just gatekeeping. There were objections potentially justifying it and I realized I used to agree with those objections and no longer do. My responses were too long for tweets, so here you go.

The cases I used to believe in for some games just being however difficult they are without accommodations for lesser difficulties (and the ones I believe most find most convincing) are:

  • Often great games are designed hand in hand with the difficulty as a core part of the design. They don't "work" without it as a part of the artist's expression.
  • Some books, movies, comics, etc. aren't accessible to people who aren't familiar with a particular genre or haven't gotten used to how particular stories or presentation styles work. Games are the same way.

I used to see these cases as valid, but I don't at all any more. Not even slightly. Though many look at those two points as independent, I believe they're inseparable if they're to be addressed. The core issue with the discussion on game difficulty is accessibility.

Fluency and ability should allow for optimal or intended experiences and should never serve as a deliberate mechanism for excluding people from art, media, or entertainment.

When we say books or movies are not accessible, we tend to mean they're figuratively not accessible to those without particular experiences or skills. They're not enjoyable. They're not relatable. Many who try to experience them just won't get much out of them.

We're not generally saying they're literally inaccessible.

High learning curve books are unenjoyable, but not impossible, for those not fluent in genre/context. Even when we have harder barriers to accessibility, we reject them and work around them. We don't accept language fluency as a requirement for books. We are happy to actively translate them for a "less-optimal" version to basically any language we can.

Genre books are figuratively inaccessible, not literally inaccessible. Books for which people don't have the ability to read at all start as literally inaccessible, but we don't believe they should remain so. The opposite is true. We value increasing literal accessibility as much as possible.

Difficult comics may be difficult to navigate or comprehend by those without a history reading comics. Panel order can be confusing!

Those readers can still choose to read the bubbles and realize they're missing detail in visual cues. They can just flip through the book if they want to experience the visual artwork. They can enjoy whatever components of the comic they find worthwhile on their own terms.

These difficult comics are figuratively inaccessible, not literally inaccessible.

We reprint comics on different paper stock, at different sizes, with different inks, and even in entirely different mediums (digitally) than the creators originally intended and may have explicitly and deliberately designed around. Sometimes one experience is palpably "worse" than the original or "improper". We don't say we shouldn't make those changes or that people shouldn't be able to download the comic to read panel by panel on their phone instead of page by page (ok, some people in the comics world do say that last bit, but of all the examples here comics industry and culture is the closest to gaming in attitudes and issues). 

Films are made with a target experience in mind, but can be experienced by anyone how they want, even if "wrong" (theater, standard definition, high definition, TV, tablet, laptop, phone, airplane seat screen). We don't require a given number of surround channels of audio, a particular size screen, or particular lighting environments. Very few people declare a film designed to take advantage of the most elaborate cinema experience possible shouldn't be made available to people in other ways, even if it would be universally agreed what the optimal experience is. We don't say we can't/shouldn't allow people to watch the films elsewhere. Even if we do believe there's a best way to experience something (and I'm firmly in the camp that this is often the case), we don't require people to experience it that way if they want to at all.

Language, color perception, eyes, and ears are great, but we do closed captioning, subtitles, and descriptive audio.

These things allow optimal experiences, but we don't accept them as requirements to experience the films at all. We don't accept any of these as something that has to make the experience literally inaccessible. We accept the artist's vision as an ideal target, not a literal requirement.

Before getting to video games, the next example that comes to mind is puzzles. Surely the whole point of some puzzles is to be more difficult than others! Clearly at least that's a requirement. Let's talk about sudoku and nonograms–both purely geometrical/numerical puzzles. (If you're familiar with Nintendo's "Picross" games, those puzzles are nonograms.)

I'm not going into great detail explaining these puzzles. How they work isn't all that important here. It's enough to know they're both different grid-based puzzles where you fill in the grid based on numbers provided with the puzzle. In both there are various difficulties based on the combination of numbers provided and grid size. With nonograms in particular, a fun element that might drive people to want to complete such a puzzle is that the solved puzzles often become an image of something.

If you're working on these puzzles on paper, the difficulty is inherently tied to the medium. For the more difficult or larger puzzles there's not much you can do to change anything once written. This seems pretty clear cut, but let's explore a bit:

There are limitations to what are both possible and feasible. If I write a novel, I literally do not have the means to translate it into 40 languages by myself. If I can't fund translations, then I can't make translations available. 

In both the paper puzzle game and self-written won't-sell-any-copies novel, I'm not claiming that I shouldn't make the art or entertainment more literally accessible. I don't see changing it to suit those who literally can't access them as something that shouldn't be done or invalidates the work. It's not possible to make the paper puzzle more accessible, but it would be great if I could. It's not feasible to make the book more accessible because I have neither the audience nor the means. I should make those changes if something, imaginable or unforeseen, happens to make something newly possible or feasible.

If a celebrity finds my book, talks about it, and it suddenly starts selling in large quantities, I should commission translations, and perhaps an audio book as new feasibility allows.

If my puzzle becomes electronic or computerized, I should enable assistance options if a player wants to use them. I can make the defaults what I believe to be optimal and design for what I think best, while also providing tools for greater accessibility: I can choose having a timer vs no timer. Penalties and immediate notification on wrong entry vs immediate notification of errors without penalties vs never notifying about errors so a player has to figure out they're incorrect just like on paper (only telling players when they have everything solved). Allow undo. Provide hints. The biggest and most complex puzzles may still be figuratively inaccessible because someone isn't getting nearly the "most" out of them if they use all the assist tools available, but they are at least literally accessible for any who decide they want to experience it. And the designer can have the default settings be exactly what they believe the optimal experience to be.

This brings us to video games.

Game skill is nothing other than fluency and ability. Saying gaming ability should be a requirement to experience parts of a game is to say some people should be barred from some games, unlike how we look at any other form of art, media, or entertainment. That's a hard case to make without 1: Illustrating impossibility and infeasibility or 2: demonstrating an elitist belief that video games are somehow worthy of being the sole major exception among different types of media or art, where people must be good enough to be worthy of experiencing a game.

Yes, video games are often designed around a particularly well designed and constructed difficulty level. I love many games more than I otherwise would because of the exacting nature of the experience the designer intended. But there are even more games I appreciate or enjoy despite some factor others, designers included, believe integral to the design. I may have the ability to get through a particular aspect of a game leaning on a mechanic I just don't enjoy in order to get to the parts I do. In these cases I may very well just not care that the developer and others think the "right way" to experience the game is with the designed difficulty. I may want to make those parts easier so I just don't have to deal with them. I want to enjoy the game on my own terms. 

Saying that it's too bad and I just have to deal with experiencing it exactly as intended is very much akin to people saying someone shouldn't be allowed to experience a particularly affecting film or show with the lights on and with breaks because the ambiance and palpable fear are "essential" to the movie–even if that person actually immensely dislikes those aspects of the film but respects its role in film history or loves some aspect of fictional world building/lore despite an aversion to horror or horror-adjacent trappings. In this situation, the viewer is someone who has the ability to view the film as intended but chooses not to do so because she prefers another method or even finds core elements of its design unpleasant. Big fans might say in response "Oh no, you watched it all wrong!", but if the person viewing said they just can't handle watching horror without getting nightmares and that they were going to either watch it this way or not at all–we generally wouldn't describe a fan's response of "Well then you should just never watch it" as anything other than elitist or snobbish.

And, of course, some people just can't play a game well enough to progress no matter how much they try. They may not really understand RPG strategies, or have the hand-eye coordination necessary, or have the years of video game experience successful players do, but really love the art, music, story, or some combination therein.

A major additional rub specific on this topic to video games: It's generally less difficult to eliminate game difficulty as a factor in either dictating experience or barring experience entirely than it is to make most of the aforementioned adjustments and allowances we already afford film, television, and literature. Yes, I understand technology. I'm familiar with the painful reality of people often saying things in technology are "easy" when they don't understand the work that goes into it. I'm not saying this is always easy. It is, though, often easier.

Developers can and should make the uncompromised game they want designed around the ideal intended experience and difficulty. A developer doesn't have to spend time balancing alternate difficulty modes if that's not where they want to spend development time. The same is true for developing some kind of AI to auto-play for the person with the controller. Those things are extra credit and deserve additional accolades. Most of the time, however, there is at least some bare minimum effort for optionally dropping difficulty and suddenly making a game literally accessible, even if the developer's perception of the experience would be greatly reduced with those options enabled.

Let the player choose to be overpowered. Let them toggle invincibility. Let them choose to get more experience points, have more HP, or just flat out be overpowered in an RPG. Let them choose to just be told where to go on a map instead of having to figure out where to go. Let them turn off timers. Let them slow down quick time events. Let them skip levels they don't like or are stuck on. Let the user "cheat". There's almost always something you can easily implement just to make your game suddenly literally accessible to those who would be barred otherwise.

It really doesn't matter if these adjustments "break your game", or what you envision the game to ideally be? It doesn't really matter if you think there's "no point" to the game without the difficulty? If the person playing is choosing to change those things, those aren't the reasons they're playing your game. They're just getting value out of a part of something you still made disproportionate to your expectations.

The actual content of the game doesn't need to be the line across which people take pride in being better than others at games. If you care about delineating who played the game "properly" versus who didn't, reward players with trophies, achievements, badges, or other markers on a save file. Don't bar them from content. If people would have otherwise, they will still talk about the canonical version of the game–the part you spent so much time hand tailoring and made the default. Defaults are powerful.

There are two reasons games come out without some kind of easier options for accessibility. The first is simply that the developers didn't even think of the fact that some wouldn't be able to progress. This is the vast majority of cases. The shortcoming here is not thinking of others, much like if you make a puzzle game reliant entirely on color shades indistinguishable by some colorblind people (aside: use shape in addition to color). It should be addressed, but it's not intentional exclusion. The second reason, though, is choosing not to include easier options. That's less innocuous. Intentional or not, that is stating both "I want people to experience playing this game my way or not at all" and "I want to exclude some people from ever experiencing playing it at all". Yes, of course artists have a right to do whatever they want. Designers have a right to not put out a game with any way to experience it in a way they feel is compromised, and therefore intentionally exclude people from it. Having a right to do something isn't the same as it being right to do.

Requiring particular ability or skill to experience the content merely because you've decided people should have to earn the right or be "good enough" to experience something properly rather than choose what value they get out of it on their own terms is prideful and indicative of the immaturity of the video game industry, the culture around it, and the perception of games from those outside of gaming culture–that games aren't worth treating like other media, art, and entertainment. There is not a good reason for difficulty to be what makes a game literally inaccessible to a person. Unless it is impossible or infeasible for you to make the game easier, choosing to keep difficulty as a barrier to literal accessibility is active gatekeeping, regardless of intent. If the reason for not including easier methods of progression is that you don't want to, rather than that you can't–you are gatekeeping. ("Can't" meaning the aforementioned impossiblity and/or infeasibility.)

Art, media, and entertainment should be made as literally accessible as is both possible and feasible, regardless of its figurative accessibility or optimal and intended experiences. We treat nearly everything else that way. Video games should be model examples of this, rather than the sole major exception. People can decide what they value for themselves and can enjoy things in their own ways.