Have you noticed how bright and flashy everything we look at is lately? If you haven’t noticed, for the next few days, pay attention to how often you see a flashing light or image on one of your screens (during a TV show, an ad, a video, a video game). For bonus points, pretend that every time you come across a flashing effect it physically hurts you. You may (or may not) be surprised when you notice that flashing is, well, everywhere. If you play video games regularly, flashing effects have definitely been part of your experience, although you’d be forgiven for not having noticed considering how commonplace they seem now. While you may not have noticed all the flashing, for some it’s painful, and for others it’s a direct threat to their health.
… for the next few days, pay attention to how often you see a flashing light or image on one of your screens (during a TV show, an ad, a video, a video game). For bonus points, pretend that every time you come across a flashing effect it physically hurts you.
Flashing and flickering effects have been used in editing and visual effects for years, and they only seem to be gaining traction. Take almost any reality or competition-based show on TV right now- any introduction or reveal is almost certainly intercut with bright white (or lens flare) flashes. Playing a mobile game or using just about any app? You may be abruptly interrupted by a video ad that just has to get your attention with bright flashes of color or explosions. Almost any piece of visual media may at any point use camera flashes, sometimes to add effects over journalists, other times aimed right at the viewer. Spooky atmosphere brewing? Time for lightning effects. Gunfire, strobe lights, fluorescent lights flickering, “glitch” effects, warning lights, ambulance lights, and firelight aren’t just real-life occurrences; they’re constantly on our screens and in our media. They aren’t just in entertainment media either- using many social media sites puts you at risk of video ads auto playing in the middle of your screen, and most websites won’t let you disable this function. Navigating media both online and offline (and the internet in general) has become an increasingly inaccessible nightmare if flashing lights and images affect you negatively.
While equating flashing lights (and broadly, photosensitivity) with epilepsy makes sense, people with epileptic seizures are connected to a large group of people who are all affected by flashing effects. Some consider themselves disabled, some don’t. Some have vertigo, or photophobia, or motion sickness . For some people, being exposed to flashing effects means a migraine. For others, it means a seizure. For others still, it means a flare of a chronic illness. Some experience dizziness or mild pain. Some are affected only by extremely frequent flashes at extremely high intensities; others are affected just by high contrast patterns and colors. What almost everyone agrees on, however, is that more flashing effects make for a more dangerous experience.
Video games are struggling to catch up to where even other risky forms of media are. Seizures triggered by video games are so common that the term VGS or “Video Game-Induced Seizures” is now used to categorize them as one of the more prevalent causes of seizures . It’s rare and difficult to find a game without any flashing effects, and few games even bother to warn for frequent flashing and strobe effects. On occasion you may come across an “Epilepsy Warning” in the fine print on certain games, but warnings like this usually give very little game-specific information and do nothing at all to include disabled gamers. While console games seem to sometimes employ such broad “Epilepsy Warnings,” the biggest online digital distribution services appear to be allowing developers to choose whether or not to put a warning in the first place. Many games featured in digital distributor libraries use flickering GIFs or autoplay videos in their descriptions, rendering the sites themselves inaccessible. Further, developers are either choosing not to label games with intense flashing with “Epilepsy Warnings,” or simply don’t even know what such warnings entail. The warnings themselves are typically vague (“may contain flashing”) and do nothing but tell the affected gamer that the game could, maybe, be a miss.
Seizures triggered by video games are so common that the term VGS or “Video Game-Induced Seizures” is now used to categorize them as one of the more prevalent causes of seizures.
Game developers and players deserve better. Game developers should have resources for accessibility education and should be able to market their games safely and effectively. Games without proper warnings won’t be purchased by people who rely on those warnings, and they will be returned (if possible) by people who find them unplayable and inaccessible. Whether developers actively want to sell their games to disabled people or not, they lose out on sales. Players fare even worse. The Epilepsy Foundation  estimates that about 800,000 people in the United States alone are photosensitive and unaware of the risk. Pieces of media with high rates of flashing have a propensity for triggering seizures in people previously unaware they were even at risk. Many people remember a famous 1997 incident  where a cartoon triggered seizures in hundreds of children unexpectedly, and the news coverage following triggered even more by showing the clip during their coverage. Flashing effects in video games much in the same way risk triggering seizures and other health problems in unsuspecting players. While avoiding every potential risk for seizures or any other ill effect is not very feasible, players should at least be able to navigate gameplay without taking on an avoidable health risk.
There are many approaches that can be taken to mitigate the risk of exposing players to flashing effects. One of the most essential steps that can be taken is allowing flashing effects to be toggled from off to on. An accessible game would load with flashing visual effects turned off and allow you to toggle them on if you enjoy them or find them useful for getting your attention. Allowing players to opt-in to visual effects that flash at all means developers can still include them without losing a fanbase sensitive to them. Another important accessibility feature is warning for flashing effects when the game loads. A simple description of why it might flash allows players to decide whether they feel comfortable playing. For example, I personally would not be able to play a game with intense scenes of lightning or gunfire. However, if a game warned me it contained “ambulance lights shown briefly in the background in one scene”, I would know I could play it on my better days. Writing up a warning can take a little time, but a brief description of flashing effects can determine whether many players will even purchase a game to try it out. An easy accessibility measure is to make sure your game doesn’t contain ads that autoplay or launch without warning, especially if you’re designing a mobile game. Mobile game ads are often highly dangerous as there is no way to know if a game will have sudden, interrupting video ads without playing it. A simple fix on the developer end is to make ads opt-in (many developers do this by offering rewards for ad watches) or to warn the player that an ad is about to launch.
There are resources such as University of Washington’s “Accessible Technology” guide  or Mozilla’s guide to “Web accessibility for seizures and physical reactions”  that, while not video game specific, do a good job of exploring the different kinds of visual effects in text and animation that can render content inaccessible. The rather extensive Mozilla article describes why flashing effects are a problem, goes over the many ways effects are used, and offers practical solutions for accessibility. While the guide is intended as a resource for creating websites, it provides a starting place for understanding what dangerous content looks like. Most guides do focus fairly exclusively on seizures, but anything that reduces flashing effects has a positive impact on those sensitive to them. There is, of course, always the option not to use flashing effects at all, a choice which may just grant you a larger fanbase.
An accessible game would load with flashing visual effects turned off and allow you to toggle them on if you enjoy them or find them useful for getting your attention.
Making a game for most people is an arduous labor of love. Adding more work for developers in the form of accessibility research and precautions can seem like a big ask. It’s also a big ask to expect players with all kinds of different disabilities to risk their health to find out if a game is playable for them. Developers putting in the extra thought to make their games safer benefits the entire community. Games becoming more accessible broadens the developer’s potential audience, and broadens the number of options disabled gamers have when it comes time to spend their money. It helps keep people who may not know they’re sensitive to flashing effects from finding out in the worst possible way, and it helps to bridge the community gap between disabled and non-disabled players. And hey, some of us would buy a lot more games if they didn’t flash.
1. “Shedding Light on Photosensitivity, One of Epilepsy’s Most Complex Conditions”, Epilepsy Foundation https://www.epilepsy.com/article/2014/3/shedding-light-photosensitivity-one-epilepsys-most-complex-conditions-0
2. “Avoiding Flashing or Flickering Content,” University of Washington https://www.washington.edu/accessibility/checklist/flashing-content/
3. “Web accessibility for seizures and physical reactions,” Mozilla https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/Accessibility/Seizure_disorders
4. “Japanese cartoon triggers seizures in hundreds of children,” CNN http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9712/17/video.seizures.update/
5. “Lighting Flicker Health Concerns,” Vestibular Disorders Association https://vestibular.org/lighting-flicker-health-concerns/
6. “Video Game-Induced Seizures (VGS),” Epilepsy Foundation https://www.epilepsy.com/living-epilepsy/epilepsy-and/professional-health-care-providers/about-epilepsy-seizures/reflex-6