When I’m looking at new games to play and new worlds to explore, my first thought is always the same. “Will I be good at this?” which then gradually morphs into “Is this the game I should be playing? Why this game?” Before long, I’m an overthinking mess and definitely not considering how much I’m actually going to enjoy the game in question.
At 21 years old, I still don’t think I’ve internalized that games are supposed to be fun above all else. Of course, no singular game is going to delight everyone, but as a disabled person, there’s a much more nuanced discussion to be had about how notions of productivity affect our relationships with gaming. This intersection goes further than a game just not being accessible to me and feeling bad about it.
Inaccessibility of games and the connection of gaming to productivity seep right into my sense of worth as a person.
I only recently realized that my internalized disablism-fuelled burnout over a year ago had totally warped my relationship with gaming. I was trying to make everything in my life into work, to the point where completing games became an exercise in productivity for me. This was directly linked to my feelings of inadequacy as a disabled person. Gaming was no longer about having fun or enjoying the story, it was about speedrunning for the sake of having something to show for myself, to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve played [game]!”
I don’t know the root cause of this, but I do know that part of the gaming community is so quick to gatekeep disabled players. As an example, Xbox put out this red flag meme tweet about difficulty levels, and the quote tweets alone say so much about the disablism problem in the community.
I feel like I have to earn and deserve a place as a gamer by putting myself through things that are inaccessible and not fun. I tell myself that the games I actually want to play “don’t count,” because I am having fun. I began to expect games to be confusing and difficult. The worst part was, I felt more worthy when my hands were strained and my brain was frazzled, but I had completed a “difficult” section. Disabled people are constantly praised for “managing” without their accommodations, or for appearing abled. All this does is make it more and more difficult for disabled people to exist as we really are, and I still struggle to fight the feeling that I should be less happy if I complete a game section using accessibility features.
But in reality, there is no honor in doing things “the hard way” and not liking it, when an easier and more fun way is readily available to you. There’s no shame in finding things difficult, even if everyone else seems to find them easy. It doesn’t make you lesser. I didn’t know that I didn’t have to “deserve” to play and that I could go about the game in any way I wanted, until far too recently.
During my burnout, I criticized myself for using accessibility features, or for not sailing smoothly through games. I’m abysmal at finding my way in a game world, and to an extent, I realize that lack of direction is often intentional on the part of a game developer. The devs want you to have fun, to mess around, to get a bit lost, and explore. This freaks me out, because I can no longer tell the difference between getting a bit lost in a game, and failing.
This isn’t a fault of the devs, it’s the fault of gamers who say that if I am challenged or mess up, or take my time, I am undeserving of the game. If I cannot see myself making progress in a game, I see myself failing. In feeling like I have to deserve a place as a gamer, I told myself that I wasn’t allowed to take my time and find real joy in the games I played, I just had to get through them.
I recently saw a tweet that said “honestly, if more people just embraced that being good at video games isn’t the only marketable trait in gaming, we would have better content in this community.” I’ll go so far as to say that the “git gud” mindset pollutes gaming. I understand people taking pride in unlocking achievements, or winning battles, but “git gud”, at its worst, means “People who aren’t good at games don’t deserve to game at all.” This just gets worse when I think about the cutthroat and competitive culture that pervades streaming platforms like Twitch. The existence of esports is an exact manifestation of the intersection of productivity with gaming, and that worries me sometimes. When playing games is about work, labor, and money, and not just about joy, has gaming failed? I trust that most streamers, if not all, love what they do, but I don’t want to have to fight to be able to play games as a disabled person, or as a “bad gamer.”
As put in a tweet from CIPT’s Courtney Craven, “the angry fanboy “git gud” isn’t actually accurate. They don’t allow anyone any leeway to get better at anything.” Although there is no morality attached to how challenging you find a game, it’s perfectly ok to want to “improve” at something. That’s often part of the fun because you’re challenging yourself within your own comfort zone and limits. The angry fanboys who won’t let you learn and improve a) likely did not start playing games with the current level of prowess they have, and b) don’t understand that “gamer” is not homogenous.
The availability of accessibility options allows people to play exactly how they want, which means they can essentially customize their own niche of challenge. One of the reasons I love the rhythm game Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone so much is that there are so many ways to customize your experience. There are the “Easy, Normal, Hard, Extreme, and Extra Extreme” modes, but any one of these can be customized further with a “No Fail” mode, a practice mode, control remapping, different appearances for hit indicators, and more.
I attended GAConf 2021 in October, and Ian Hamilton’s talk on Difficulty vs Accessibility blew my mind. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It completely changed my outlook on my own relationship to gaming to have Ian affirm that difficulty is relative to the individual and not the “easy, normal, hard” options, and that accessibility options directly affected the difficulty. As someone with cognitive disabilities who loves getting invested in game narratives, I feel like I’m betraying the narrative when I have trouble reaching a checkpoint, or winning a fight. But that’s what an interactive narrative is.
There’s a storyline, yes, but the reason I am able to get lost and die in a fight is because the devs have allowed that to happen. They want things like that to happen. I’m not betraying the devs by not playing the game perfectly. There’s no such thing as “playing the game perfectly.” There’s only such a thing as having fun. It’s once you stop having fun that it stops being a game.