It seems there has always been talk about finding ways for gaming to break out of its own little box. We used to discuss about how to get gaming into the mainstream but I think those days are over. Some of our largest games are costing more to make, and earning more in a launch weekend, than summer blockbuster films. Television advertisements for video games can be seen running between ads for Suave and McDonald’s during commercial breaks on network channels. It is becoming more and more difficult to find someone who doesn’t play video games, even if it is the widely popular Candy Crush on a mobile phone. Yet, despite all of this breakthrough into pop culture, there is still a huge schism between the idea of “Video Games” and culture. What is it that film, music, and prose have accomplished that video games have not achieved yet? Accessibility.
Looking at other medias we can see a common thread between them: ease of use. Music, movies, and books are all simple for anybody to consume. While books can be read without any technology, CDs and DVDs require hardware players to be viewed or listened to. However, they aren’t restricted to be played on a single, specific device. Any CD player and any DVD player will work regardless of brand or price. Even the relatively new Blu Ray disks have a plethora of hardware that they can be played on. Let’s not forget that all of these media are also distributed digitally with its own form of accessibility. The digital formats of most of these will play on just about any device as long as the service can be logged in to. While this may not be as easy as bringing a DVD to a friends house it does allow all sorts of new devices to access content. It is a different kind of ease of use model that runs parallel to the physical format model. The movie industry has even seen some progress with getting a digital copy with the purchase of a physical copy. The core concept behind all of this is choice. The consumer needs only purchase a work once and can then consume it however they wish on whatever hardware they wish.
Video games are so far behind in this regard. There are so many choices that must be made prior to even purchasing the hardware that it almost requires extensive research just to ensure the purchase is a wise one. Unlike any other media, there are video games that are exclusive to a single type of hardware without any chance of it showing up on another type. Imagine if Breaking Bad episodes were only purchasable on iTunes and not on Vudu, Play Store, Amazon Instant Video, etc. This is an asinine thought that nobody would put up with and Apple and Sony Pictures would get endless amounts of negative press about it, yet this practice has existed in video games since the beginning of the home consoles. Social circles are another aspect to consider when purchasing a console. If one’s entire friend network owns the PS4 then that massively influences their purchase decision. In this scenario, simply buying an X1 would lead to a lonely, isolated gaming experience as their friends would all be playing together on different servers. There are also preferences like controller type and pricing to consider. To sum up, before a console — or PC — has even been purchased one much do research into their social circle’s platform preference as well as console exclusive content and weigh all of this against pricing. This is all before a single game has been purchased.
So after doing the research you buy a console and a game, get everything hooked up, and look at the monstrosity of a controller you hold in your hands. Multiple joysticks, buttons all over the front of it, some extra buttons on top, maybe some buttons in the back, maybe a touchpad or an entire touch screen in the center — this thing is intimidating. This might sound like an absurd feeling for a long time game player but this is exactly how the majority of people feel when such a complex, abstract device is handed to them. Remember how popular the Wii was with practically everybody? Now think about the games that were popular and how easy and intuitive the controls were. My family had a gathering for New Years in 2006, just a few days after I received my Wii for Christmas. I took it and two remotes with me to the gathering and booted up Wii Sports and left it running. Every single person — from age 10 to 70 — used it, enjoyed it, and felt confident in their ability to play it. If I would have brought a bowling or table tennis game that used a traditional controller the outcome would have been the polar opposite. We can see this same idea of intuitive, simple controls in the smartphone revolution. Games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds are more than enough proof that many people want to play video games but are stopped at one of the barriers before actually playing one.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many ways for consumers to fix these issues. The majority of these issues lie with the development of both the hardware and the software used for video games. Every decision that promotes exclusivity is one made with the idea of profit at its core, not the consumer. If these ideas were presented in any other media there would be backlash but it worked in the video game sphere. It isn’t anything new either, SEGA and Nintendo competed back in the 90’s when the term “console wars” was just beginning to have wide usage. The real problem is that we are still in the mindset of either defending (read: promoting) our favorite console or games or simply buying every device so as to not miss anything. Neither of these options benefit the consumer and it’s disgusting to see that this idea of rivalry still contaminates this wonderful hobby. Last decade I would have advised to “vote with your wallet” against companies that abuse the anti-consumer ideas but I can’t anymore. Not only is the entire industry now built around these ideas but I would hate to see more developers, musicians, composers, artists, animators, modelers, and anyone else lose their job because another development house went under, especially when these people have nothing to do with the ones who encourage the competition. I hate to say this, but I can’t find any way we can fix this from the outside other than refusing to accept what the industry dumps on us.
There is some light blossoming though. The mobile market is doing a much better job than the console/PC market. Choosing to play games on iOS or Android feels less like buying a big name console and more like buying a DVD player. Yes, the App Store and Play Store are different and save files will typically not carry over between the two devices but they actually have a lot in common. Many games that are found on both stores have cross platform multiplayer and server side accounts/save games allow the user to continue their game across platforms as well. Equally important is the learning curve — or lack thereof — to transition from one device to the other. While console controllers are almost similar to each other, iOS and Android devices all have an identical input method. Simply touch, tap, swipe, and drag across the screen. Hope for a more consumer oriented video game experience can be found in the mobile spaces, if only the rest of the industry would catch up.
Video games have a long way to go as far as accessibility is concerned and the biggest hurdle happens before a game is even booted. Video games are extremely consumer hostile and this is usually the first interaction people have with this hobby. If they make it past this boundary they still have to learn how to manipulate games with a complex controller. This doesn’t even take into account how video game input methods skew heavily towards able-bodied people. Even something as common as carpal tunnel can make handling a controller uncomfortable or painful, and this is only a mild case of playing while disabled. This is a topic for another day, however. This article only covers one way that games have an accessibility issue. Next time I will be looking at how video game mechanics are inaccessible and possible ways to improve those systems.