Examining the History of Accessibility in Gaming
“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.” –Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World.
You may think this quote is about the cyclical nature of humanity…and it is. But it’s also about FromSoftware games. Every time one comes out, whether it be Souls or Sekiro or Bloodborne, we have the same conversation about accessibility in gaming, only for the discussion to slowly fade away, readying itself to strike once again in some distant future.
On one side of this debate is the belief that all games should include multiple difficulty levels because easier levels mean greater numbers of people, including but not limited to players with disabilities, will be able to play more games. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that creators should be able to create what they want and that games based around intense difficulty and skill are, when done well, developed with these components in mind and therefore should not be forced to cater to everyone. And so the Wheel turns.
These arguments hit many of the important points about accessibility, but there are other angles to consider. Accessibility in gaming is not just about making games playable by as many human beings on Earth. Or, if it is about that, there are reasons for making them accessible. It’s important to recognize and understand the social contexts that contemporary games are designed, created, and published in.
For example, anyone with more than a passing interest in gaming has heard the statistics about how, contrary to long-held beliefs, women are very present in gaming! A vague statistic saying that the presence of female gamers is hovering around 50% has existed in my brain for years. While I’m not exactly sure of the statistics, it’s clear that women in gaming have become considerably more visible in recent years.
The Path of Daggers: The Games Women Play
But we value the types of games women often play differently. Thus, even when women are present in gaming at large, they’re still excluded from major segments of the gaming community. If you ask a self-identified gamer to decide between Grand Theft Auto 5 or Candy Crush, they are much more likely to pick GTA as the “real” game.
Devaluing the games women play is not a recent trend, even if it’s easiest to identify in the supposed legions of Farmville-playing housewives. For most of my childhood, there were video games, and there were video games for girls. Her Interactive’s line of Nancy Drew puzzle games says it right there in the developer’s name, and I doubt a lot of men were picking up the Barbie or American Girl doll games that were so formative in my early childhood. So many women I know completely light up when you mention the Nancy Drew games, and these women don’t consider themselves gamers.
The same goes tenfold for The Sims franchise, which is definitely the most beloved game series among all my female friends who do not consider themselves part of any gaming community. My girlfriend finds gaming culture intimidating and yet has 4,000 items of custom content downloaded while managing to keep her computer and her game running, a skillset in a league of its own.
A Crown of Swords: Women in Online Gaming
But while women have played games, women historically haven’t been welcome—and often still aren’t—in many online gaming spaces. Games that require voice communication over the Internet make women easily identifiable targets for harassment, which leads to a lot of women avoiding online multiplayer shooters altogether. Even though things are changing, a history of exclusion doesn’t disappear overnight.
While the harassment women receive in gaming is well documented, the secondary effect that excluding women from certain types of games often goes unaddressed even as it continues to have a major impact on gaming today. I’ve seen it myself. While I consider myself a life-long gamer, I had never gravitated towards online multiplayer games or first-person shooters, something that held true even when I started writing about video games. Until I started playing Overwatch, that is.
I’m not alone in this, either: Overwatch was the first team-based shooter for many women, or the second if they came from the somehow-still-around Team Fortress 2 player base that was hobbling along in 2016. Overwatch’s characters run the gamut when it comes to skill level. By the time I started playing the game a couple of years after its release, it was common for any identifiable women, gender being judged on voice or username to be ridiculed for playing any non-healing role. Women can be Mercy or Lucio or Medic, but god forbid they choose Hanzo.
That’s right: as absolutely ridiculous as it sounds, hundreds of hours playing Overwatch made it clear that 1950s housewives stereotypes have somehow translated into video games. Healing is for girls, while DPS is for boys. It’s Barbies versus action figures for a new generation. And so the Wheel turns.
The Gathering Storm: The Skills We Value
The defense that abusive gamers on the Internet would likely give to this is that women, based on their personal and subjective sample sizes, are just not as good at playing DPS or damage-based characters. As a deeply average McCree main who never seemed to get any better, I found myself extra frustrated when I played Overwatch because I felt like I fit the stereotype of a bad female DPS player every time I missed a headshot.
He’s the thing, though; McCree is a twitchy character, which means he requires fast, accurate reflexes to perform well while playing. So let’s assume for the sake of this argument that men are generally correct in their assessments that “women just aren’t as good” at DPS characters like McCree. Instead of taking it for granted that the X chromosome is what provides sick PC gaming skills, instead, let’s ask why men might be better at twitchy DPS characters than women? Why might the Overwatch League have had so few women in it throughout its run so far (one, it’s had one female player, shoutout to Geguri)?
It’s not about chromosomes (if you genuinely thought it was, please, seek help). It’s that the best Overwatch players have usually been playing twitchy shooters their entire lives. At the same time, the games women historically trend towards aren’t valued or judged on a competitive, monetary scale. No matter how much time I spent honing my gunslinging skills, I didn’t have the decade(s) of experience in Overwatch’s predecessors necessary to really bring home the gold.
I promise this is not about my own dashed Overwatch League dreams (if I ever had any, please, past me, seek help). My average skills are not the baseline: some women do have years of experience in twitchy games despite hostility from men in the genre, while others never experienced that hostility. In contrast, others are virtuosos who can pick up a new gaming genre and instantly be good at it. As a whole, though, women are societally disadvantaged in competitive twitchy gameplay.
The Great Hunt: The Desire for Exclusivity
And really, why does it matter if someone beats a game on easy that another player beats on hard or expert? Their victory doesn’t take away from someone else’s. Perhaps it’s because if anyone can play any game, then anyone gamer can’t immediately say they’re “better” than someone else by virtue of having completed a specific title. They no longer have bragging rights.
This desire for exclusivity, provided by games designed to be difficult from the ground up, often stems from an instinctive human gut reaction of “but if everyone can play it, I won’t be better than anyone else.” Sure, there might be genuine concerns about devaluing a game’s mechanics or gameplay elements, but for many people, the core issue is that they like gatekeeping when they’re on the right side of the gate.
Gaming is supposed to be a hobby, at least for the vast majority of us without major e-sports contracts. No one without a giant ego considers themselves “better” than others at watching TV, and few people argue with someone who doesn’t like a specific show because they got bored. They’re not usually blamed for disliking the show: the fault lies with the product for not being interesting—or accessible enough—to the consumer. TV is art: so are games: but when we exchange money for them, there’s a contract between the developer and the player that they will meet in the middle. For many people, difficult games aren’t meeting them in the middle.
The Gathering Storm: The Role of Accessibility
This history of exclusivity at great cost has a clear effect on gaming dynamics today. When recent games like Sekiro: Shadows Die exclude those without the Sick Gaming Skills™ to beat their game, there will be reasons why those gamers couldn’t beat the game. A lot of alienated FromSoftware players are inevitably women who don’t have the lifetime of experience needed to pick up Souls game mechanics as easily as their male counterparts, and so male players, seeing mostly other men, will continue to believe that women don’t like or aren’t good enough to play difficult games.
This exclusion punches down, vindicating male gamers as “better than” those that just couldn’t cut it, ignoring a history of exclusion that prevented many people from gaining those skills in the first place.
Accessibility in gaming is about making games playable on many different fronts. It isn’t just about disability or bringing games to younger players (both laudable goals in their own right!). Accessibility is also about acknowledging how excluding women and other minorities has created hostility for societally othered groups in gaming spaces. This has devalued their gaming experiences, focusing on the ones they’ve been excluded from instead—and then blaming the excluded parties for not being good at the games they’ve been kept away from!
Insisting on the validity of skill-based twitchy games perpetuates the same gendered gatekeeping that’s been around for decades. We’ve come far enough that saying women can’t play based on their gender itself is obviously bad (or you’d think it would be…), so relying on a skill-based argument while ignoring all the social contexts behind the popularity of certain types of games is just a new version of this gatekeeping. And so the Wheel turns.
Lord of Chaos: Artistic Expression and Gaming
I am not saying that women aren’t skilled at playing video games. They are. Those games are simply not valued, and they’re not the games people recreate with higher and higher difficulty scales until it becomes a genre unto itself. In fact, it’s borderline impossible to earn a living off the games women are often good at, at least without a Twitch account.
But what about art for art’s sake, right? People can create whatever they want. But it’s worth asking why people want to design games that rely on the difficulty in the first place, as well as what it says about the games that get popular. When I look at that moment of conception, to why people are driven to exclude others in prioritizing difficulty, so much so that it becomes an integral component of gameplay, I get that urge for creation myself.
For example, I’d love to see games with high difficulty scales based on mechanics used in the misaligned or sidelines female-marketed genres. (As a thought experiment, only, of course, since it would be antithetical to my beliefs about accessibility in gaming if games like this were actually created and marketed with no difficulty sliders.)
Basically, I’m asking what a very, very difficult version of a Sims game would look like? Or how good Dragon Age 4 would be if its gameplay heavily depended on the personal choices a player makes in sidequests—what if the player loses major tactical and leveling advantages because they fumbled an emotional moment or tried to skip a cutscene, to the point of failing the game? What about a Nancy Drew game where the puzzles rely on the player’s instinctual, decades-long understanding shared by the primarily female fanbase of Her Interactive games?
I doubt any of these games would be well received or widely popular, despite them integrating difficulty as a core mechanic into their gameplay. Naysayers of accessibility argue that this integration is artistically valuable, but these games wouldn’t appeal to the main demographic that applauds challenging gameplay because they don’t reward the types of skills that mainstream gaming culture has traditionally rewarded. Thousands of games come out every second of every day (that’s a 100% accurate number, look it up), so I’m sure there are games out there like the ones I have posited, but they certainly don’t garner the same kind of attention FromSoftware games have.
A Memory of Light: And so the Wheel Turns
It will take time—decades, even—for large groups of women to gain the 3l173 g4m3r sk1llz in genres they have been traditionally excluded from. There are two ethical courses of action moving forward. The first is to facilitate online environments where women feel comfortable being average—sometimes bad, sometimes good, and all human—for long periods of time. Just like anyone else. Eventually, some of these women will evitably, as the kids say, (said? probably past tense by now) “git gud.” After all, the male McCree mains at my skill level likely never felt like they were misrepresenting their entire gender whenever they had a bad game. The second is to start valuing all games and all of the gamers who play them as much as gaming culture values male-centered gaming experiences traditionally.
Until then, accessibility is the way to go. It levels the playing field by recognizing that everyone comes into gaming with different experiences. Some women will have lots of experience with twitchy shooters or Soulslikes, and many won’t. Some disabled gamers will appreciate additional features, while others won’t want or need them. Some gamers will have never picked up a controller before, while some will claim to have been holding The Duke in the womb. Their poor mothers.
Ultimately, we need to recognize the social and cultural contexts for all of these audiences, understand how toxic, sexist behavior has led to the widespread exclusion of women from many gaming populations, and respond to these issues by using what we’ve learned to inform future endeavors. The advantages of including people nearly always outweigh the negatives. Bold words and bolder claims, I know, but this is what accessibility is all about.
Also, add Waluigi to Smash.
Robert Jordan said that.