Why don’t we talk more about cognitive accessibility?

Pokémon has reached its ninth generation with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, representing the series’ first forays into an open world. The results so far have been mixed, with a particular focus on the games’ poor technical performance. However, the move to an open world has inspired other issues that, while not foreign to the series, are exacerbated by the added freedom players are afforded.

With both the games’ maps and minimaps obscured by countless icons, a lack of pathfinding, and no meaningful landmarks, navigation in Pokemon’s ninth generation is a nightmare so far.

While this is partly due to Game Freak’s inexperience with open-world games, it’s also part of a growing trend in the industry. Navigation aids, mission logs, objective markers – aspects of games that we are so familiar with – disappear. Where studios like Bethesda and Ubisoft once drowned us in wayfinding, now its relative absence is disadvantageous to gamers. In particular, it is disadvantageous for cognitively impaired players.

Pokémon Scarlet / Pokémon Violet – DF Tech Review

Cognitive accessibility is often left out of accessibility conversations. This is not surprising from Japanese studios like Game Freak – or Nintendo – where accessibility is ignored, and often haphazardly. But as we push for greater accessibility in the west, most recently with God of War: Ragnarök, why is cognitive accessibility being left behind?

Cognitive impairment, in context

Cognitive impairment affects a number of functions in the human body, including memory, concentration, communication and emotions. Associated with several conditions, including dementia, ADHD, autism and epilepsy, cognitive impairment – both mild and significant – also forms a main axis of chronic disease, in a number of conditions labeled as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and as per 2020, the aftermath of COVID-19.

For gamers who struggle with cognitive impairment, tools that help with navigation and memory tasks play an important role in allowing us to play at all. Yet these elements are toned down or removed from modern games. Ghost of Tsushima converted wayfinding into a vague gust, while Elden Ring eschewed quest tracking and meaningful navigation altogether.

“As modern games have moved away from linear trajectories,” says Laura Kate Dale, an accessibility critic and consultant, “and in the case of games like Breath of the Wild allowed you to go in a straight line and climb a wall instead of following a path, games have become more reluctant, in my experience, to offer pathfinding lines.”

Breath of the Wild’s freedom of movement offers new challenges for wayfinding.

While one can sympathize with the difficulty of adapting the communication of navigation as we expand our catalog of movements in 3D space, in many cases the answer to this challenge is to remove path-finding tools entirely.

Which lets cognitively impaired players into an overwhelming and unnavigable world.

Alexa already has cognitive symptoms, but after a bout of COVID, she found periods where she “couldn’t play games at all. I just didn’t have the focus to process what I was doing.”

A big problem for Alexa?

“My brain doesn’t really make mental maps of where things are in relation to each other. Even with a mini-map on the screen, I’ve had times where I’ve set a target marker and, if it doesn’t have a directional beacon of some sort I can look at main screen, I’ll end up going the wrong direction.”

This echoes the experience of many, including myself, in a gaming landscape that pushes into larger, more complex worlds and moves away from non-immersive navigation, all while a neuroinvasive virus sweeps the global population.

Rasputin gets a corpse in Destiny 2.

Fate 2.

It gets worse when we consider that cognitive accessibility can be more complex than wayfinding, including tools that help us analyze movement and narrative progression, such as closed captioning, accessibility tools that “explain non-verbal subtitles in subtitle files”, which Laura says “have previously been useful to me.”

Or it could include better social tools to help those for whom communication and socializing are more difficult. This is something Dan, an autistic player, struggles with in Destiny’s raid system.

Lack of options to mitigate complex inputs and a requirement to tackle raids in a team make them more difficult to execute. Looking at the trophy and achievement data for Destiny 2, this is a widespread problem as less than 20 percent of players have completed a raid.

The scope of cognitive accessibility, like so many areas of accessibility, is broad. It can be a challenge for developers. But it’s increasingly difficult to see any resources put into cognitive accessibility when so many tools that have already helped are taken away.

What happened?

Why have we reached the point where cognitive accessibility is so absent from games and discussions surrounding them? For Alexa, that’s partly because “a lot of cognitive accessibility features already exist. But they don’t always count as accessibility features.”

Laura agrees. “Because a minimap, or screenshot functionality, or plot recaps are all things that are used frequently by non-disabled players, there’s not really an association between them and the idea that they’re accessibility features.”

Elden Ring's Coliseum is finally open for business.

Fire Ring.

This is a trend we can trace back to 2016, when From Software titles moved into the mainstream, and then two years later with the release of Breath of the Wild and its imitators.

Dark Souls has long been praised by vocal fans for not “holding the player’s hand” (their words) with an absence of tutorials (although all From Software games have tutorials) or pathfinding. The resulting confusion over how to proceed has been refreshing for some, while for others it has pushed them out of the games.

Ahead of Elden Ring’s release, Hidetaka Miyazaki – the creator of Dark Souls – told the New Yorker. “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming adversity.”

It’s a sentiment most developers would echo. But in practice, it’s hard to see the truth in the statement when games like Breath of the Wild and Elden Ring give players such free rein in vast worlds with few, if any, cognitive aids.

In particular, the system used by Elden Ring is a huge barrier for cognitively impaired players. “I struggle a lot when video games give me too many tasks to keep in my working memory at once,” explains Laura. “Or expect me to focus for longer periods of time, and use things I’ve seen in contexts where I can no longer see them.”

However, when criticism is leveled at these decisions, it is often ignored or aggressively reprimanded, as seen in criticism of Elden Ring by developers for its lack of pathfinding and cognitive accessibility.

That’s something Dan experiences when he communicates his difficulties to the Destiny playerbase. “The community doesn’t see it as an accessibility issue,” says Dan. “It’s treated as a skill issue, so they say I don’t ‘deserve’ that content (and then go back to claiming the raids aren’t hard anyway).”

This makes it all the more difficult to communicate our needs, even when talking to those who ostensibly support accessibility efforts. As Laura told me, “my experiences are often treated as an afterthought in accessibility discussions, because of the level of abstraction between my needs and what people on the outside can see.”

This mirrors a wider society, where cognitive symptoms are not immediately obvious to outside observers, linked to so-called “invisible illnesses”, and regularly more reviled than the already dangerous levels of apathy towards disability. In a world so built around perceived normality that consistently excludes the disabled, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend oneself in all areas of life.

But in games, thanks to features that don’t trend with a wider, able-bodied audience, we lose a lot of the progress that’s already been made.

Hope?

Is there hope for the future? Perhaps it depends on our own, individual view. But while cognitive accessibility is often ignored, and we’re seeing a devolution of it in actual gameplay terms, the industry isn’t completely apathetic to tools and features that help us.

Ironically, Ubisoft has equipped recent Assassin’s Creed titles with options to play with or without map markers, while characters often remind players of current objectives.

Alexa tells me how Celeste helped her when she “set the game’s speed to 90 percent of full speed. This gave me more time to press the buttons with poor reflexes, but it also gave me more time to think and process the information.”

Celeste

Celeste.

Marvel’s Avengers’ use of closed captioning was a boon for Laura, who mentions a scene where two characters share a wordless exchange contextualized in subtitles. “Having these non-verbal interactions explained was really helpful, and something I wish more games considered,” she said.

Dan points me to Pillars of the Earth. “The menu gives you several options for auto-pause based on low health, a timer, or when abilities recharge,” he says. “It can really give you time to assess what’s going on.” Like Obsidian’s recent release, Pentiment, “You can hover over many of the underlined terms to get a popup reminding you what they mean, and the quest log is pretty good at giving you an overview of what choices you’ve made so far, and who you need to see next.”

In an industry where cognitive accessibility is so often made disposable, there are bright spots. But until the conversation around cognitive accessibility is normalized, these can remain dim lights on an otherwise dim horizon. With our ability to play games not driven by a lack of progress, but a delegation of specific standards due to player trends, we tend to continue to see elements that make games accessible and navigable for players like me removed.

It’s a bit like being new to a city. But when you look for signs, they’re all gone because the locals liked it that way. When you ask for help, you are told that you are simply not good enough to find out. It is isolating, exclusionary and, for many, impossible. With current trends, it’s the future of gaming: remove everything that takes the effort of navigation away, until we’re all gone.

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