So, I don’t talk about this very often, but as a child I was diagnosed with a condition called Dyspraxia, otherwise known as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder. What that basically means is that my brain has a lot of difficulty keeping track of where it is in 3D space, how time is passing around it, and controlling its own movements. I struggle with timing and rhythm, I bump into things a lot because they’re not where I think they are, and often my body simply doesn’t do what I tell it to. I have trouble with big sweeping movements, like trying to kick a football, as well as fine motor movements, like trying to write or assemble small items.
I’ve had a lot of practice with co-ordination over the years, back at school I used to have to take special lessons to try and get my handwriting legible for example, and these days I can get by okay generally in life. However, sometimes I have difficulty playing certain video games.
So, today I’m going to talk a little bit about how Dyspraxia can make games difficult in very specific ways, and the kinds of options games can implement that can help players like me to enjoy more games.
So, the primary things I tend to find difficult when gaming with Dyspraxia is anything related to very precise timing, complex button inputs, and precision movement within game worlds.
Let’s start with precision timing. Games such as Guitar Hero or Rock Band are pretty much the epitome of games based around timing, hitting buttons at the correct time is basically the entire point of those games. While Guitar Hero games do have a very precise moment they would like you to hit buttons, there is a little bit of leeway built in for poorly timed inputs, and difficulty options to help simplify the kinds of inputs needed. By playing on easy mode, many complex rhythm patterns are reduced down to more standard and simplified beats, with the song still progressing if you hit a few mediocre hits along the way. You might not get a high score if you don’t hit things perfectly on time, and you can fail based on your poor timing, but the game has degrees of success. And this is a model I would love to see adopted in games as an accessibility option.
Let’s picture timing a parry in Dark Souls for example as being like trying to hit a note in Guitar Hero. Currently, only a perfect hit of the note will succeed. But, what if you slightly increased the timing window, so an okay timed hit would still work. Basically, by increasing the timing before or after a prompt that you will accept as successful slightly, you allow players like myself with Dyspraxia a chance to engage with those mechanics. Instead, when I play dark Souls, I exclusively dodge, because that has a more forgiving window.
This same theory can be applied to in game elements such as quick time events, where increasing the time you have to hit a button, or just completely removing the timer, can help players who struggle with timings not hit a roadblock in your game. Games such as Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 already have settings that remove timers from QTEs, and they are very very helpful.
Next, let’s talk about complexity of button inputs. One of the main reasons I play Super Smash Bros. a lot more than basically any other fighting game is the physical complexity of button inputs. I love fighting games as a genre, I play most new ones when they release, but being totally honest, a lot of days my hands simply can’t do a Shoryuken motion, or a series of quarter circle inputs, precisely and reliably. My hands are not great at doing exactly what I tell them, and that often ends up causing me to fail inputs.
The reason I love Smash Bros as a fighting game series is that all the characters inputs are mechanically simple, and consistent across most characters. Regular attacks are A and a direction. Special attacks are B and a direction. Smash attacks are the right stick in a direction. You have a block and dodge button. That’s basically every input.
In many cases, a character in Smash has just as many moves open to them as a character in a game like Street Fighter in a one on one fight, but with a much more simplified set of ways to access them. This is a big part of why I find Smash a more accessible fighting game. Just look at Ryu in Smash, sure, you can do his attacks with command inputs, but you can also just do regular Smash Bros inputs to do the same attacks with more ease.
A lot of people mocked Street Fighter 4 when it came to the 3DS for having an option to trigger special moves via presses of buttons on the touch screen rather than traditional inputs. I personally loved this. My hands often simply can’t pull off the movements for some of these attacks, and while input complexity was reduced, I still needed to know to recognise when I had a safe window to use the attack unpunished. I still had to use those specials effectively.
A lot of people mock the idea of games having simplified controls, but honestly a lot of games I would sacrifice a little bit of functionality to be able to play the game without complex button sequences being a part of the equation.
At the crossroads between timing and input complexity is precision movement within game worlds. If you look at a game like Celeste, all about climbing a dangerous mountain by making precise jumps through dangerous levels, I think you can see how the previous two issues intersect.
As a player with dyspraxia, I found Celeste tough in places because I had to precisely time my jumps, move my stick precisely during those jumps, keep my character at the right position on screen, land those jumps, and in some cases instantly switch to a new jump in a new direction.
How did Celeste tackle this issue? Well, in their accessibility menu, they gave players like myself the option to slow down the game speed incrementally, as well as give ourselves extra jumps or invincibility temporarily.
I played most of Celeste at the developer intended difficulty, but being able to occasionally turn on invincibility, so I wouldn’t fail if I drifted slightly too close to a wall of spikes, or slow the game down, so I had a slower and wider window to execute jumps correctly, made the whole game more manageable. I had more time to switch between inputs, more room to correct mistakes, and a bit of a safety net if I went a little further in a direction than I meant to.
Beyond that, in games that are focused on precision play, a little extra leeway could go a long way. Maybe extend the space at which you can jump off a platform or land on it by a few pixels, or slightly magnetise the player. Help make sure if they almost got it, that’s good enough.
Lastly, and this is important, offer players a setting that makes checkpoints really frequent as an option in games, even if it’s not your default. Because, here’s the thing. As a player with Dyspraxia, I don’t mind sometimes having to do a challenging series of jumps again and again and again until I get it right. The problem is, if I spend ten minutes getting a platforming challenge correct, die on the next jump, and have to redo that first puzzle again, It’s not going to be fun. If I am lucky enough to manage a tough segment, I can’t guarantee how long it’ll take to replicate that. Let me move past the content I have managed to pass.
Generally, my advice to game developers looking to make their games more accessible to players with dyspraxia, or other co-ordination based disabilities, would be to offer players the option of more forgiving timing windows, modes that tweak the game to require a little less precision to progress, and if you’re really feeling adventurous ways to slow down the game so we have more time to do the movements we know how to do, but our hands might just not be doing quite right.
Most of the time, when I struggle with a game, I know exactly what I am meant to do to progress. It’s not a lack of awareness, my brain and body are just not always in sync. A little leeway for being a bit out of time or not quite correctly positioned goes a long way to helping me be able to keep playing the games I love.