Something I don’t often talk about publicly is the fact I have a family history of memory issues, as well as some memory issues of my own. Mental health conditions that deteriorate memory seem to run in my family, and making it to the age of 30 with undiagnosed ADHD meant that for most of my life, my ability to store and recall memories properly has been spotty at best.
For people with ADHD, short term memory issues are thought to be a result of a lack of dopamine in the brain. The brain is constantly dopamine seeking, and as such not focusing properly on things, and not taking the time to form solid memories of many moments. For me this has been improving since I have been on ADHD medication, but it impacted me, and my ability to play video games, for many years.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about playing video games if you have issues with short term memory. We’re going to talk a little bit about some conditions that can impact short term memory, why this is likely to impact more and more gamers over time, and what steps video games can implement to help players with poor short term memory keep enjoying the games they love.
Let’s start off by talking a little bit about some conditions which can impact a person’s ability to store and recall short term memories.
I talked a little about ADHD in the opening of this video, but it is far from the only common mental health condition that impacts memory storage and recall.
Aphantasia, a condition where a person struggles to imagine and recall visual information, can have an impact on short term memory as it relates to visual information.
A lack of sleep can cause memory issues, meaning that they can impact people with conditions such as sleep apnoea or insomnia
Stress, anxiety, and depression all impact the brain’s ability to store and create memories, as can certain medications.
Additionally, conditions such as hyperthyroidism can impact memory.
Lastly, in more extreme cases, conditions such as dementia or a brain tumour can have very dramatic impacts on memory.
So, why does a lack of short term memory matter when it comes to video games? Well, a lot of modern video games contain lengthy plots, shifting objectives, and puzzles involving short term memory retention. If you’re playing Among Us you might need to remember whether or not you are the imposter, or while playing Inscryption you might need to remember the solution to a card based puzzle, or what cards are currently in your deck to access. If you’re playing an open world game you might need to remember what you were last doing, and in a narrative heavy choice based game you might need to remember which group is which, and what their motivations are
Now, many of you watching this video today may not currently have any issues with your short term memory, but memory is one of those things that ultimately, at some point, is likely to impact everyone who plays video games, to a greater or lesser degree.
Anyone who plays video games could have a head injury tomorrow, or could develop depression, or go through a deeply stressful event that causes PTSD, or develop a sleeping condition, and quickly find yourself struggling with memory.
And, beyond that, all of us are aging. As those of us who love video games age, a larger and larger number of elderly gamers are going to develop memory issues as a natural part of aging. In decades to come this will be an issue that impacts everyone, and it’s worth being invested in seeing video games adapt in time that they stay welcoming when you eventually need that support.
So, what can video games do to help players with short term memory?
Well, games like Alan Wake feature periodic recaps of the plot to remind the player what has happened, and what is currently happening. In a similar vein, certain Pokémon games provide the player with a text reminder of their progress they can read back through every time they boot the game up.
For games with cutscenes, allowing the player to rewatch any past cutscene on demand, as soon as it has played the first time, is incredibly helpful.
Having an on screen mini map with markers and waypoint finding can help those with poor visual memory who can’t remember a map once not looking at it well.
Games that feature randomised elements from pools of possible items should allow you to check the total pool of options, and what they do, so you can make informed choices about your actions without needing to hold your options in memory.
For games with lots of text, allowing the player to read a text log and scroll backwards through conversations can really help remind them what’s happening.
Quest logs and map markers in open world games can help players to check what they were planning to do, or in the process of doing.
Screenshot functionality is really useful for games with visual puzzles you have to keep in short term memory, as that allows players to quickly reference the answer from the location it needs inputting.
The Phoenix Wright games contain in-game glossaries of items, clues, and people, which can be checked at any time for a mental refresher.
But, and this is perhaps the biggest ask of our industry, we need to think about implementing reminders around in-game microtransactions. As more and more gamers age, and start having memory issues, we are likely to experience a whole new wave of issues with people overspending on microtransactions due to not remembering purchases they have made, and games more than happy to let them spend over and over again.
We have seen in the past that impulse control conditions can cause people to spend beyond their means on in game microtransactions, but memory issues can also lead to this same result, and that is going to impact a lot more gamers in the decades to come than most people would like to admit.
Short term memory loss is one of those disabilities that is going to impact most of us, to some degree, at some point in our lives. You shouldn’t need to be impacted by a disability to care about accessibility for those with the condition, but it is a reality that this will impact most people, and hopefully that means they will care and pay attention.
Short term memory loss doesn’t have to be dramatic to be distressing. I sometimes can’t remember who a character is, or how a game mechanic works, between one gameplay session and the next, and if the game doesn;t feature tools to remind me, that can be distressing when it occurs.
All of these reminder tools are simple to implement, and could help someone who is having a momentary mental blip to keep enjoying a game they love, rather than being distressed because their brain didn’t store some information correctly.