A Formalist Study of the Contradiction Between Hard Fun and Accessibility
A couple of weeks ago, I went out for some Kebabs with two friends of mine, one being a game design student and the other a hardcore gamer. While waiting for the Kebabs, we got into a heated debate on the high difficulty and lack of difficulty settings in the newly released, best-selling game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Despite being a game design student myself, I have never been a hardcore player who likes to take on extremely challenging games that require a high level of cognitive, mental, and physical ability. Consequently, at the time of the debate, it is an understatement to say that I could not progress very far in the game. However, the debate did raise a series of questions that are worth examining. Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun? If so, under what circumstance is said compromise justified? Most importantly, should Hard-Fun games provide accessibility settings?
Before we proceed, I shall clarify my presupposition here:
Hard-fun games should deliver their intended Hard-fun experiences to as many players, regardless of their skill and ability, as possible.
I shall also define Hard Fun here quoting XEODesign:
“Hard Fun creates emotion by structuring experience towards the pursuit of a goal. The challenge focuses on attention and rewards progress to create emotions such as Frustration and Fiero (an Italian word for personal triumph). …It rewards the player with feedback on progress and success” (XEODesign, Inc.).
On another note, Hard-fun games do not necessarily refer to games of extreme difficulty but refer to games that focus on challenges as the chief experience.
With these premises in mind, I will attempt to abstract Hard Fun and Accessibility from specific genres or games, examine the contradiction between them, and answer the said questions. Case studies of games of disparate genres will be presented in an attempt to construct a universally applicable game design principle that is not limited to any particular genres or games.
Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun?
If we were to review the most basic ideas of game design — the formal elements of a game — we could reach a consensus that the player is the foremost component of a game. Here I am to establish a basic belief on which this article will be based: the parallel principle. The parallel principle goes as follows. The player is the necessary condition for an experience to exist. The game by itself does not constitute any experience; the game experience exists if and only if the player plays the game (Schell 10). Since every player plays differently — on a different skill level or with a different play style — no two experiences are identical. Different players’ experiences (in a single-player game) are also parallel: one’s experience does not affect another’s. Hard Fun, as a subset of experience, follows this proposition. One’s Fiero in overcoming a challenge in a Hard-fun game cannot possibly make the frustration of another any more enjoyable, vice versa.
Therefore, we must break the question down to sub-questions that follow the parallel principle:
(1) Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun for players who are not playing on accessibility settings?
(2) Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings?
The a priori answer to question (1) is no. By virtue of the parallel principle, we can deductively conclude that making a game more accessible — for example, by adding an easier game mode that is not played by players who only play the original game mode — cannot possibly alter the experiences of those who do not play the easy game mode. The a posteriori answer to question (1) is also no. In FTL: Faster Than Light, the difficulty can only be chosen prior to starting the game and cannot be changed mid-game. If a player chooses to play on normal difficulty, then the experience of the run cannot be compromised by the easier game mode.
However, in this scenario, one may refute my argument by raising the question, “What if the player chooses to turn on easy mode after his defeat on normal mode? Would that compromise the Hard Fun? After all, the experience of the game is not limited to a single run but pertains to the entirety of the game.” This refutation is very valid but lies outside the domain of my first sub-question. I will address this problem in my answer to the second sub-question.
To effectively reply to question (2), we need to subdivide the players who are playing on accessibility settings into two groups by nature of the parallel principle. The two groups are:
(A) Players who are incapable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero.
(B) Players who are capable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero.
I shall clarify these definitions: by whether the players are capable of overcoming challenges, I mean their factual capability, regardless of whether they recognize such capability and notwithstanding their effort in practicing. A player who is unconfident in his capability yet is, in fact, capable of beating the game, for instance, falls under the category of B. One may argue that players learn and improve: a member of A can become a member of B over time. This argument is valid but does not contradict my definition as such players would fall under the category of B, too. One may also argue that all physically able players, if given enough time to practice, can beat any winnable game. It would be hard for me to say that this statement is a priori false, but the premise of unlimited time for practice cannot be realistically attained. The time a player spends on a game is empirically limited by his accumulation of frustration: if the player is too frustrated by the challenges to continue playing — to wit, the player makes his final decision to rage quit, that is, most possibly did he already rage quit many times before — the time provided for his game experience is then terminated. Simply put, if the player’s final rage quit comes before overcoming the challenges, the player falls under the category of A. One may insist and obnoxiously argue that players may be enslaved and forced to practice until they beat the game in an attempt to nullify my categorization of A, but such argument is simply repulsive and violates the premise of games: “Games are entered willfully” (Schell 34).
With the definitions of my categorization of players clarified, we shall move on to examine the two newly formed questions per the categorization:
(I) Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings and incapable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero?
(II) Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings and capable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero?
For player group A and in response to question I, accessibility does not compromise Hard Fun. To effectively examine the experience of A, I shall reiterate the definition of Hard Fun here: “[Hard Fun] rewards the player with feedback on progress and success” (XEODesign, Inc.). Following this proposition of Hard Fun, we can conclude that Hard Fun rewards the player if and only if the player achieves both progress and success. Progress and success are two necessary conditions and together a sufficient condition to necessitate Hard Fun. However, because A is incapable of achieving said progress and success, no Fiero is being rewarded to the player. Hard Fun cannot be compromised if it does not exist in the player’s game experience. Therefore, accessibility does not compromise Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings and incapable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero.
On the contrary, accessibility increases the amount of Hard Fun for player group A. Again, players experience Hard Fun if and only if they achieve progress and success. Without accessible design, player group A does not achieve success and therefore cannot experience Hard Fun. Accessible design enables A to experience Hard Fun by moving the goal post of Fiero before the obstacle of final rage quit.
In response to the potential argument that moving the goal post closer nullifies challenge and sense of progress, I here shall expound the nature of challenge and progress. Challenge and progress are relative terms: they are determined by the distance between the player’s starting skill and the player’s Fiero on a number line. If a player starts at skill level -20 and then beats the game at +20, then his progress is the same as that of a player who starts at 0 and beats the game at +40 — the change in skill is the same.
As long as there is a difference between the starting skill and the final skill after the player overcomes the challenge, the player experiences Hard Fun. Such Hard Fun might not be as rewarding as that of a capable player playing on normal difficulty if the accessibility settings made the game easier such that the change in skill of the incapable player is smaller than that of the capable player, but again, such comparison is invalid by virtue of the parallel principle. The point is that the incapable player experiences more Hard Fun on accessibility mode than he does on normal difficulty.
Accessibility only disables Hard Fun for player group A if it narrows the gap between the player’s starting skill level and the game’s challenges to the extent that the player feels no challenge, hence no progress. However, such experience is, at worst, equally unrewarding as one wherein the player fails to overcome the challenge and reach Fiero because neither of them satisfies both necessary conditions for Hard Fun, progress and success.
The two conditions for Hard Fun, progress and success, therefore, are both enabled by accessibility except for said scenario. The conclusive answer to question I is thus that accessibility does not compromise Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings and incapable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero.
For player group B and in response to question II, accessibility does compromise Hard Fun. The logic is simple: the goal post of Fiero is moved closer to the player’s starting skill level, reducing the amount of accumulated progress and frustration that erupt at the Fiero moment. Therefore, we can evidently conclude that accessibility compromises Hard Fun for players who are playing on accessibility settings and capable of overcoming the challenges that lead to Fiero.
So far, we have conclusively replied, using the parallel principle, to all sections of the main question, “Does accessibility compromise Hard Fun?”
Under what circumstances is said compromise justified?
Our examination of the problems so far is not exactly applicable to game design yet because there are two groups whose experiences are compromised and two whose are not. We cannot conclusively answer the final question, “Should Hard-Fun games provide accessibility settings?” without presenting an ambiguous reply saying that accessibility design is just a tradeoff. We need to establish an ideal situation in which all players are satisfied; to this end, we need to discuss when accessibility settings compromise the Hard-Fun experience in a truly detrimental and unjustifiable way and when they do not. We also need a practical solution that minimizes the number of players whose experiences are compromised unjustifiably.
In fact, not all compromises of Hard-Fun experience are equal; some are justified. At least, not all can blame the game designer. This then begs the question, “under what circumstances is such compromise justified?” That is, a situation in which the player’s hard-fun experience is compromised, but the designer cannot be blamed.
While the content of this essay is not about political philosophy, I share the form of critique with the political philosophers that I am to mention. I shall borrow John Stuart Mill’s harm principle that people are free to do whatever they want, even if their actions harm their own happiness, as long as their actions do not harm others (Mill). In application to games, the player should have the freedom to and, de facto, has the ability to alter his and only his experience regardless of the designer’s artistic vision. While the designer may assume that the player is an economically rational problem-solver with the goal of beating the game most efficiently in mind, it is not the duty of the player to do so. The designer must not criticize the player for not playing the game righter than the player is. Nonetheless, the harm principle alone would not suffice to justify a player’s experience being compromised by accessibility settings if the player does not know the potential harm to his experience and subsequently cannot decide out of his conscious free will.
Therefore, I shall add Jerry Cohen’s elaboration of Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory in defense of the free market to the harm principle to form a sound justification for said compromise:
“Whatever arises from a just situation as a result of fully voluntary transactions which all transacting agents would still have agreed to if they had known what the results of so transacting were to be is itself just” (Cohen).
In the context of games, the statement can be understood as a justification that the game designer cannot be blamed for whatever experience arises from a situation in which the player is informed of, conscious of, and consensual to the experience.
Simply put, if the informed player consciously chooses an inferior Hard-Fun experience, it is the player’s freedom to do so, and the designer cannot be blamed for the inferior experience. The conclusion also presents itself useful in objection to the potential counterargument that it is the incapable player’s fault for not improving his skills (the “git gud” argument), but it is the designer’s fault — not the capable player’s fault — for the capable player to play on accessibility settings: an obvious incoherence is shown in this argument regarding player agency. If the proud gamer criticizes the incapable player for not “gitting gud” but simultaneously feels that his experience can be potentially compromised due to the existence of accessibility settings, a simple reply is “just don’t play on easy mode.”
The theory of justified compromise provides an imaginative ideal situation in which the players can foresee their experiences before playing the game and therefore knowingly choose their desired difficulty levels. In such case, few players’ experiences are compromised. If the player is able to choose the best experience for him, why would he choose an inferior experience? If there is any compromised experience at all, such compromise is justified for it is the player’s conscious choice, and thus the designer is not to blame.
Should Hard-Fun games provide accessibility settings?
In the said ideal situation, we can readily reply to the final question, “should Hard-fun games provide accessibility settings?” The answer is evidently positive because accessibility settings, in such scenario, compromise no one’s experience unjustifiably and deliver Hard Fun to the greatest number of players possible.
In practice, to achieve this ideal situation, the designer should communicate every potential consequence of the accessibility settings to the player. For example, Celeste warns the player of the consequences of turning on the assist mode and emphasizes the message that playing on assist mode is not the intended experience.
The goal of any Hard-fun game in the context of this article, therefore, should be approaching this ideal situation — unless there are other ideal situations in which more players are provided with better experiences that I have failed to present.
The problem is that the ideal situation in which all players are satisfied is impossible to be perfectly attained in a game. Not even as clear as the description of the assist mode in Celeste is adequate to communicate the potential experience to the player because of the nature of games. Only the player who is playing the game knows his and only his experience. Even then, the player only knows his current and past experience and cannot possibly foresee his future experience in the game. A temporarily frustrated player cannot predict his Fiero. Similarly, the designer cannot predict whether the player is merely temporarily frustrated or factually incapable. Since the player cannot foresee his experience, he cannot consciously choose to play on or without accessibility settings that alter the experience. Thus, the ideal situation is impossible to be fully achieved but approached with effective communication.
“The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice” (Rawls 4).
Akin to Rawls’s statement, the designer’s inability to achieve the ideal situation permits us to acquiesce in the imperfect yet most favourable solution. Thus, our goal is to find the most favourable practice that best emulates the ideal situation.
If we review the presupposition of the article, “hard-fun games should deliver Hard-fun experiences to as many players as possible,” the real meaning of the question — whether Hard-fun games should provide accessibility settings — boils down to this question: do accessibility settings push the game closer to the ideal situation and therefore enable Hard Fun for more players than a single-difficulty mode? This question can only be answered with empirical statistical methods that survey players’ satisfaction with accessibility settings being the variable, but the statistical method alone would likely be limited to a particular game or genre. Therefore, I here shall propose an a priori hypothesis that awaits the empirical evidence, constructing a universal game design principle.
The hypothesis is based on the statistical law, Borel’s strong law of large numbers: if an experiment is repeated a large number of times, independently under identical conditions, then the proportion of times that any specified event occurs approximately equals the probability of the event’s occurrence on any particular trial. Analogously, if accessibility settings make each player more likely experience Hard Fun, then accessibility settings increase the number of players who experience Hard Fun. If the proposition is true, then accessibility settings help the game approach the ideal situation better than single difficulty.
Thus, we shall compare accessibility settings to single difficulty in regard to the likelihood of delivering Hard Fun experience in the case of an individual player. To expound said comparison, in fact, produces a new question: is the player or the designer better at tailoring the experience for the player?
While the designer undoubtedly has the duty to and is the most competent person at creating the context for the experience, tailoring the experience to a particular player lies beyond his expertise. One may argue that it is the job of the game designer to tailor the experience for any particular player, but it is not possible:
“The game designer creates structures of rules directly, but only indirectly creates the experience of play when the rules are enacted by players. As a game unfolds through play, metaplay, and transformative play, unexpected things happen, patterns that are impossible to completely predict” (Zimmerman 28).
The game designer’s job is to design a formal system in which the player can act upon the mechanics and experience emerges vis-à-vis the player. While the designer can estimate the experience based on analyses of the demographics of the players and design the mechanics accordingly, it is not possible for the designer to tailor the game’s mechanics such that every player enjoys the experience equally. It is even not possible for the designer to tailor the experience for different phases of the same player: the experience changes drastically as the player changes his gameplay style or skills.
The player is one step closer to the experience than the designer. While the player cannot foresee his future experience based on his current and past experience, he at least perceives the experience.
In the MDA framework (Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics), the player is the direct observer of the aesthetics (the experience, the “fun”) of the game (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek). On the contrary, the designer only knows the mechanics directly and must look past the dynamics to descry the aesthetics that the player easily feels.
Both the designer and the player stand behind the veil of ignorance before the player enters the game. Nevertheless, as the player plays through the game, he at least unveils the fog of war of his experience gradually, yet the designer still stands behind the veil of ignorance. This knowledge allows the player to tailor and iterate the difficulty and accessibility settings in accordance with his ability. If whoever knows the experience better is better at tailoring the experience, then the player is better than the designer at the job.
Suppose that Peter is an anonymous player whose capability of overcoming the challenges we designed is unknown to us. If Peter is incapable of overcoming challenges without accessibility settings, his experience is ruined if he does not play on accessibility settings. On the other hand, if Peter is a capable player who just feels a little unconfident and momentarily frustrated by the challenges, his experience is compromised if he plays on accessibility settings. If we impose a single difficulty setting upon Peter, the capable Peter’s experience will be unscathed, but the compromise of the incapable Peter’s experience will be inevitable. If we provide Peter with accessibility settings and formal warnings of their consequences, the formally informed capable Peter’s experience, on the one hand, can be compromised if he decides to play on accessibility settings, but it most likely will not as Peter is formally informed and therefore can consciously make choices based on his knowledge of himself and his experience; on the other hand, the incapable Peter’s experience will be improved.
Obviously, handing the duty of adjusting difficulty and accessibility to the informed Peter has a greater chance of delivering Hard-fun experience to Peter than single difficulty. Standing behind the veil of ignorance, the designer has no choice but to provide accessibility settings to maximize the likelihood of delivering the best Hard-fun experience to Peter.
As accessibility settings make each player more likely experience Hard Fun than single difficulty, they, per my hypothesis with the statistical law, in comparison to single difficulty, increase the number of players who experience Hard Fun. Then, it follows that accessibility settings help the game approach the ideal situation better than single difficulty. Intended Hard-fun experiences are, despite unintuitive, in fact, best delivered by accessibility settings. Therefore, we can evidently reply to our final question: Hard-fun games should provide accessibility settings.
Limitations of this article and its application to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
This article strongly assumes a utilitarian and egalitarian ground on which the goal of a game is to yield satisfaction for as many players as possible, and each player, regardless of skill and ability, ought to be appealed to equally. However, while I believe that it is nice of games being inclusive, I do not have a rigorous defence for the moral obligation to do so at the time of writing.
The Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice difficulty debate motivated me to write this article; hence, I should apply the theory in the article to FromSoftware’s latest hit. If FromSoftware were to agree with my utilitarian premise or appeal to more players, then Sekiro should provide accessibility settings that are similar to those of Celeste — well-described, customizable, and non-punitive accessibility settings.
However, perhaps FromSoftware does not hold the utilitarian premise. FromSoftware may conceivably only targets capable players, and therefore seeks perfection of their target audience’s experiences. One must admittedly disapprove the utilitarian premise in order to coherently advocate for the deliberate unavailability of accessibility settings. While I support inclusivity in the gaming industry and community, I, at the time of writing, find it hard to argue for a coercive regulation or a public resentment that forces games to provide accessibility settings.
Accessibility settings come with consequences with respect to different players. While they may compromise capable players’ Hard Fun, they certainly enable and improve incapable players’ Hard Fun. If a Hard-fun game were to follow the utilitarian proposition, then it should provide accessibility settings and descriptive warnings of the consequences and leave the job of adjusting the experience to the informed players as the players are better candidates than the designer when it comes to tailoring the experience to accommodate their skills. Despite unintuitive, accessibility settings do enable Hard-fun games to deliver their intended experiences to more players than single difficulty.
Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Hunicke, Robin, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek. “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research .” Technical Report. 2004.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London, 1859.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. Print.
Schell, Jesse. “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.” CRC Press, 2010. 10, 34.
XEODesign, Inc. Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion in Player Experiences. Oakland: XEODesign,® Inc., 2004. Document.
Zimmerman, Eric. Gaming Literacy — Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the 21st Century. 2007. Document.