Realism in games is actually impairing engagement for disabled gamers
Plenty of players fawn over beautifully rendered video game characters, and how could you fault their adoration? Every stitch in a dragon-scale doublet, their enviable pores dewy and flawless, with gratuitously complex hairstyles shifting delicately in the simulated breeze. When video games began as quirky and blocky arcade fun, these strikingly lifelike heroes are a testament to the fifty-year evolution of a unique narrative medium.
Yet, to view these virtual visages through rose-tinted glasses is to gloss over a very real issue for gamers with prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. One The Sims player reached out to fellow fans and expressed how the industry’s pursuit for realism significantly impacts their gaming experience:
Highly realistic faces and smooth movements were an inevitability as video game technology soared to new heights, and the potential to create arithmetically-pleasing appearances exploded. Circular arguments have been sparked and dampened over varying animation quality regarding recent releases, but if one can’t single out their own character among the supporting cast, the definition of ‘playable’ becomes a whole new quandary.
Face-blindness isn’t as straightforward as the name might suggest. It is the inability to recognise and remember faces – in other words, the person sees individual facial features clearly but their brain lacks the process that turns this information into one composite whole. Some are born with it, and some develop the condition later in life either naturally or as a result of an injury. Heartbreakingly, the The Sims player dreads the day when their condition becomes so intense that they can no longer enjoy their hobbies at all.
And the The Sims community, in all their delightful eccentricity, came to offer a multitude of suggestions and support. Managing face-blindness relies upon ‘visual hooks’ – easily perceptible attributes that are crucial to telling friends apart from strangers. Occult Sims – i.e. aliens, vampires, witches – were presented as their status causes their appearance and actions to be exaggerated. Colour coding each Sim from their hairdo to their bedsheets is another recommendation, and use of ‘Maxis-match’ custom content to improve modification options appeared to be indispensable. As gameplay and families progress, cheats keep child Sims from aging and ensuring that the player identifies the new Sims separately from their siblings before the game mechanics take over. Finally, one responder explained that exaggerated facial features like protruding cheekbones, pointed ears, strong eyebrows to name a few, increases distinctiveness initially even before customising their attire or hair colours and styles.
Not only are these ideas valuable to fellow gamers with prosopagnosia, they could also address the art and character direction of developing games. At present, accessibility options for disabilities are easily implemented in many AAA titles, such as Uncharted 4’s aim assists, customisable subtitles in Tomb Raider and colour blindness modes for ReCore. Following their lead, it could be as basic as offering a setting or optional patch to recolour the outfits to make their heroes more dissimilar. A slider for voice pitch or height and body shape when players design their own characters may be more complex to execute, but affords the variability sorely required. As E3 approaches, it is vital that as we celebrate progress and innovation, inclusion and support for all gamers follows suit.