Capability, Exclusion, and Diversity

How we see the world shapes the things we create. This is an obvious statement, but some of the implications are rarely considered.

For instance, we rarely consider the effect that our physical capabilities have on our worldview. This actually makes some degree of intuitive sense, since a great many artists, particularly writers, tend to live in their heads. We sometimes find it easy to forget that our minds are tied to our bodies in rather intimate fashion.

I am somewhat nearsighted, and I sometimes notice ways that this influences my creative output. This influence is, unsurprisingly, most readily perceived in my visual art: I tend to have a hard time perceiving objects as a set of lines or portraying them as such, and people often complain that my finished pieces are blurry. This isn’t really a creative disability or anything so extreme, but it does tend to prime my work to a certain style which isn’t, necessarily, to everyone’s taste.

I wonder, though, if my nearsightedness also affects my approach to creativity in other more oblique ways. Does it cause me to get lost in details more than other writers do because I’m used to examining things up close or, conversely to describe things more vaguely than other writers do because I’m used to everything more than a few steps away becoming indistinct and blurry? Or neither? How much do our minor differences in physical capacity affect our view of the world?

Certainly, a woman who has lived her entire life in a wheelchair must see stairs very differently than a woman who runs a mile every morning, and both would have a hard time comprehending what the physical world would feel and look like to a woman with functioning wings.

Very few people have been all of the above

Am I the only one who thinks it’s strange that we universally acknowledge that coming from a different sociopoliticulturethnic background affects one’s outlook but rarely seem to think about how our different physical shapes and abilities do the same? Even as someone writes about their harsh struggle with disability, it’s just as often couched in terms of them fitting into society as their innately different perception of the world: It is difficult to perceive that which shapes our perception.

The world of games has become oddly insular in terms of physical capabilities. This is the only entertainment medium that regularly places stringent physical demands on its consumers. We tend not to think about it this way because we associate activities being physically challenging with them being physically exhausting, but the fact is that from the start games have largely been designed such that only those with above-average dexterity can do well in them. This is not a problem in any individual piece of entertainment, but the long-term trends are a bit worrying.

Games have been around long enough now that the people currently creating our games were raised playing them– lots of them. Even if they enjoyed the less dexterity-challenging genres of game, if they’ve stuck with the hobby for long enough to pursue it as a career option then it’s almost a given that they’ve branched out into what, let’s face it, comprises the vast majority of games that are out there: Those which require the player to input a complex series of motions in a limited amount of time.


There’s just no helping some people

Basically, by pseudo-Darwinistic processes, we’ve created a development culture that a) has, as common perspective/capability, above average dexterity, and b) has come to expect that games, almost by definition, will challenge that ability.

I guess the point, here, is that diversity as a topic extends beyond the cultural and ethnic and into the physiological.

Dexterity is just one way in which our physical parameters affect our design perspectives, as well. Game developers also tend to be strong in the realms of mathematics and analytical logic, and many games tend to be highly demanding in these realms as well. The number of games that aren’t described by aptitude in either of these traits is, relatively speaking, essentially null.

I think it’s important to frame this discourse in terms of diversity, I think it’s important  to recognize some of the same understandings that underpin that discussion also apply here. Primarily, I want it to be understood that I’m not claiming that the games that exist are bad, or even necessarily worse than they could be, because of this: I’m just stating that the total scope they encompass, that our understanding of what a game can be, is smaller because of it.

Our games are more similar to each other than they would be if they came from a more diverse field of creators: This is an idea that has been discussed frequently elsewhere. All I’m doing is proposing a new axis to the space of diversity.

Now: I don’t think that it’s a problem when a game isn’t accessible to everyone any more than I think it’s a problem when a comedian tells a joke not everyone will get. However, it’s certainly worth noting that the parameters we design to make unstated and often unintended assumptions about our audience. I know it’s difficult, but it may be worth your while to understand what forms the boundaries of your perceptions as a designer.

We are the sum of our flaws: Without them we would be fundamentally uninteresting, fundamentally inhuman. It is the tension between the flaws of the author and our own flaws that creates the art we experience.

Yeah, it’s hard sometimes to be able to see past the color of our own eyes: But, ain’t it worth it if we can finally see a rainbow?

  1. Sean Phillips said:

    I have poor motor skills — nothing debilitating, but enough to have a doctor pass me through printing and cursive tests in grammar school despite absolutely awful handwriting — and I’ve never really thought about how that affected my gaming, but now that I do, things make sense. I like all genres of games, but I especially gravitate towards turn-based games, with no necessary speed, and I have never once managed to mast more than two hotkeys in one game. and, maybe more significant, most of the games I have plans for making require a bare minimum of dexterity, whether it be turn-based strategy, slow-paced exploration; even my rogue-likes require no movement of one’s fingers away from the mouse and WASD, and they also encourage being methodical. interesting.

  2. Eron said:

    This is a really interesting read — I am an artist myself (in photography) and find that owing to having had glasses for as long as I can remember, I don’t prioritize focus nearly as much as some other photographers do because “fuzziness” is such a constant in my world (even if it’s just smudgy glasses). Partially why this article is interesting to me is that one of the projects I’m working on is an exploration of the quickly-emerging esports scene. My perspective, in the art though, is of someone who can never hope to achieve the superhuman feats of dexterity of professional StartCraft 2 players, who can average 400 actions per minute in tournament games [and the interesting intersection that like gymnasts, often peak in the teens and retire to coach in their early 20s); and how that physical inability affects my relationships with the games. Great article!

    • Yeah it is interesting that we have a system now where people who can’t plausibly achieve the highest levels of skill in games, whether due to lack of time or physical aptitude, are still able to enjoy games being played at that level. What’s interesting in particular is how games like SC2 are designed to appeal to that audience, and provide a way to interface with the game in that really low-level dextrous way to appeal to the eSports crowd while still trying to make it accessible to a wider audience. SC2 is a really cool example of how capability, whether possessed or inferred, can inform design.

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