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The disappearance of skill in games


Getting into gaming isn't easy. The always-growing lingo and concepts -- from friend codes to headshots -- are sometimes indecipherable to others. The games offered in mainstream commercial channels are not always inclusive, in that they are largely made by homogeneous groups of developers and marketed toward a specific demographic of users.

Most games also require a certain degree of hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity and reflexes -- skills that are developed over time in an effort to overcome a game's challenge. Challenge as a barrier of entry is one that 'hardcore gamers' cling the most closely to. As far as the hardcore gamer is concerned, games are all about proving ourselves and overcoming challenge. Achievements, scores, and the popularity of multiplayer modes show that having the opportunity to master and display skill is addictive.

In the latest generation, something curious began to happen: the industry started experimenting with accessibility. Developers and designers are slowly reconsidering the necessity of skill.

Video games are the only medium that require the user to pass a 'competency check' before being able to move forward. Movies let you fast-forward; you can flip through pages in a book. With either activity, you risk missing important elements of the piece, but the choice is yours to make. Games not only disallow skipping elements a player has trouble with, they actively punish players for having a hard time. As the glorification of the 'golden days' of gaming attest to -- where lives were scarce and difficulty curves were brutal -- having a masochistic landscape is considered a part of the medium. In the early days of gaming, this type of sadistic design existed as part of a business initiative: increase difficulty at an arcade machine to maximize the amount spent on a specific game.

In November 2006, Nintendo catalyzed a change that would forever alter that hardcore-only landscape. This was the year in which the Wii was launched, a console that was marketed like no console before it, using the blue ocean strategy. This approach reached beyond the established 'gamer' userbase in an effort to create demand for video games in previously untapped markets. To everyone's surprise, the strategy worked. Folks from diverse backgrounds were joining the ranks of hardcore gamers, gleefully hurling the Wii remote at their televisions while playing Wii Sports. Part of Nintendo's success can be attributed to the controls: actions performed by avatars had clear, real-life equivalents that people could default to. The games themselves had a difficulty curve that allowed both players of lesser skill and those looking for a challenge to enjoy the titles, too. This is unsurprising, given Miyamoto's approach to design: instead of using focus groups, he asks friends and family members who are not gamers to play his games.

This marketing strategy was so successful that it sparked an industry-wide awareness of the 'casual' market, and development of products specifically tailored for that market. Industry efforts gunning for the casual market have gone full-tilt now, with even cell phone and tablet products vying for the same audience. For the most part, attempts to court the casual market have resulted in hardware such as the Kinect, the offering of services like Netflix, as well as copy-cat 'casual' games meant to entice a wider swath of consumers.

Nintendo is also experimenting with their core titles, hoping to design them such that everyone, regardless of skill level, can enjoy them. New Super Mario Bros Wii was released in 2009 with the inclusion of a "Super Guide," an in-game device that allowed players who experienced a high degree of difficulty to skip through segments of the game. The Super Guide activates when a player dies a certain number of times, at which point the AI takes over. This AI will play the demanding sections for you until you actively tell it to stop. Though some 'hardcore' players took umbrage with the mere existence of the Super Guide, it was also included in other key games such as Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Other triple-A developers are also taking heed. The recently released Mass Effect 3 offers "story mode," a campaign for those who play the franchise for the conversations and politics, but not the shooting. Street Fighter X Tekken allows players to equip "gems" that can provide boosts and assistance in different contexts -- from an increase in attack power, to increased health and so on. These gems are activated in specific scenarios, such as successfully performing a special attack on an opponent, and they can change the tide of battle for unskilled players. Yoshinori Ono, Street Fighter X Tekken's producer, states that the purpose of the gem system is to make the game "more inviting" to casual players who needed the extra help.

Still, these big games have been slow to adopt such techniques. Accessibility is a complicated design problem. How do you make games that have heavily relied on skill and difficulty more welcoming to a wider audience without compromising the game that core fans know and love? It is here that smaller scale games, if not experimental outlier games, are given room to shine. Such games regularly explore methods that bigger companies may be hesitant to adopt due to pressure to create games with designs that are proven to be successful.

Anna Anthrophy's recent autobiographical title, Dys4ia, only requires players to use the arrow keys to control the action on-screen. Though simple in that way, Dys4ia still manages to be profoundly powerful in its message and subject. One could even say that this accessibility is needed precisely because of the game's difficult topic: the experience of a transgender woman going on hormone therapy. Such a design allows Dys4ria a wider audience that is encouraged to learn about aspects of gender politics not usually explored in games.

Nonetheless such attempts at accessibility are topics of heated debate amongst gamers. Many attempt to de-legitimize games such as Dys4ia with cries to the tune of "it's not a real game." Such claims are ridiculous: just because Dys4ia doesn't work like most games do -- you can't 'lose,' for instance -- doesn't mean it's not a game. Beyond that, the gaming industry has created a culture which has internalized "challenge" and "difficulty" as a key part of the gaming experience. To take difficulty and the necessity of skill away from a game may seem baffling to some.

There are very rigid ideas of the way a game should be experienced, too: if you're not personally playing through all of a game, then you are playing the game 'wrong'. Without the exertion of skill, a player would not have 'earned' the right to finish a level, if not a game, even though no other medium works this way. The recent controversy surrounding Bioware's Jennifer Hepler and her desire to have skippable combat are a testament to how fervently the community wants to preserve their myopic vision of how games should be designed and experienced.

Hopefully, these conversations around accessibility are fruitful and allow the industry to grow in unexpected but inclusive ways. And there's ultimately no point in discouraging the industry from becoming more accessible to a wider audience, or in limiting the ways games can function. Games like Dys4ia disregard the traditional expectations of how games should function, and that's a good thing. We need more games that dare to be different from the norm if the industry is serious about helping the medium mature. Inclusive efforts by Anna Anthropy, Bioware, Nintendo and others move the medium forward into new, progressive territories where games can be enjoyed by anyone, not just an exclusive crowd that only values certain types of experiences. If current trends are any indication, the community may have no choice but to reconsider the necessity of skill in games -- and that's fantastic.

Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode. The Massachusetts-based writer is also a columnist at Kotaku and has previously worked for Destructoid. Follow her on Twitter @patriciaxh

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