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Bridging the Gap: Game Modifications and Inclusive Gaming

December 23, 2023

post-thumb This research paper examines the significance of gaming as a form of escapism and empowerment for individuals with disabilities, while also addressing the shortcomings of mainstream games in terms of accessibility features. The piece discusses how player-made mods fill these gaps by introducing accessibility features of their own such as visual indicators and customizable game mechanics. Ultimately, the challenges modders face are introduced, including issues of exploitation, legal constraints, and tensions with game developers.

Through this project, I learned a lot about the intricacies of gaming communities and how often it is the playerbase, not the developers, that push for, and achieve, change in their respective games and communities.

While people with disabilities are often limited by physical or mental barriers in the physical world, gaming closes this divide by blurring the idea of human physicality and allowing them a virtual space to do what they cannot in real life. Although this concept extends to all individuals, for example, in games involving superpowers and flight, disabled people note the value they find in doing mundane activities in a virtual space that they are incapable of achieving in actuality. A survey of men with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, an incurable genetic disorder resulting in muscle degeneration, revealed a common theme of gaming as a form of existential and bodily escapism. Several noted that games helped them ‘shut out’ their life while allowing them to find satisfaction in activities that many would regard as routine, such as driving and grooming oneself (Peat, et al. 1020). Therefore, gaming can allow people with disabilities to reclaim their abilities, express themselves through avatars, and escape from the restraints of their physical and mental capabilities.

Ironically, while gaming offers people with disabilities a form of escapism and an opportunity to experience activities they cannot in the physical world, it also creates new divides. While ¼ (27%) of adults in the United States have a disability (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), video game developers still cater to abled people and most games lack adequate accessibility accommodations. An evaluation of 50 prominent games released in 2019 aimed to showcase accessibility pitfalls and innovations in four categories: auditory, visual, motor, and difficulty. Findings revealed that many of these influential games severely lacked accessibility features in the four key areas, limiting disabled players’ experiences. Notable examples include Resident Evil 2’s lack of visual indication of Mr. X’s footsteps, making his position impossible to track for individuals who are hard of hearing, and Death Stranding’s inability to remap controller buttons for players with motor disabilities who cannot comfortably reach certain controls (Anderson and Brown 707-712).

Game player bases hold an active role in combating the issue of accessibility in gaming by creating free mods, short for ‘modifications’, that promote equity in gaming and broaden the scope of games to better include disabled individuals. Mods are user-made alterations to a game’s code, artwork, controls, or user interface that alter how the game looks or runs (Champion 12). Some mods are so expansive that they act as entirely new games within the scope of the original game, such as Stardew Valley Expanded, created by user FlashShifter. Game modding can be seen as an inherent rejection of profit and capitalism, as modders desire to create and distribute access to creative work at no cost to the community. Generally, it is illegal for players to charge for mods under the original game’s Terms of Service. Mods are often posted online and available for players to download for free. Therefore, when modders create mods for their respective communities, they are engaging in “playbour”, unpaid labor that benefits the interests of the game developers and publishers (Scacchi 65). Yet, player-made mods have a significant impact on expanding accessibility in games for people with disabilities, allowing them to continue to engage in gaming as a form of entertainment, escapism, and play, without the limitations resulting from the original game’s lack of accommodation. This paper highlights how player-made mods work to bridge the digital divide between gaming and people with disabilities through playbour, while examining the tensions between modders and game developers.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a notoriously difficulty action-adventure game released in 2019, relies heavily on color indicators, therefore excluding the 5% of people unable to properly perceive red and green. To combat this, Kos, a player known by the screen name Noptasis, created a mod with both accessibility and easy modes, making sure to distinguish between the two. In the accessibility mod, the original game’s mechanics remain the same but symbols appear as visual indicators rather than colors. Sound is also amplified to account for those who are hard of hearing. Kos explained that he wanted to “translate the experience rather than drastically change it” so disabled gamers do not have to “settle” for an easy mode because of their disabilities (Castello). Instead, he aimed to make the experience as authentic as possible to the original gameplay. This mod amassed over nine thousand downloads, expressing the appeal and demand for a mod that makes the game experience more accessible without sacrificing challenging gameplay.

Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about whether or not “easy” modes should be implemented in games or created for communities by modders. Some members of the Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice community opposed the idea of an “easy” mode or any type of accessibility options, claiming that they would tarnish the game director’s creative intent and vision of creating challenging games that encourage players to continuously work through the hurdles they encounter in-game (Xu 50). Yet, many believe differently that accessibility and “easy” modes improve game inclusivity and allow players to experience games without their disabilities, or playstyles, holding them back.

According to Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, all players are categorized as disabled in some way through their philosophy that disability is a rule, not an exception. They believe that there is not one ideal ‘standard’ player, and every player experiences some form of “disability” while gaming (Boluk and Lemieux 40). According to these ideas, “easy” modes allow each player to play to their strengths and experience games how they want to and in a way that is best tailored to their abilities, increasing accessibility in games.

One mod that broadens a game’s accessibility by altering game mechanics to fit the needs of individual community members by essentially creating an “easier” mode is Skull Cavern Elevator, created for Stardew Valley by user Lestoph. Skull Caverns is one of the most challenging mines in the game; as part of the main storyline, players are tasked to reach level 100 of the mines before their energy runs out. This task requires quick reflexes to fight the hoards of monsters and navigation skills to locate the path to the bottom of the mines. Many players find this task too challenging and are unable to complete it. As a result, they cannot progress in the game and continue its rich storyline, including the level 100 cutscene. The Skull Cavern Elevator mod was created to combat this issue and increase accessibility to the game’s storyline. This mod allows players to reach level 100 in the mines in a span of days, rather than in one day. Players can use the elevator each day to descend into the mines to the level they left off on the previous day. This mod allows players to experience Stardew Valley’s storyline without the skill and difficulty the base game involves.

Skull Caverns Elevator has surpassed 2 million downloads on NexusMods, signifying the demand for mods that allow players to experience games in a way that tailors to their abilities. It allows players to control the amount of challenge they wish to face and expands the scope of Stardew Valley to a variety of audiences, including individuals with physical disabilities affecting their reflexes, older individuals who may not have fast click-response times, and young children. In addition, some players simply want to play the game for the farming simulator aspect without the distraction of monsters and mining to progress in the storyline. The Skull Caverns Elevator mod allows players to hold agency over how they experience the game, in accordance with Boluk and Lemieux’s ideas, and increases the game’s accessibility to accommodate those with physical disabilities.

Several developers have taken a hostile approach to the growing demand for accessible and “easy” modes implemented into base games, broadening the gap between players and developers and increasing the need for player-created mods. Wolfenstein: The New Order includes 4 levels of difficulty for players to choose from. The easiest level allows players to take less damage and gives enemies fewer hit points. While this level may expand access to the game and allow a broader range of players to find enjoyment in it, instead of embracing these positive elements, the developers titled this difficulty mode “Can I Play, Daddy?” accompanied by an image of the protagonist dressed like a baby (Brown and Anderson 712). This case demonstrates the hostility some developers hold towards increasing accessibility in games and how they may believe that by increasing accessibility, one is sacrificing authenticity. This also demonstrates why modding is so significant in the area of accessibility and why people with disabilities must often rely on modders because of neglect from game developers and publishers.

Additionally, many popular games lack sufficient text options, for example, Civilization V’s insufficient contrast between font color and background color. Further, Overwatch overlays text directly over the game, and Rocket League contains thin text, making it difficult to comfortably read (Liu 84). This can make gaming especially challenging for those with visual disabilities. While certain developers may deem themselves as accommodating for creating a game with subtitle options, subtitles are practically useless if users cannot read them properly because of the text size, font, color, or contrast. Community members of different games continue to combat this issue through text mods that give players the option to alter the game text to their liking. Skyrim player Z8eka created the mod Dialogue Menu UI Names Subtitles, amassing over 1.6 thousand downloads on NexusMods, which allows users to move text away from the middle of the screen and alter fonts. It is important to note that creator Z8eka also continued to update this mod after receiving user feedback and included options for brighter text and further adjustments. This example shows the relationship between modders and game communities and how they take user considerations into account to solve in-game problems that have been neglected by developers.

While some modders create accessibility mods to level the in-game playing fields for people with disabilities, it is important to note that modders also attempt to combat the lack of disability representation in games. In The Sims franchise, players design people and guide them through their virtual lives. Race, gender, and sexuality are all represented in the game, yet disabilities were not present in the base game until early 2023 (Cheng). While this is a step forward, the disabilities represented in the base game are still few, especially since The Sims was first released in 2000. Some medical wearables are available, yet wheelchairs, for example, are not. The base game suffers from ableism because of the assumption that players would not want to play as someone disabled, thus not giving them many options to do so. The Sims is one of the most modded games, and modders have created hundreds of mods that add disability representation to the game. Modders have added elements such as blind eyes, canes, and an Asperger's option for users to create sims that may hold similar traits to people with Autism. These mods were well-researched and received extremely well by the community, allowing a more diverse range of people to feel represented in a game meant to simulate “real life” (Jones 90).

Video game modders have significantly impacted the way disabled people experience and enjoy games by implementing accessibility features into games and listening to community feedback. It is also important to note that modders greatly benefit developers in other ways, such as by prolonging game longevity through creating expansive content, revitalizing and strengthening communities, and attracting new players to games that developers profit from (Postigo 308). Unfortunately, the relationship between modders, developers, and players is complicated and quite one-sided. Many games, often those of competitive nature, group mods with hacks and cheats, threatening to ban users for using them. For example, Riot Games’ TOS writes that disciplinary measures may be given to those who use “any unauthorized third party programs, including mods, hacks, cheats, scripts, bots, trainers and automation programs that interact with the Riot Services in any way” (Riot Games Terms of Service).

Additionally, when modders take part in playbour by modding, they are exploited in the way that they do not own the products they create; modders are usually barred from receiving royalties and their work often remains the property of the game manufacturer. Modders may also be subject to the legal and financial risks resulting from their mods (Kucklich). Therefore, the digital divide between games and people with disabilities will continue to grow until developers repair their relationship with modders or take accessibility issues more seriously while creating games.

While it is clear from the above examples of accessibility mods that the work modders engage in is significant, it is often undermined because of the nature of playbour and the idea that everything related to digital games is a form of play rather than labor, including modding. Deleuze notes that the shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control has led to a deregulation in work, where individuals are motivated by themselves rather than the institution they work for. Therefore, work has become more flexible and voluntary. This shift in societal structures has led to work becoming perceived more as play (Kucklich). This is a dangerous perception because the work of modders is often undermined by game developers, publishers, and sometimes players. For example, modders may enjoy creating mods (play) but they are still making meaningful contributions to game communities that take work and effort (labor). In the age of societies of control, it is important to recognize that while modders are working with digital games which may be enjoyable, they are still taking part in voluntary labor, which eventually benefits the respective game company; by refusing to acknowledge this, developers are taking further advantage of modders and exploiting the work they do for their communities and the time they sacrifice.

The work that modders have completed thus far has opened the door for individuals with disabilities to enjoy games in ways that fit their specific needs. In 2022, there were over 400,000 mods uploaded to NexusMods and over 1.5 billion downloads (BigBizkit). The number of modders and mods continues to grow each year, demonstrating the value of player-based content and the importance of mods in providing solutions to complex problems such as inaccessibility in games. Modders who create accessibility mods allow people with disabilities to continue to use gaming as a form of escapism and entertainment; accessibility mods reinforce games as virtual spaces where players can do acts that they cannot in the physical world, regardless of their abilities.

Unfortunately, the tensions between modders and game developers continue. Some developers believe that accessibility mods detract from authentic gameplay, classify mods as cheats, and continue to exploit modders and the playbour they partake in. Ultimately, game developers hold power over their games, the works derived from them, and when mods may be used. Therefore, it is up to game developers to further consider accessibility issues in their games and perhaps learn from the modding community. In 2019, the site accessible.games was created to offer developers free resources to make games accessible to wider audiences. The site also includes a panel of disabled gamers who can give feedback on games to help developers understand their needs. This illustrates one of the ways developers can begin to take responsibility for accessibility in their games so they do not have to continuously rely on playbour through modders. Modders have held an extremely significant role in bridging the digital divide between disabled gamers and games by broadening game accessibility and stepping up for the unique needs of players when developers have yet to do so.


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