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Difficulty on the web and in console games

Another part of comparing web accessibility and console game accessibility is difficulty and how it relates to accessibility.


Difficulty is not a simple thing to measure. It depends on the person as well as the activity.

When we offer customisations and settings we let people adapt the activity to suit them. This lets them experience the game as the designers intended. It can also let them choose the experience they prefer.

Difficulty is capability vs barrier

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that I’m a fan of the social model of disability, I really like how Ian Hamilton puts this concept is his Difficulty Vs Accessibility video for International Game Developers Association Accessibility Special Interest Group:

  • difficulty is capability vs barrier;
  • disability is mismatched interactions between capability and barrier;
  • accessibility is avoiding unnecessary mismatches

What’s a barrier in a game? An end-of-level boss, a puzzle, a corner that turns sharply.

How difficult is it?

One thing that’s quite different for web sites and apps is the idea of difficulty. Most of the time we want to optimise for speed and ease. We don’t want people to fail; quite the opposite. We design validation checks and error messages to help them avoid and correct mistakes. Some of the time we want to slow people down or nudge them to pay more attention. When entering important or sensitive data, for example. But the goal is still for them to succeed. Ideally first time and every time.

Many games, on the other hand, are the opposite: difficulty is intrinsically part of the experience. Failure is part of the experience. Some games are even famous for their punishingly high levels of difficulty. The difficulty might be skill-based or reflex-based, or it might be puzzle-solving.

I’m interested in how we measure difficulty. Success rate or number of failures before a success? Preference also factors into this. Some players choose to play games on lower difficulty settings to simply enjoy the story.

Difficult for whom?

This is where difficulty as capability vs barrier comes in. Different humans have different capabilities. If the game’s designers want a level of difficulty of “Succeeding 50% of the time,” this will be different for different people.

  • Player 1 who’s new to games, playing something for the first time, may experience a high level of difficulty.
  • Player 2 who’s been playing games for many years, playing something for the 10th time, may experience a low level of difficulty.

These two players have different capabilities, resulting in different difficulty levels. We can think of them as two people, or as the same person at earlier and later points in their life. A person’s disability can also affect their interaction with a barrier in a game.

What we can do

Difficulty is… tricky. By offering a range of settings we put control back with the player (or user). Then they can enjoy the game in the way they want. Which may or may not be the way the designers intended.