I have a memory of briefly playing Dyna Blaster, as Bomberman was once known, on the Amiga with my grandma when I was a little kid. I say briefly because we didn’t play for long – she couldn’t keep up with the sheer speed of the “little man” and the busyness of the explosions and, probably hoping to make a swift retreat from an uncomfortable situation, soon said so. I couldn’t understand why at the time – it was all so obvious! There was only one big red button on the easy-to-grip joystick that needed pressing (and there were only two buttons on it in the first place, and they both did the same thing anyway) and the single-screen gameplay presented players with nothing more to keep track of than plain grey tiles against a contrasting green floor and bright red explosions. My precocious pre-teen self was sure there couldn’t be anything easier to understand in the whole universe and while I can’t recall my exact response I have an awful feeling I blurted out something along those lines in the especially insensitive and unvarnished way small children are prone to doing.
I’m sorry grandma.
I’m sorry because I probably put my kid-sized foot in it when I could have at least had the decency to keep my excitable mouth shut, and I’m sorry because I didn’t realise the only difference between us was time and, as I type this out with a medical support wrapped around my wrist, I could selfishly use a more sympathetic ear than the one I lent to you all those decades ago.
The incident that caused this bout of introspection happened a few days ago: There I was, settling down to casually blast through a few chapters of Devil May Cry 3 (featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry™ series) on the Switch, and my wrist started to ache – and I hadn’t even really done anything yet. So I did what I’ve always done in this situation – ignore it completely and carry on. In the past I’ve played Street Fighter Alpha until my thumb blistered and Dance Dance Revolution until my legs felt like jelly, one little ache isn’t anything worth stopping a game for and will more than likely sort itself out by tomorrow.
And ten years ago that would’ve been true. But now? This wasn’t just aching. This was hurting.
I realised with some horror that “basic” movements I’d been pulling off since the game’s PlayStation 2 debut were now painful and difficult (hello there, “Easy mode is now selectable” screen), the normally benign ganglion cyst on my wrist raging in protest at my stubborn behaviour. I ended up not using that hand for the rest of the day, and it was so unpleasant an experience I’m slightly ashamed to admit I haven’t gone back to Capcom’s wonderful stylish action adventure since (hence the lack of screenshots in this article – sorry about that). There are plenty of other games I could be playing instead, games that haven’t left me scouring the medicine cabinet for physical aids and soothing creams.
Now we can talk about the ergonomics (or, as far as my hand insists, the lack of) of the Switch when held as a handheld unit, Devil May Cry 3’s default button layout and from there go on to write about a myriad of alternative setups and additional controllers if we wanted to: The Switch Pro Controller sits well in the hand, Hori’s Split Pad Pro would almost definitely help, and I find even standard Joy-Cons are absolutely fine when slid out from their little rails and held like any other joypad. I’m lucky enough to have the knowledge and the money to do something about my little problem.
But it’s more than just “my little problem”, isn’t it? This hasn’t been caused by physical exhaustion or wilful overindulgence – it’s just pain – coming on too soon and caused by too little. My joints aren’t great at the best of times. I’m getting old, and I’m wearing out.
Same as everyone else.
And I’m sure some people reading this now are thinking about the long-term issues, injuries, and illnesses they have and are itching to point out how they may have never had the privilege of everything being fine to deteriorate from in the first place, or have been muddling along with something far worse for years.
And they should.
Because it’s self-centred of me to post this now, only after I’ve suffered myself after spending an entire lifetime in the hobby and been (mostly) fine. All I can say is I’m learning, and I hope I never stop doing so. It’s been made crystal-clear to me now that accessibility – giving people the option to create their own keybindings and macros, select the size of any on-screen text, audio descriptions, and yes, decide the difficulty level too (one person’s “way too easy” is another’s “I can just about handle this, maybe”, as shown in my post-operative playthrough of Baldur’s Gate II) – isn’t just something to keep in mind for the sake of others who would normally have to work twice as hard just so they could join in with the rest of us; it’s an issue we’re all going to have to deal with eventually. No amount of arcade sticks, collectors editions, and proof of high-level play in “real” games can protect us from this inevitable decline. This isn’t an issue of skill, or patience, or effort – some people just can’t do some things or can but not for as long as a game demands they do, and those of us that can today might not be able to tomorrow for any number of reasons.
Some headway’s already being made – the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a magnificent device that anyone can buy right now direct from Microsoft. But we need these in mainstream gaming shops, presented as just another choice of input on the shelves alongside the usual range of controllers and “g4m3r” keyboards that light up like a Christmas tree they all stock without question. We also need a middle ground made up of big grippy joysticks and controllers featuring larger buttons made of a contrasting colour to the surrounding plastic for quick identification.
And we need to collectively change our own attitudes too. With time this will be everyone’s problem, so surely it makes sense to demand better now, to push through the ridiculous idea of a “debate” on whether certain people should be “allowed” to play certain games and get straight on with making life better for our future selves? Why can’t I do something I enjoy in the way that’s most comfortable for me? Why do we care so much about “the intended experience” we’d rather stop others from joining in than playing their own way? Why do we not speak up when a big developer once again finds the time, money, and manpower to create a game filled with celebrity likenesses and cinema-grade mocap work but hasn’t made sure everyone can comfortably read the text? Why are we still reflexively assuming it’s “too difficult”, “too expensive” or “unreasonable” for a cutting-edge billion-dollar tech-focussed global industry to include meaningful accessibility options?
As I said at the top: the only difference between my grandma and me is time. I’d love to be able to play Bomberman with my grandkids, to keep engaging with, enthusing about, and investing in a hobby that’s been there my entire existence. Whether I can or not is currently not up to me.