What it’s like gaming with chronic pain, and why I fear the future
I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
It’s a connective tissue disorder that causes chronic pain and fatigue, frequent joint dislocations, visual problems, poor mobility and a whole plethora of other problems, each affecting my life in huge ways.
I struggle walking more than short distances, I’m always in fairly severe pain even if I’ve not done anything to cause it, and I’m always exhausted. I’m one of the luckier ones too, as I have Hypermobile EDS (also known as Hypermobility Syndrome). The average life expectancy for someone with Vascular EDS, a more severe version of the disorder, is somewhere in the forties, as it can cause major blood vessels to rupture.
EDS can be an invisible but limiting disability. I wear joint braces on the days I know I’ll have to do more walking than normal, and on days where the pain is particularly bad I’ll either walk with crutches or just consign myself to a day of being unable to move.
EDS can be an invisible but limiting disability.
Despite this reality, you wouldn’t be able to tell that anything was wrong just looking at me. It can be difficult to talk to people about the difficulties I face. We’re used to disabilities coming with visuals, and it can be hard for someone to understand that you can look healthy while wondering if you’ll be able to move the next day.
EDS has throws obstacles between me and my enjoyment of games. The ever-shifting trends in game design, and the introduction of new hardware, constantly threaten to push me out of a hobby I love. I want to both shed some light on the problems I face, and also share resources of those aiming to improve mine and others’ gaming experience.
Difficulty at a Cost?
Most people know the basics of making a game accessible for people with disabilities: allow for key remapping and controller support, maybe add a color blind option and there you go: you have a game that is minimally accessible for most people. Despite that, the pain and fatigue associated with my EDS put me at odds with the core design of many games, even when that effort has been made to be accessible.
I find RTS games to be tremendously fiddly and difficult to control thanks to my poor fine motor skills, and the repetitious clicking found in Diablo or Torchlight can be painful. However, there is one game that has always stood out as being almost aggressively inaccessible because of my disability, and that game is the widely adored Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is meant to be difficult and unforgiving. It’s meant to not hold your hand or cut you any slack, and that is part of why so many people enjoy it. It is a single element that design that conflicts with my EDS, and that is the inability to truly pause the game. Opening up menus doesn’t stop enemies from advancing, or status effects running their course, there is no pausing in Dark Souls.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome means I can’t perform complex movements for long before the pain gets worse, and playing games can be incredibly intensive on my hands. After twenty or thirty minutes of play, I need to stop, stretch my hands, and do something else for a bit.
I can’t play for the extended periods of time Dark Souls sometimes requires, and so my choice is either put up with physical pain, or simply not play. I am playing entirely on the game’s terms, and the game just doesn’t care about the player; the game’s fascination with being challenging and ‘hardcore’ are almost at the expense of my condition and prevent me from appreciating the game in the same way many other people do.
What is utterly frustrating to me is other games have featured elements of the Souls games before, and still been able to offer the basic pause function I need. Dante’s Inferno’s ‘true’ pause menu is different from its items and abilities menu. If this was applied to the Souls games, there would be the balance of juggling your inventory that is important to the difficulty, while also giving the player room to breathe if they need it. And if anyone needs that room to breathe, it’s me.
Watch Dogs and Dying Light also both allow for the game to be paused at any time, unless you are being invaded by another player. Invasion is a mechanic the Souls games popularized, and yet other games have improved upon it. I’ve been racking my brain trying to find an acceptable reason as to why you can’t pause in the Souls, and I just can’t find one.
Of course, this isn’t a problem exclusive to the Souls games. The lack of a pause in the majority of multiplayer games puts me off of playing them, and MOBAs such as Dota 2 or Heroes of the Storm are often a bigger commitment than my hands would allow me.
The difference is that Dark Souls’ absence is frustrating without justification: the game removes such an important feature to me. It’s something other players may rarely even consider, but being able to take a quick break is vital for my enjoyment, and it is completely absent to continue the trend of difficult and unforgiving games. Many people enjoy it, but it prevents me almost completely from being able to play.
It could be argued that Dark Souls simply wasn’t made for me, and that it would be unfair to expect From Software to make adjustments just for my sake. While this is true to an extent, the Souls series has inspired some sizable changes to the way games are designed.
The previously mentioned Watch Dogs and Dying Light borrow the series’ invasion mechanics, Lords of the Fallen is heavily inspired by the series, and its influence can even be felt in recently released indie titles such as Grimstorm. The fear isn’t that I’ll have to pass up a few games a year, the fear is that some aspect of gaming that is incompatible with my needs becomes the dominant force in gaming.
These organizations’ roles may be even more important in the future as our technology gets smaller and more involved, those of us with disabilities may struggle in new ways, and so having experts such as these able to figure out and work with developers on how to overcome the hurdles progress will throw up is essential.
Accessibility is an incredibly important part of gaming. The more people able to play games, the more our industry and grow and advance. But at the moment, those who need it the most may also the ones who aren’t in the position to talk about it.
We’ll never be able to change every game so that every person can play it, and there are some design decisions that the developers may feel are worth losing a portion of the audience. That being said, a few changes here and there can mean more people can play more games without sacrificing the core design principles of the game. By choosing your battles you can make a lot of gamers happy without a huge extra cost to development.
If we don’t improve, we could lose a huge, important part of the gaming community.
If you want more information about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, please visit the EDS UK website.