Gaming while Lefty

PBS Game/Show is a great YouTube channel where Jamin Warren discusses topics relevant to video game design, culture, and industry. (With a format and tone similar to PBS Idea Channel) This week they put up a video about the challenges of disabled gamers and how video games can be designed better to include them:

Warren has been great, in part, by taking up the mantle of discussing progressive topics about sexism, racism, and other toxic elements in games and their players. This video is another strong example, though not mandatory to watch for this post. I include it as it was my inspiration to write and a great context to couch this post in.

I’m very much on-board with the many ways game designers can work to include simple options to enable disabled people of many different kinds to play their game! What struck me, though, was his mention of left-handedness issues with Pikmin 3’s touchpad and stylus. This made the entire conversation much more relatable to my experience being a southpaw gamer! I want to share several examples of where lefties struggle, show the importance and challenges of including lefty characters, and share some design choices that can include us (and that strongly align with including disabled gamers).

I should state, however, that being left-handed is not a disability. I simply find the problems and solutions in video gaming to be similar and a useful branching point.

Lefty gaming: Consoles

Below I list and highlight some examples of where games are not designed well for left-handed people like myself:

  • When I’m playing my 3DS (handheld device with touchpad), there are times where I’m baffled that the D-pad (on the left) doesn’t emulate the ABXY buttons (on the right) so I can hold the device and use the stylus as I like.
  • In Guitar Hero, I simply had to acclimate to the whammy bar working against me, being awkwardly placed on a flipped guitar controller. I never used the strap because it would get in the way for me. I would also have to change to lefty mode to read on-screen notes correctly. Only in later games did switching handedness become quickly accessible.
  • Since I grew up with traditional gamepad configuration of “action buttons on right” and “movement on left”, I never had much trouble with the fact that Right Trigger was the universal “fire” button on console shooters. But this strongly seems a product of handedness bias.
  • My instinct when picking up a Wiimote and Nunchuck for the first time was precisely backwards, and I had to retrain myself mentally to use my non-dominant right hand to perform actions often more comfortable with the left.

These are just a few notable examples, with more to follow, of what a left-hand dominant person experiences when gaming. I notice design flaws and inclusions that not everyone will. I value certain options that most people don’t touch. And this is especially true when entering the PC gaming world.

Lefty gaming: PC

I mentioned the controller handedness bias. This wouldn’t be a problem if the standard, for all games, was the ability to remap buttons quickly, easily, and with defaults for common situations. And this applies even more strongly to PC gaming with a keyboard and mouse.

Whenever I played Battlefield 1942 in a lab during downtime at school, I had to spent several tedious minutes swapping out keys to play with my friends. When I first started playing shooters on Steam, like Team Fortress 2, I still felt most comfortable rebinding the keys completely. People would make fun of me for rebinding, and any time I’d play outside my own computer, I’d yet again have to swap things out (and usually reset them after). I couldn’t easily hop in to play a round because my set-up was entirely different and time-consuming to create.

It’s also frustrating because when a new player asks, “How do I call for Medic?” …I can’t help them.

Additionally, in many games, especially single-player ones, pop-up instructions for how to play the game would be statically tied to the default keys. So not only is there the challenge of rebinding keys to actions and moves that I don’t understand yet (because I haven’t started the game), but I also don’t get properly instructed on how to use them, hurting the enjoyment of the game. I have to remember or guess what to do, sometimes failing in crucial moments because I have to consciously work against what the game is telling me!

Mass Effect is the game I remember most clearly with this particular problem. I completely flubbed the initial use of special powers because I rebound the button and could not for several minutes remember which one it was!

Valve, the creators of Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, Half-Life, and Portal, in contrast, does a great job with this. All instructions are tied to the buttons you set, so the advice is always right. This falls in-line with Warren’s video praising the company for colorblind options and captions, even for the cautionary sounds of Special Infected types in Left 4 Dead. From my old screenshots I discovered that Deus Ex: Human Revolution, made by Eidos Montreal, also did this properly.

If you’re a curious righty gamer, here’s an experiment to run on yourself: try using WASD with your right hand. Think about how you would hit the Spacebar or Left Shift, often crucial buttons in games for jumping or sprinting. Smashing my wrist into my keyboard to perform the extremely common jump doesn’t make for an enjoyable or precise experience.

Yet today I’ve largely given up on keybind swaps. The support isn’t there to enable quick-switching on other computers, so the hassle from Battlefield 1942 days remains, 7 years later. The frustration of trying to predict the best keyboard configuration for actions I know little about persists. It’s slowly become standard to allow complete, working button swaps on PC, but these problems continue, and the annoyance of right-hand WASD and the default config is more tolerable.

Lefty characters

Before turning to suggestions for improvement, I’d like to point out that including left-handed people in games is a small area of diversity that I value. It’s a small choice that makes characters feel different, and I embody playable ones more. It can also be a thematic or metaphorical design decision.

I noticed recently that Barbara from Rayman Legends is left-handed.(1)Actually, I later learned that she is mirrored when moving left or right. So when heading to the left, she switches hands. The game mostly makes you go right, though. So is Rafael, one of my favorite characters from Soul Calibur. Perhaps most notably, I love the fact that Link from the Legend of Zelda is left-handed!

…Or, perhaps I should say, he was.

LeftyGaming07

Link from Skyward Sword (from kotaku.com)

In Twilight Princess, the first Wii Zelda game, the developers had to reconcile the Wiimote acting as a sword in the player’s right hand with Link’s on-screen on the left. Their solution was to mirror the entire game, making traditional locations of Kakariko village and Lake Hylia on opposite ends of the map: all to make Link right-handed. (The GameCube version remained the same.) Skyward Sword, the next Wii installment, also features Link as right-handed. Stephen Totilo of Kotaku wrote about this a few years ago, if you’d like to know more about this specific situation.

This seems a necessary consequence of designing a strongly asymmetric controller made to be used in one way. But it saddens me that a notable feature of one of my favorite Nintendo characters is lost for as long as he is motion-controlled with a Wiimote. It appears even Link doesn’t quite fit into the gaming world Nintendo is creating. That should say something about the state of we regular lefty gamers.

One final example that I think typifies this dilemma is in Skyrim. I decided that I wanted my character to be a sword and shield master. But strangely, I couldn’t equip my shield properly. I didn’t understand what was going on until I realized that shield must be equipped in the left hand, and therefore my weapon in the right. I find this to exemplify the treatment of left-handedness in gaming: it’s often forgotten. When it’s not a priority, no one will notice this bias. In a game like Skyrim, where the player can customize themselves down to the pixel and develop a fighting style and character all their own, this simple option is left to the wayside.

LeftyGaming11

In Skyrim, there is but one rule: no right-hand shields

Better design

So what should be done about all of this? First of all, I should say that these problems are only a light shade of what people with disabilities deal with in video gaming. These are minor gripes I have in comparison. But I believe many of the solutions are the same:

  • Make rebinding keys a priority. Make instructions change based on keybind. Create good defaults or saveable configurations.
  • Design controllers with southpaws in mind. Aim for functional symmetry if possible.
  • Make character customization include handedness. Value it at least as highly as nose bridge depth.
  • Make left-handed or ambidextrous characters. Make it matter sometimes, and make it not matter other times.

These are very simple concepts that just need to be spelled out and emphasized, I think. They can be applied quite broadly, as well: simply let players play the game how they prefer; let players create characters that represent themselves; and create diverse characters.

These requests are at the center of the effort to make video gaming as inclusive a medium as possible. It starts with making the need known, and then developers adopting these ideas as priorities. So discussion and reaching out on these topics is the first step towards making change. In fact, Warren in the video at the top references comments left in response to a previous video as impetus to create this one on disability. Let’s keep conversation alive about where the gaming industry should be headed.

Notes   [ + ]

Leave a Reply