Gaming With Colour Blindness - A Largely Ignored Problem?
Gaming with colour blindness is a bigger problem than you may think, so what are developers doing to help?
It was a sunny yet briskly cold day in primary school for me, as I was tasked with colouring in a Christmas tree. The piece I returned was a surrealist’s dream with leaves a dark, chestnut brown and trunks shaded in a deep red.
Shortly after this and a few tests, I was diagnosed with red-green colour blindness. It’s affected me in some bizarre ways - I once accidentally created the most popular post on Boots UK’s Facebook page, by unintentionally adding a filter on top of a sandwich image that caused the food to look mouldy. Now, I no doubt annoy plenty of my colleagues by getting their help and asking about the colour of an image I created.
But over these two scenarios, one key problem area for me lies in video games. From user interface elements melting into the background of similarly murky colours, to being tricked by actual gameplay element colours and causing a ‘game over,’ I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of these moments.
In Bioshock 2 (sequel to one of the more life-changing games for me, which wholeheartedly proved the storytelling capabilities of the medium), the security system hacking mini-game was a colour-based puzzle that relied on a mess of red and green shades.
The Hobbit had a similar time limit colour-based puzzle to unlock chests, leading to plenty of failed item pick ups.
The differentiation between yellow and green notes in Guitar Hero was a tricky road bump to overcome at first.
Picking up Battlefield 3, the enemies were highlighted in a shade of orange and friendlies in green - causing a whole load of vision-based confusion for myself.
There is no aiming reticule in Resident Evil 5, causing you to rely on the red laser sight. Perfectly fine and adds an element of realism to normal-sighted players, but makes it extremely difficult for me to pop off any zombies from a distance.
And don’t get me started on the more closely related shades of Spartan armour in multiplayer Halo. Yes I know red and blue are easier to tell apart, but once you get into your green, yellow and pink, things start to get tricky without on-screen cues - basically barring me from any sort of MLG mode.
At first, in my typical British passiveness, I just succumbed to my fate. This was an issue for me to face with certain games and there was nothing I could do about it. As I grew up and found myself a backbone, the frustration grew quick.
Why couldn’t there be a mode to add a targeting reticule in Resi 5? Why can’t I change the colour of UI elements? And why on Earth do developers not take colour blindness into consideration when designing colour-based puzzles or shading in their games?
It’s not as if its rare - 1 in 12 men and roughly 1 in 200 women get something like this. I understand that in the grand scheme of problems to fix in the world, not seeing the colour in a game is not the biggest priority, but at least some education for developers and designers to consider this condition would make a world of difference.
Well, it seems like my frustrations have been answered, as gaming has entered a new (and incredible) age of accessibility in games.
Colour blind modes are starting to be a thing in many well known games, slowly expanding throughout the triple-a game market. From UI element changes to entire-screen filters, the rate of progress in this area is alarmingly positive.
Also, I may be making this sound like it’s just happened yesterday. Through my research for this piece, it’s clear this has been a thing longer than I realised.
For example, you have the small design choices such as those in GTA V, where map iconography didn’t rely upon colour to provide context as to what they mean
Call of Duty games historically had modes that would change colours on the mini map and HUD, but Ghosts was the first game to bring an entire colour blind filter - which gave all the brown and red shades a hint of purplish to them.
These fixes are not perfect yet, but it’s a start. Some of these filters just swap out some colour clashes with other clashes, and others just make the game look unnatural in their colours. Ideally, colour blindness only affects our understanding of the user interface rather than the game as a whole, so there’s no need to change everything. Rather, maybe the ability to individually customise each UI element, as everybody sees (or doesn’t see) colours in different ways. Gamers Experience did a fascinating in-depth piece about these and reaches this same conclusion.
What am I trying to say here? Colour blindness in gaming has been a largely ignored issue - just like it has been in many other forms of entertainment. Sometimes you don’t notice it, but instead you assume you’re just worse at games than usual. This is by no means a “woe is me,” this is a massive problem kind of situation, but much like other forms of accessibility over the years, the general public remained (ironically) blind to colour blindness.
However, out of all the mediums to take a stand, turn it all around and be a real arbiter for colour blind accessibility, I’m glad it’s video games. The work on colour blind modes surprised even me writing this, as it started a lot earlier than I first believed. But I’m glad this work is getting the attention and recognition it deserves from the wider community.