The Unexpected Difficulties of Playing Games When You’re Colourblind

Coloured dots in a grid pattern against a black background.

Welcome to Press Play, POPSUGAR Australia’s first-ever gaming initiative focused on accessibility. Our aim is to shed light on the experiences of people with disability who play games, while helping to identify the features needed within games to make them truly accessible to all players.

The initiative includes interviews with key figures in the gaming space as well as first person pieces produced by writers with disability who can speak from experience about these features. Press Play is supported by our newly launched text-to-voice feature. You can find all the pieces here.

Colourblindness, or colour vision deficiency (CVD), affects an estimated 300 million people worldwide, which means that it’s likely you know someone who has CVD and you might not even realise. While there are seven different types of CVD (with varying effects and severity) the most common of these is deuteranomaly, more commonly known as red-green colourblindness. I have a fairly severe form of deuteranomaly which can cause some issues in my daily life, but it frequently causes problems when I play games.

Being red-green colourblind often means that I find it hard to tell what certain UI elements are meant to be; whether something is a buff or a friendly (usually green) or a debuff or an enemy (usually red) or, in games like Borderlands or Fortnite, what rarity an item is. It’s not limited to the UI, either, like in Alien: Isolation where the Working Joe enemies’ eyes glow red when they become aggressive. I couldn’t tell when this happened and, not gonna lie, it scared the hell out of me because I had no way of knowing if they were about to attack me.

As the games industry better comes to understand the need for accessibility in games, it’s becoming more common for games to include colourblind modes, although there are still some examples of high profile games without them. Elden Ring doesn’t include any sort of colourblind mode, and while for the most part I haven’t had any problems because of this, there are certain buffs and debuffs to health and stamina that can be extremely hard to tell apart because of the colour.

When they are included, colourblind modes are often poorly implemented, like a filter slapped on as an afterthought. Literally — in most cases, the colourblind mode in a game is a filter over the whole screen that alters the colour of everything you see in-game. The upside of this (for the developer) is that it’s super easy to do. The downside (for people who are colourblind) is that at best it makes things a little bit easier to distinguish at the cost of looking a little strange, and at worst it can completely ruin the art and aesthetic of a game. Colourblind gamers just need to know if someone is going to shoot at us. We don’t need all the trees to be yellow because we can’t see green very well. In the very worst cases, the developers have misunderstood what the filter is for and have actually simulated CVD, rather than fixing it. Doom from 2016, Overwatch, Gears Tactics and many others all made this kind of (surely incredibly obvious) mistake. Looking at this comparison from Gears Tactics, it should have been immediately clear that this is not useful to anyone.

The most egregious issue with this is that it doesn’t even seem to change the UI! Which is really the only part that needs changing. Thankfully, as far as I’m aware, these games have subsequently been patched with proper colourblind modes — but the fact that this mistake was made in the first place is just a little bit baffling.

The best colourblind modes not only change the offending UI elements, but also let you change them to whatever colour you want. The latest Battlefield games, for instance, give you an RGB colour picker so you can select exactly which colour each part of the UI should be.

All of these filters and modes and colour pickers are not as good, however, as just designing around the issue in the first place. The Outer Worlds, for instance, doesn’t have a colourblind mode at all because it was designed so that any information denoted by colour was also imparted some other way. Tim Cain, one of the game’s directors, has a very severe form of CVD bordering on complete monochromacy (as in, seeing only black/white/grey), so the game was built to be accessible from the outset.

The benefit of this design philosophy is that not only does it make it more accessible for people with CVD, but it can also make it more accessible for everyone else. Improving the way a game gives information to the player means that people are more likely to engage with all of a game’s systems — which means they’re more likely to have more fun, which is surely the ultimate goal for any game developer! It’s further proof that game developers need to involve people with disability when they’re making games, and not just as an afterthought.

Accessibility isn’t about making games less difficult — it’s about making them easier to play. That might sound like a contradiction, but I’m still going to die a whole bunch in Elden Ring, I’ll just be able to tell when I’ve got a health boost.

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