Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Colorblind-friendly games and the free market

There's an unfortunate color choice in a lot of video games, where halos around friendly characters will be green and the halos around enemies will be red.

That's unfortunate for people like me who are red-green deficient, the most common type of colorblindness. Ever since Baldur's Gate, I've had trouble picking out my enemies in a particularly busy game. I've had to stop playing some flash games because they introduced additional colors that I can't tell apart and sometimes when I try to point things out to other players, I call orange objects yellow and purple objects blue.

Colorblindness can really hold a player back in video games, which is why I was happy to hear Modern Warfare 3 will have a colorblind assist mode.

Video games have a mixed record with providing options to help the colorblind. Peggle chose a blue and orange palette for each major components, the easiest colors to tell apart. The game will also put shapes into blocks to help people like me tell them apart. This is what companies should do.

Meanwhile, the hacking minigame in Bioshock 2 depended on quickly telling red and green apart, a real problem for people like me. It seems abstract puzzle games seem to be better prepared for colorblind problems, while actions games have a spotty history.

So what does this tell us about the free market?

The most obvious thing is the solution is not perfect. Some games are accessible to the colorblind, while some have easily-fixable problems that persist.
It's not just video games, the five-to-six player expansion for Settlers of Catan introduced green and brown factions into the game in shades I can't tell apart. That's the visible.

But what's invisible is the roadblocks in game creation that would be required if a top-down model attempted to make all games handicap-friendly. If the door is open for colorblindness, what about disabilities? Would a deaf mode be needed to put comic book sound effects in to let players know when someone is shooting behind them? How far would these demands reach, and what fun games we enjoy now would have been blocked from entering the marketplace?

And what about subtitles in video games? Those help the handicapped as well, and are universally available for games with dialogue or voice-overs, but they weren't put there by a regulation. The demand of customers encouraged companies to include those options

What I expect to see in the future of video games is universal colorblind options for games. It's going to take time, and it won't always be perfect, but it will be motivated by the self-interest of video game companies who just want to satisfy their customers.

NOTE: I forgot to include two examples of government failures to fix colorblind problems. Graphs in public school textbooks and traffic lights. Yes, we do remember what order the yellow and red lights are, but its hard to spot their relative position at night, and single-lamp blinking lights are hard to tell apart.


  1. Well, here's another thing we have in common. In fact, I am also red-green deficient. But there's hope for us. In 2009, researchers used gene therapy to cure color blindness in squirrel monkeys.

    When opsin genes have a mutation, they affect the wavelengths that our rods are able to absorb, whether it be in our long, middle, or short wavelength rods. This happens because the excitation of a particular protein (G-protein) is dependent upon opsin reaction with photons. Replace that defective opsin gene, thus creating the correct opsin protein, thus properly exciting the G-protein, and you've fixed your color blindness.

    As for the video game industry, I can see them responding to colorblindness because a not insubstantial portion of the population actually is colorblind. Estimates usually come in around 5%, but I suspect it's much more like 10% because many people simply don't know. In fact, I had been going to an eye doctor for 6 years, not to mention all the check ups throughout school, before anyone bothered to tell me I had been failing those Cambridge Color Tests.

  2. There was suppose to be entertaining HTML coding around that middle section, but apparently WordPress will have none of it. So I guess pretend [nerd] and [/nerd] surround my middle paragraph.

  3. The question is, would you want color therapy? Would the ability to tell certain colors apart be worth the transition to living in an alien world?

  4. The reason I play video games is so I can transition to living in an alien world.

  5. You want to live in Lewiston?