So, onto my second blog post/mess of thoughts post-GAConfEU on Monday…
Something that’s rattled around in my head a lot since Monday is something that’s not exclusively to do with access, but comes to the fore when access is considered – choice. Now, it feels natural that choice is a large part of the discussion when thinking about video games – player agency being a distinctive element of the art-form.* It’s less common when thinking about performance, depending on the style being considered.
When one talk veered into designing subtitles for VR – where players can potentially look away from where fixed subtitles might be, or common placements for subtitles (such as the bottom of the screen) can obscure content-heavy areas of the screen (tabletops and similar) – it immediately made me think of the difficulty of designing captioning for the kind of immersive shows where audiences have the freedom to move around as they choose.
(If anyone can give me an example of such a show that had captioning *please* tell me, that’s fantastic!)
One of the biggest mantras I probably took away from the conference is: give people a variety of options, then let them choose whichever best aids/suits/improves accessibility for them. There are such a huge range of different access needs that different people might have that the best thing is to give the player control and choice over changes that might need to be made to the game.
In games, this can mean a variety of things – having adaptive controllers and reprogrammable controls, so people have choice about how they physically control and interact with the game; having a selection of difficulty levels so that people can choose what will be challenging and fun for them, not according to some ‘objective’ ideal that might not be aware of their needs; having sliders players can adjust for colourblind options rather than fixed settings that people have to choose between.
Of course, there are elements with games where the player already has choice – where they play it (to a degree, if it’s a portable controller or set-up that they have), how they are sat or the seat they’re in when they play it (as games are something that can be played at home, rather than somewhere that exists in a set place and time, as with theatre), when they play it (again, no fixed ‘gaming’ time as with ‘performance’ times). So even before they play, gamers have a lot more agency than theatre-goers.
So, if a fundamental of accessibility is giving people choice, then how can theatre do that? With the majority of shows, there might be one or two relaxed performances in the run, offering either bare or no choice to certain people as to when they can get along to a show (similarly with stage text captioning, BSL interpretation, audio description and more – though I have been seeing more work with integrated BSL and captioning recently). It might seem that theatre is inalienably less flexible than games – games can be coded to have different options in various different settings, and they’re inherently responsive to players’ controls and choices, whilst theatre has a greater sense of existing *as a thing* separate to the audience.
(Of course, there is interactive theatre, there is game-based theatre, there are forms of theatre less easy to separate or see as a whole independent of the audience. I’m talking in very generalised terms. And even in interactive theatre and suchlike – an audience member can’t necessarily change what they experience independent of other audience members, like a video gamer who can change colour settings for themselves.)
So I’m trying to imagine what a kind of theatre looks like that offers such choice. Likely involving improvisation. Conversations with the audience before and at/during the performance. In some kind of space that can be as flexible as the show itself needs to be. I hope to explore this soon (you know, money and resources and time and energy all very much pending…) but for now I’ll definitely be rolling it over in my head a lot more.
*Yes, I could get into a long post about to what degree player agency actually *is* a distinctive or essential part of video games, since there are games out there that play with the idea of agency and will back players into deliberate corners, where the choices may boil down to what the player does with the game or even if they simply continue to play (and that’s a choice that you can apply to other art forms – whether you keep watching a play, for instance) – but for now I’m going to make the generalisation.