In this comprehensive report, the Games & Interactive Technology Lab at Claremont Graduate University evaluates the cognitive accessibility of two popular games in the esteemed Legend of Zelda series. The goal is to assess whether these mainstream games are accessible to people with cognitive and learning differences such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Traumatic Brain Injury, Down Syndrome, and more.
by Vanya (Chun Ling) Hsu and Elizabeth Kirschner
Gaming accessibility is a rapidly evolving and critical part of the game development process. There is greater pressure on developers to include accessibility from the start of development. Assessing the quality and effectiveness of accessible game features is also a rapidly growing field. This project set out to explore a potential method for qualitatively evaluating the accessibility of games based on standard guidelines.
Despite Nintendo’s efforts, there is ongoing discourse surrounding accessibility in the gaming industry. Numerous gaming enthusiasts and critics continue to express the sentiment that Nintendo's efforts could be more robust. In online forums, there is a demand for increased inclusivity within the Zelda franchise. To assess two of the most popular Nintendo games, our team at the CGU GIT Lab conducted a comparative analysis, with a specific focus on cognitive accessibility to evaluate the extent of Nintendo's progress.
It's important to note that this study exclusively concentrates on cognitive accessibility, and does not encompass other crucial accessibility facets such as motor skills, vision, speech, and so forth.
A heuristic evaluation was conducted on each game with the cognitive metrics of the Game Accessibility Guidelines (GAG) serving as accessibility heuristics. This evaluation included five user experience researchers. Nine major aspects of the Legend of Zelda game were evaluated, including Shrines & Runes, Fights, Map, Inventory & collection, Dialogue, Storyline, and Movement.
Nineteen of thirty available guidelines were selected for the evaluation. Eleven Guidelines were omitted due to relevance and salience for observational evaluators. The GAG divides guidelines into three levels of complexity: basic, intermediate, and advanced. The evaluation predominantly focused on the cognitive perspective, with a keen emphasis on the thought, memory, and processing of information.
First, each researcher was assigned to one gameplay video of Breath of the Wild and one gameplay video of Tears of the Kingdom. Then, a training session was done to make sure researchers understood the details of the guidelines and the evaluation process. A sheet was created to code the data on a five-point scale for each guideline with qualitative comments.
Use an easily readable default font size
Include contextual in-game help/guidance/tips
Avoid any sudden unexpected movement or events
Use simple clear language
Indicate/allow reminders of current objectives during gameplay
Allow all narrative and instructions to be replayed
Use simple clear text formatting
Indicate/allow reminders of controls during gameplay
Include a means of practicing without failure, such as a practice level or sandbox mode
Allow players to progress through text prompts at their own pace
Employ a simple, clear narrative structure
Avoid flickering images and repetitive patterns
If using a long overarching narrative, provide summaries of progress
Ensure no essential information (especially instructions) is conveyed by text alone, reinforce with visuals or speech
Give a clear indication that interactive elements are interactive
Provide gameplay thumbnails with game saves
Ensure sound/music choices for each key objects/events are distinct from each other
Highlight important words
Example of evaluation criteria
Shrines & Runes
Breath of the Wild includes guided interactive tutorials in the beginning and during gameplay. These tutorials benefit players with a diverse range of cognitive impairments providing a solid foundation for understanding the game’s mechanics. The consistency of a simple clear message and the way of solving the puzzle helps the player associate. It is less demanding on short-term memory to recall the instruction every time.
Tears of the Kingdom helps more than that. Having more flexibility and variety in solving the shrine puzzle. This increased adaptability makes Tears of the Kingdom notably more accessible to a wider spectrum of players, accommodating varying cognitive needs and preferences.
An issue identified during the evaluation process pertains to the unexpected movement and flickering patterns present within the Shrines of both games. The presence of blue lights or blinking indicators, while integral to the gameplay mechanics, could potentially pose risks for individuals susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy. As a recommendation, a reduction in the frequency and intensity of these visual stimuli could significantly mitigate the risk and enhance the overall safety of the gaming experience.
Inventory & Collection
Movement and Extras
Overall Storylines and Quests
Score by ease of implementation (basic, intermediate, advanced) for cognitive accessibility guidelines
After conducting a thorough analysis, we have concluded that overall, Tears of the Kingdom improved compared to Breath of the Wild by offering a better general user experience than Breath of the Wild. However, when it comes to Cognitive Accessibility, the improvements were negligible.
Breath of the Wild
Tears of the Kingdom
Shrines & Runes
Inventory & Collection
Movement and others
Summary of comparison by gameplay element
In sum, the cognitive accessibility research showed that both Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom met the cognitive game accessibility guidelines across the basic, intermediate, and advanced implementation levels to cater to gamers with disabilities or impairments. Due to the nature of The Legend of Zelda series and its genre, this open-world sequential story is hard for neurodiverse players but the flexibility and freedom of the game also help the player play at their own pace and focus ability. While there’s still room for improvement, we can hope for better gaming experiences in the future.