What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

The first time I realized my color blindness was affecting how I played games was back in 2004.

EA was fresh off of MVP Baseball 2004 and was looking to improve on a game that I still hold as one of the best sports titles of all time. Their big addition for MVP Baseball 2005 was the Hitter's Eye, a mechanic designed to simulate how hitters pick up different pitches coming out of a pitcher's hand. The ball would stay white for a fastball, or flash red or green for a breaking ball or changeup respectively.

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

The ball flashes red here right before the pitcher releases it to indicate curveball. I'm told it works great when you can actually see what red looks like.

The Hitter's Eye wrecked me for the first few games. I swung and missed at changeups that I thought were curveballs and sliders that I thought were changeups until I got fed up and turned off the feature entirely. Friends have told me that the Hitter's Eye was one of the best things about MVP Baseball 05, but that major selling point was lost on me.

Welcome to life as a colorblind gamer.

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

It's hard to simulate, but similar hues like this Borderlands 2 text actually bleed together for people like me and make it hard to differentiate the letters.

Fast forward seven years and I'm roaming across Pandora with a pack of Vault Hunters in Borderlands 2 – friends that I've known since college in real life. We're basking in the spoils of our latest raid when a trade request for one of my new guns pops up from my buddy Mike.

"Do you swear these guns have the same rarity?" I asked

"Totally," he said. "I promise they're both purple."

I hit 'accept' and hear Mike snickering.

"Damn it, Mike!"

Who the hell decided that a rarity ranking system should include blue, purple AND magenta text all on a bluish-purple background anyway?

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

These enemies in Guacamelee! are supposed to be distinctly red and green, but when they're next to each other I can't tell which is which.

There's rarely a game where my color blindness doesn't rear its head in some way. My latest bane is Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, a game that I had been tearing through like an unstoppable suplex machine until I met the enemies with four different colored overshields that require specific attacks to break.

I can't tell which shield is which when they're next to each other so I'm using random special attacks and hoping for the best. Guacamelee! is technically an action platformer, but now it's effectively a Russian roulette simulator (coming soon to Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight).

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

This test tells you how well you see color. 0 is perfect, my wife got a 2, I got 183.

Two things happen when I tell someone I'm colorblind – they ask me what it's like to see in black and white, and they point to their shirt and ask me what color I think it is. And that's when I have to explain that yes, there are some people who only see in monochrome (black and white), but that's an extremely rare condition that only affects 1 in 33,000 people and I'm not one of them.

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

My results. Anything above 99 is considered 'low' color acuity.

What I have is actually much more common. Your eyes have three groups of cells shaped like cones that are responsible for seeing color. If you can see colors properly it means that all three cones are working the way they should, and you're called a trichromat. But people like me have at least one faulty cone, and which cone is faulty determines which color you have trouble seeing. I have deuteranomaly – reduced sensitivity to green light, the most common form of color blindness – so I have trouble distinguishing between reds, greens, browns, oranges, and some blue and purple hues.

TL;DR – I have trouble telling certain colors apart, to the point where similar hues bleed together when they are next to each other. I can tell that a green shirt is green and a brown shirt is brown, but show me a pattern with green and brown alternating squares and my eyes start to go haywire. Just like, for example, the red and green overshields of the Chupacabras tearing my Guacamelee! luchador apart.

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

The worse you are at differentiating colors, the more difficult BioShock 2's hacking becomes. Since I'm red-green colorblind, the red and the green looks almost the same.

Calling my type of color blindness a disability feels melodramatic, but admittedly it does affect the way I need to approach certain games. If I'm playing FIFA online I need to pay extra attention to the uniform my opponent picks in case it's a shade too similar to my own. Puzzlers that rely on color matching like Zuma and Hexic are downright impossible, and even games with green text like Fallout 3 can be a challenge.

But what gets frustrating is when games have color issues that could be addressed to include colorblind gamers but aren't. Guacamelee! could ease my frustration by putting a button prompt above its shielded enemies. Far Cry 3 could let me change the color indicators on the minimap. And if BioShock 2 wants to include hacking games based on color, it could at least make each color wedge have a distinctive pattern. I've avoided BioShock 2 entirely because every locked room or hostile turret that I'd try to hack would be a 50-50 tossup for me. Green bars are successful hacks, red bars set off alarms, and I'd have no other way of knowing which is which.

What It's Like To Play Games When You're Colorblind

FTL's colorblind mode changes the color scheme for more contrast and adds patterns.

The good news for people like me is that some developers are starting to realize that color blindness affects almost 10% of their male users – it's much rarer in women, with less than 1% of the female population suffering any sort of color blindness – and they're adjusting their games accordingly.

Every Call of Duty since Modern Warfare 3 has included a colorblind mode that lets you change teammate and enemy indicators from green and red to a much more deuteranomaly-friendly light blue and orange (I found that out after a few months of playing 'blind'), and Borderlands 2 released a patch that added text descriptors to their color-coded rarity system. Industry giants World of Warcraft, DOTA 2, and Team Fortress 2 all have their own colorblind-assist options, and Sim City launched with multiple image filters catering to different types of color blindness.

What's most encouraging to me are the developers like FTL's Subset Games who are reaching out to the colorblind community for input on what makes a game more playable for them. It's nice to feel included in the creative process, and it makes me hopeful that colorblind filters will one day become as standard an option as subtitles are now.

Ultimately we want games to be as inclusive as possible. I hate to think of someone missing out on what could have been their favorite game for something as simple as text color.

Cameron Gidari is a travel writer by trade and a videogame aficionado by choice. You can follow him on twitter at @CGidari.