Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Why can't games be adjusted for reaction time?

Imagine a very simple "game". You have a black screen. Sometimes a letter flashes on that screen, either A, B, or C. When that letter flashes, you need to press the corresponding key on your keyboard within a fraction of a second. Pressing the right letter within the time limit gives you a point, pressing the wrong letter or being late is a miss. After 100 letter flashes, your score is shown.

What can we say about this game? Obviously it is very easy to understand. Everybody would be able to play it. But how difficult is it? It is pretty clear that this mostly depends on how many milliseconds you have to press the right letter. How would your score in this game improve after playing it for 1 hour, 10 hours, 100 hours, or 1,000 hours? Probably not very much; especially if you are already a gamer and play games in which reaction time is important, playing another game like that isn't really likely to improve that particular "skill" very much. On the other hand, your score in the game is very likely to be affected by your age. Your reaction time slows down by about half a millisecond per year. The average age of a top athlete in e-sports is significantly younger than in regular sports.

While our imaginary game doesn't exist like this, different version of it exist in a large percentage of video games. Pretty much every game that isn't turn-based but real time has elements in which you see something on the screen (e.g. your virtual enemy raising his weapon) and have to press a key on your gamepad (e.g. press B to block) within a fraction of a second. Because there are probably more than 3 keys involved, the stimuli are more complex than a simple letter flashing, and there are things like key combos involved, real games are a bit more complex than my imaginary game, and would need slightly more practice to master. However the two basic truths of the imaginary game still apply: The game would be a lot easier if you had more time to press the button, and your reaction time (and thus age) has a huge influence on how well you will be able to play.

Now these basic truths could easily be used for better game design. Not all gamers are teenagers. I am in my mid-50's, and there are a lot of gamers my age, because video games appeared when we were teenagers. There are even older gamers, who picked up the hobby later in life. But there are quite a lot of games out there that don't sell to us older gamers. Not that we wouldn't want to play them, but because some developer somewhere put a completely arbitrary reaction time limit on a game mechanic which results in the game being perfectly balanced for a teenager, and nearly impossible to beat for a guy 40 years older than that. Why can't we just have a slower version of the same game for us older gamers?

Many games have difficulty settings, but I don't know of a single game in which these settings simply slow down the reaction time sequences of the game. That would be so simple to implement, and it would open up quite a lot of games to an older and slower audience. Why has nobody thought of that before?

Going from perfectly balanced to impossible to beat, seems a little bit exaggerated.

According to the conclusion of the study, it is a 20ms difference with the example you gave.
The idea is good though. It would be nice to have an analogue way of setting the difficulty instead of the usual discrete way.
What games does this model well, other than PvP shooters (presumably including tanks etc.)
In a PvP game you compete with the reaction time of your opponent, so that ca’t be adjusted. I was thinking of PvE games, not just shooters, but also all sorts of action role-playing games, or action-adventure games like Gods of War.
"but I don't know of a single game in which these settings simply slow down the reaction time sequences of the game"

Starcraft 2 has had the ability to set the speed of the game from the beginning. See for the lobby screen which has a 'game speed' setting.
Of course you are right about PvP. But I don't know if a few ms reaction time matters much in action games. Maybe there is an overall response factor, however, that drops off with age and is more important. I don't think it's as simple as an instant reaction when you are expecting a letter to flash; it's a more complex situation when a threat comes into view and you need to identify it, aim and fire.
I agree that it is more complex than simple reaction time, and that as a consequence the difference between younger and older gamers is more than 20 ms. I just don't have data to link to for the more complex case, as I imagine that depends more on the details of the game and is harder to measure or standardize.
The reason I bowed out of trying to push forward into harder difficulty-level WoW raiding about ten years back was that I felt I wasn't able to contribute well enough due to just not having the reaction time needed. And I was only in my late thirties then.

I don't know if the problem was as simple as having lost 10ms of reaction time since I was a teenager, though, or if I was just never that well-suited to fast reaction games. I've always been more of an RPG'er than an action gamer.
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