10 July 2017
Dr. Michael James Heron takes a look at the growing need to cater for a much wider audience of players
Few would deny that we are currently living in a new golden age of board gaming. Whether it’s the roaring success of tabletop projects on Kickstarter or the steady stream of excellent games regularly released to gleeful consumers, the industry has rarely enjoyed such a sustained period of ascendency. It’s a good time to be a game designer, a great time to be a game publisher, but a truly spectacular time to be a game player. Whether you like pushing cubes around a victory point marker or minis around a simulated dungeon you are truly spoilt for choice. There is nothing between you and the game experience you want, in the flavour you want, in the theme you want. Except...
It’s easy to take this range of opportunities for granted but there are many people for whom there are very significant barriers that stand between them and enjoyment. These are people with disabilities and many board games are profoundly inaccessible to their special interaction requirements. The range of expectations that are embedded into play is staggering – there are so many nuanced and subtle intersections of game mechanisms that each title is genuinely unique and ask equally unique things of its players. Each game has its own accessibility profile, where similar games might be accessible to one player with a disability and inaccessible to another with the same disability. With video gaming your interface to the fun is a controller and a set of button presses that trigger game action. Within board games your interface might be a cardboard map in one game, a flickable counter in another and a hundred multi-coloured meeples in another still. A game might use hundreds of dice, or two dice, or no dice. It might require complex negotiation, or mandate absolute silence. It might be played with abstract, dream-like pictures or nothing more than stern, austere words. It might use miniature pandas, weighted wooden monsters or foam guns. You might be moving spaceships around in graceful arcs in millimetre-perfect scale, or sliding dice that represent sci-fi battleships around an abstracted hex board.
Every single element that comes together to define a game has an impact on its accessibility and the implications of this become more complex to assess with every passing month. As a hobby base we feed on novelty. This hunger for new experience means every game pushes the boundaries or stretches the conventions. Every designer puts their own inflection and stresses on the elasticity of systems that expresses their vision. Every player that comes to each game is unique in their capabilities. Every intersection of these is a truly distinctive data point that is tightly influenced by the mechanisms in the design and the specific expression of disability in a player.
Terror in Meeple City – flickable Kaiju monsters are a lot of fun, but for visually and physically impaired players the game is all but impossible.
Each box in other words is a brand new landmark on this complex topography and, as part of my work with the Meeple Like Us blog, I’ve been trying very hard to map out some of the contours of this often unforgiving terrain. Like real exploration, it’s extremely time-consuming, often very difficult and thoroughly rewarding. It’s also meticulous, slow-going work that needs as much in the way of passionate advocacy as it does methodical approaches. We consider each game we discuss from a range of perspectives and evaluate whether or not we’d recommend the game to people with impairments in particular categories. We accompany each of these recommendations with a full discussion of the factors that went into it. Disabilities exist on a complex spectrum, and interact in all kinds of ways. We provide the data to support the recommendations so that everyone can make an informed choice of their own. Our recommendations are not necessarily accurate for all people, but they’re the entry point that permits people to make their own decisions. They have to be – we’re coming up on one hundred games evaluated and no two have been meaningfully the same in terms of their analysis. There are similarities, harmonies, and occasionally convergences. By and large though, the analysis has to be tuned to the specific resonances of each unique game.
Tabletop games do not currently serve a large audience of disabled gamers but this is in large part because the hobby doesn’t make itself welcoming to people with a range of complex accessibility requirements. There are games out there to serve every group, but few games that are suitable for every group. Most games are playable by some subset of disabled gamers, but few are consciously accessible in the ways that would open the hobby up to a potentially large market. The games that are accessible are, by and large, accidentally so. They’re far more often accidentally inaccessible.
Around 8% of the male population is colour blind. Over two million people in the UK live with some degree of sight loss, and around ten million people consider themselves to have some kind of persistent disability. They’re not all gamers, but they could be with just a little more attention given to their needs.
I don’t want to make this sound like a call to action purely for marginalised groups. I am profoundly selfish in my desires. I’m getting older, at roughly the rate of one day for every day passed. So are you. So is everyone, and along with that aging comes a gradual accumulation of minor and major ailments that combine in complex ways to create accessibility problems. We become increasingly desensitised to colour as we get older. Our hearing becomes weaker. Our sight less acute. Our minds change, becoming more focused on accessing stores of wisdom than furious calculation. We all change, all the time, in varying ways to varying schedules. Do you like playing games? Would you like to keep playing them in the future? Accessibility needs to be a priority now if you want to spend your retirement immersed in the games you love now and will love then.
Potion Explosion is one of the more distinctively different games in terms of how it presents the interface to players.
More than this, we almost all know someone with accessibility issues, and these issues have almost certainly got in the way of gaming before. Do you have an older relative that complains about small fonts, or a younger sibling that lacks the physical dexterity to manipulate small pieces? Those are accessibility issues and they’re not only stopping them playing games with you, they’re stopping you from playing games with them. More than any other form of gaming, this hobby thrives in the social space – where we come together with our friends and family and make a special effort to collaboratively enjoy our time.
Inaccessibility is a barrier to us savouring the company of the people we love; we cannot share gaming with them, so we share other experiences. That’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can have it all, if we want. If we make this topic a priority. There is a moral case to be made here. There’s a business case to be made. But more than anything else, there’s a case to be made for pure naked self-interest. The staggering quality of games in this space is one of the best- and worst-kept secrets in the gaming industry. It’s the best-kept because this is still a small, niche hobby that doesn’t have real mainstream appeal yet. It’s the worst-kept because as soon as anyone finds out they feel compelled to tell others what they have discovered because that’s how you get more people playing. This is a hobby that requires recruits and proselytes and we’re not making that easy for a lot of people.
It’s never going to be the case that every game can be accessible to every person – there are whole families of game that are just going to be fundamentally impossible to change without altering the very essence of what they are. Sometimes the fun in a game is to be found in its explicit inaccessibility and that’s fine. Someone with physical impairments is not going to be able to play Flick ‘em Up. Someone with visual impairments isn’t going to enjoy Galaxy Trucker. Those with cognitive impairments are not going to find much satisfaction in Mage Knight. For these games to be accessible, they need to become very different games. That’s not an end-state that would satisfy anyone, myself included.
Instead, what we can achieve is a general increase in the baseline state of accessibility. The difference between ‘can’t be played’ and ‘can be played’ might be as simple as a colour change or the addition of some descriptive labels to a board. A working group of interested parties is currently beavering away on the first draft of the Tabletop Accessibility Guidelines – a set of actionable suggestions for designers and publishers looking to make their games enjoyable by the widest plurality of people. There are a lot of things that can be done, with little cost and effort, to open this hobby up to a group of people that don’t even know yet how much they love it.
Escape: Curse of the Temple shows that routine accessibility issues people have are treated as 'curses' in the game that make play more difficult.
However, accessibility also has to be seen as something more than technical adherence to a set of best practice guidelines. It has to be a way of thinking – of assessing each of the barriers that stand between new people and the games they could be playing. My own work and research in this topic argues strongly that there is a social and representational aspect to accessibility. That people cannot play when they want to is an accessibility issue. So too is the fact that many people look at the hobby and don’t want to play because they do not see it as a hobby that has space for them. When you take a look at rows of games on rows of shelves often all you see are dead-eyed white men staring back. A welcoming, inviting hobby lets people look at its physical presence as a mirror – they see themselves reflected back and as such they can envision themselves as part of it. Often, what tabletop gaming reflects back is from a juvenile funhouse mirror: women absurdly sexualised and ethnicities demoted to background characters, if they are represented at all. A recent tongue-in-cheek study showed you were more likely to see a sheep on the cover of a board game than a woman. That too is an accessibility issue, and any discussion of the topic must take this into account if it is to be fully exhaustive.
In 2017, we’re still seeing high-profile games released from established publishers that don’t take into account something as simple as colour blindness. We’re still seeing games that present women as sexualised objects and passive trinkets of male attention. We have games where we could be doing so much better than we are. We need to be more vocal about this. We need to make sure that publishers and designers understand there is a real appetite and demand for games that are as accessible as they possibly can be. When we encounter inaccessibilities we need to raise them. When preventable problems stop us playing games with the people we love, we need to object loudly. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of bringing out a game for a young girl only to be told, ‘No, that’s for boys.’ I’m certain we’ve all picked a game for older relatives only to be told, ‘The components are too fiddly.’ What we’re really being told is, ‘There are accessibility issues here,’ and that’s how we need to interpret the information we’re given.
With this small change in interpretation we can see that people complain about inaccessibility in games all the time – it’s just rarely raised in those terms, or harnessed towards a specific goal. We can change that. We can take this energy and frustration and channel it somewhere useful. That begins by recognising the problem. It starts with turning low-level grumbles into a growl, and those growls into a roar. If enough people make their feelings known loudly enough, that roar will become an unanswerable call to action. We can do this. We need to do this. And, fate willing, we’re going to do this.
Dr. Michael James Heron is editor of the Meeple Like Us blog and lecturer in the School of Computing and Digital Media at Robert Gordon University