You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
The Meeple Centred Design project has several goals. Ambitious goals. Perhaps completely unrealistic goals. These goals have sub-goals, hidden goals, and own goals. It’s a long term project, driven entirely by passion and what free time that I can cobble together. I’d like it to be more though, and there are plans in motion for making that so.
Bear with me – there’s relevance to the topic of video games coming up!
The project has three phases. The first will continue to run indefinitely, and directly informs the phases that follow.
Phase One: The Accessibility Landscape of Tabletop Games
When I first started playing tabletop games, I said to myself ‘I think there are accessibility problems in this hobby’. It seems like a self-evident and obvious conclusion – after all, tabletop games are physical and tactile and gloriously complicated and complex. How could they not be riddled throughout with accessibility concerns?
When I started looking into it though, I made a surprising discovery. I was absolutely right!
Well, it was surprising to me. I’m often not right in these things.
I began to map out the accessibility landscape, one game at a time. That’s the process that is currently occupying almost all of my time because it is a deeply involved task. It involves playing games well enough to make some informed observations. It then involves filtering those observations through the heuristic framework I use for handling my accessibility teardowns. Each of these is a comprehensive document, often running to thousands of words examining, the nuanced implications of interaction. Given the nature of the work, it’s not really possible to describe interaction considerations without also describing the game. Each teardown is accompanied with a long-form review of the key elements of the title.
The framework I’m using for this is still being refined and calibrated, but has achieved a reasonable stability in recent weeks. To begin with, every new game resulted in new considerations being adopted in the framework. These would be merged, and separated, and reshuffled, and rejigged until they became something that could feasibly be considered independently of the game in question. Board games are almost unique in the myriad ways in which their design creates interesting subtleties of inaccessibility. Sometimes an issue is particular to one version of one game. Sometimes the issues can be generalised – we look to do the latter,
This work has resulted in around twenty-six comprehensive reviews and teardowns being written. Not all are yet published, and more are being written on a weekly basis. The Meeple Like Us blog is the primary dissemination venue for that work. The work is fruitful, but awareness raising is difficult. We appreciate any efforts that people can make to boost our signal.
Phase Two: Developer Guidelines
The Game Accessibility Guidelines and the Includification project are tremendous resources for video game developers. Video game accessibility, in almost every way, outstrips that of tabletop game accessibility. There is wider acceptance of its importance, more progress in its implementation, and greater market rewards for its inclusion. To be fair, I have been publishing academic papers on the subject of video game accessibility since 2012. Accessibility advocacy in gaming wasn't always pushng at an open door. Even so, it can be difficult to even get people to appreciate there is a problem in the tabletop space.
I suspect this is partly because of the uniquely complex challenge of accessibility in the area of tabletop design. Tabletop games remain tangible, tactile products that must be physically manufactured, shipped and stored. Video game accessibility advocates have a reasonably easy argument they can make – accessibility doesn’t cost money, it makes money. For a little up-front developer attention and consideration, you can open up a video game to a much wider audience. It’s an easy sell that is rapidly becoming a no-brainer. More than that, a serious consideration of accessibility is one of the most effective loyalty schemes in existence, and we know the market is out there.
Is that the case for tabletop games? I don’t know, but I hope to find out. It’s hard to believe though that adopting accessible component design wouldn’t have a per-unit financial implication. This makes accessibility a much harder sell – creating new markets is great, but what if the cost to opening them increases the price for everyone?
I believe there is a financial argument that can be made here, but it hasn’t been made yet.
However, I also believe there are many improvements that game developers can be making now to hugely improve the accessibility of tabletop games without spending another penny. They range from things as simple as adopting colour-blind friendly palettes to making an effort to ensure visually contrasted artwork. There are examples of good practise spread all over the board-gaming scene. What’s needed is a concerted effort to bring them together.
Deriving from the accessibility landscape of the Meeple Centred Design project, I am putting together this document – a set of design guidelines that can be used to maximise accessibility with minimal cost. Coupled to this, I’m also fine-tuning the research publications that document the heuristic lenses I’ve been developing. These in turn will make their way into generally available documents that I hope will offer useful, actionable guidance to those hoping to make more accessible tabletop games. As the standard of accessibility improves, we can ascertain whether the principles of profitable accessibility hold true.
Phase Three: Bridging the Gap
We believe that it is unlikely we will ever get to the stage where all tabletop games are accessible to all people. There is just too much about game design in general that places a tension between enjoyability and accessibility, particularly when we consider cognitive accessibility. That’s an issue I discuss in relation to my own game development project Epitaph, in an EICS paper from 2015. A game which involves a strong puzzle element will often find itself becoming increasingly cognitively inaccessible and it seems a poor argument to make that the answer is always to simplify. I believe we must accept a simple truth – not all games can be for all people, although we should certainly strive to make widespread accessibility the norm.
What I will settle for is if there is a great selection of great games that everyone can play, regardless of accessibility requirements. An ideal situation for tabletop games is if there is an equally great range of games that groups with any combinations of impairments can enjoy together. Identifying those games seems like a reasonable goal for the Meeple Centred Design project, but we have bigger plans.
The difficulty in tabletop gaming is that the tools we have in the digital sphere don’t apply. Many of the accessibility issues we would encounter in video games can be compensated with software solutions. Font colours, contrasts, sizes and more can be adjusted instantly in code. Colour blind modes can be put in place. The game can be slowed down. Ongoing support for physical impairments can be implemented. Command sets can be simplified, and so on.
When all you have is a physical product in front of you, that’s not possible.
Or is it?
Our final phase is to look at how we can integrate digital tools in the tabletop realm through digitally capturing game-state, algorithmically breaking it down and separating it into meaningful units, and then routing those units to software systems where the accessibility issues have largely been solved. This is obviously a long-term and extremely challenging end goal, but one that offers tremendous opportunities for leveraging the state-of-the-art innovations of video game accessibility. We believe we can make any individual board-game generally accessible using a combination of VR, software, projectors, and technology anyone is likely to have around the house. Where it is not possible for accessibility to be provided in the project, we’ll look to supplement it with technology. More than that, we will look to do so in a way that ensures the social capital of face-to-face tabletop gaming is meaningfully retained.
My colleagues and I have plans for this, and some initial prototype work. We are aware though how challenging this work will be. We also believe it is vital in ensuring full inclusion for those with accessibility needs into the exciting and vibrant culture of tabletop gaming. We’re academics with a main research focus on accessibility, and in my case the accessibility of video games. We’ll be seeking to support this work by applying for research grants – if you’d be interested in collaborating in that area, then please do get in touch with me at [email protected]. There are no guarantees of funding success in an incredibly competitive and uncertain research landscape, but the more collaborative links we have the greater the chance of progressing the project through one means or another.