Game designer Brandon Rollins (of http://Brandonthegamedev.com) put it the best way I’ve heard so far: board-game accessibility “is a very complex issue that’s hard to talk about succinctly.” Earlier this year, I came across his post that introduced me to the work of Dr. Michael Heron, who publishes a blog of his own on that subject, called “Meeple Like Us.”

In a skillful paraphrasing of Dr. Heron’s work, Rollins identified “accessible” games as being playable even by those players who are challenging for games (and game designers) to accommodate: “An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier to enjoyment. Mostly it’s about how information is presented [or manipulated], but I also include aspects of cultural inaccessibility and representation.”

In a videotaped seminar at the 2018 UK Game Expo, Heron appeared with Pauline Belford, another scientist who shares Dr. Heron’s interest in the accessibility of games. One of the very first things he said was how nice it is to be living in a golden age of board games; there is an amazing amount of
innovation in the industry, and best of all the barriers to entry are low (comparatively, at least). However, he also pointed out that “the riches of this age are not available to everyone.”

At one point in the UKGE seminar was a photo of a man seated outdoors in a wheelchair, at the foot of long concrete staircase. Dr. Heron asked the audience exactly “where” the disability was located in the picture: Was it in the man? Was it in the wheelchair? Or was it somewhere else?

In Heron’s opinion, the picture’s “disability” was located in the staircase. He pointed out that in the case of a steeply-rising grassy slope, the man’s disability might be natural rather than artificial. However, in the case illustrated in the photo, he pointed out that the stairs didn’t simply pop in out of nowhere — someone put them there. Moreover, the stairs were likely put there in a time when elevators, ramps, and other accommodations for the man were widely available — or at least, feasible).

Dr. Heron recognizes that accessibility is not about taking the challenge out of games, citing for example that in the game of golf; anyone who loves to play board games know that sometimes, a perverse part of the fun comes from the experience of getting exasperated. Golf’s many physical obstacles are obviously there to make the game less accessible. In fact, some golfers might say that it is precisely, and only, those hazards that provide the “fun”. How can this be? The paradox is resolved when we examine different kinds of inaccessibility. In short, while intentional inaccessibility is quite important to games, the unintentional kind should be avoided (or worked around) by designers.

SO WHAT, EXACTLY, IS A “TEARDOWN”  . . . ?

Well, for openers . . . it’s not a review.

A “teardown” is a tool used by the folks at Meeplelikeus.co.uk to map out the “accessibility landscape” of board games. It’s simply a set of data points, scoring a game across a range of characteristics. It’s especially important to take note that it’s perfectly possible for a game that scores well on a teardown to not be especially good; and an engaging, rollicking game may score poorly.

Dr. Heron explicitly states that “The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though, however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.”

It’s important to remember that scoring a game’s accessibility is done across a range of categories.  

CATEGORIES? LIKE WHAT?

  • Color Blindness. Heron assured his audience “there is no such thing as a color-blind-accessible set of colors”, and that humans gradually get less color-sensitive with age. Some traumatic results can even result in actual color reversals, where for example red might look like green and vice versa. There are also readabilities of font sizes. Some games with complex components have used an “inverse palette” which aids color-blind players in identifying different game pieces.
  • Visual Accessibility.  Some cards with lots of words or symbols don’t seem “easy” to deal with, because they’re information dense. However, certain arrangements of the data, especially with high contrast, can make it considerably easier.   
  • Cognitive Accessibility. Memory problems could make potentially any game difficult for some players to master.
  • Physical Accessibility. Players of Race for the Galaxy might hold as many as ten cards in their hand at a time. Some cards can be used instantly, while others provide opportunities for future turns. It’s also not rare, at the end of your turn, for your hand to bear little or no resemblance to what it was when your turn started. Card holders can help players with substandard motor skills handle all this maneuvering.
  • Communication.
  • Socioeconomic Accessibility.

Numerous accessibility measures made for the general public have ened up helping more people than those the measure originally targeted. “Curb cuts”, for example, which targeted wheelchairs for smooth rides down from sidewalk to street, also helped bicyclists and pram-pushers.

It seems that Dr. Heron and his associate, Pauline Belford are the only ones doing this sort of work right now, which is updated regularly on the website Meeple Like Us. “We do the best we can,” he said candidly. “So basically, if you came here looking for solutions, we don’t have any. We just have a big laundry list of problems that we don’t know how to solve.”   In short, it’s much like the study of aerodynamics in 1870 . . . or indeed, any scientific endeavor that is blazing new trails

The primary tool developed for the study of inaccessibility in gaming is something Dr. Heron calls “The Teardown”.  “It’s our primary tool for this sort of analysis,” he explained. “This works from a heuristic standpoint that creates a consistent set of lenses for analysis. We play each game several times; we apply the framework; then, we publish the results.

“What we’re aiming for here is a kind of empathic design more than anything else. An appreciation of how any decision that’s made about the game design is going to have some accessibility impact.”

For a multifaceted endeavor with so few people working on it, these studies have amassed a sizable amount of data. Dr. Heron shows no signs of stopping, and presses on with the same rigor that dedicated scientists have applied for centuries on projects that seemed at first to be leading nowhere.

But Dr. Heron doesn’t think this research is leading nowhere, because those who currently find board games a struggle may actually be an integral part of the solution: “The biggest single step to be encouraged,” he said, “is for [game] designers to include some people with disabilities among the playtesters.

“They will find your problems for you. And they will give you solutions.”

SOURCES

How to Develop Visually and Physically Accessible Board Games. Brandon the Game Dev at brandonthegamedev.com.  Brandon Rollins. January 8, 2018.

Board Game Accessibility Seminar at UKGE2018. Drs. Michael Heron and Pauline Belford at meeplelikeus.co.uk.  June 18, 2018.

Race for the Galaxy (2007). Dr. Michael Heron at meeplelikeus.co.uk.  June 25,2018.

Race for the Galaxy (2007)- Accessibility Teardown. Dr. Michael Heron at meeplelikeus.co.uk. June 30, 2018.

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