Busting the myths around sociological accessibility

Busting the myths around sociological accessibility


  • 19/2/2017 – added myth #10 – The people that bring up this topic are creating a divisive atmosphere in the hobby.


One of the common threads of feedback I receive regarding Meeple Like Us relates to our exploration of issues of sociological accessibility. I’ve been told point blank on many occasions that this ruins the site; that it turns otherwise useful guidance into ‘social justice bollocks’. I accepted early on that including this content would create obstacles for the site to overcome but remained completely wedded to its presence.

It’s not just stubbornness, although that is probably a part of it. I am not a good activist. I am often impatient and snappy. Despite knowing most people won’t or can’t pick up on the subtlety of an argument in this area, I still get a little frustrated when they don’t. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I see someone dismiss the site because of an argument they misunderstood or that they wilfully misrepresented. It irks me when people that show no appreciation of nuance accuse us of the same. My response to this, I freely admit, is dismissiveness – I ignore ‘feedback’ freely when it is being dispensed from a position of ignorance or entrenched political advocacy. I am certainly prepared to discuss thoughtful objections to individual points in teardowns. I’m not prepared at all to discuss the topic with those that take personal offence at its inclusion.

Does that make it sound like these sections cause me more trouble than they’re worth? There’s some truth there but it needs to be flipped around. I believe they are worth the trouble they cause me.

I thought it might be good to do a little ‘myth-busting’ around the common responses these sections raise. This is partially to give myself a canonical reference point to which I can point people, and partially to address genuine good faith queries about the material. I may adapt this post as time goes by and new myths need addressed. Feel free to add queries in the comments but bear in mind I have a zero-tolerance threshold for alt-right bullshit on this blog. Discuss in civil good faith, or discuss it somewhere else.

MYTH #1: You’re getting politics all up in my games

I’m sorry, but politics are already all up in your games. Games cannot be free of politics – at the simplest level every cultural product either reinforces or subverts dominant expectations. It’s really easy to miss the political content of something when it is completely compatible with your own views. Like fish and water, you don’t see it because you’re comfortable swimming in it. The politics might be baked into the theme, or into conceptions of how victory should work, or in the mechanics of interaction. Settlers of Catan, as an example, is a game that puts forward a particular conception of early colonialism. As a general rule, real life settlers don’t arrive on a rich and fertile island only to find it unoccupied. The early colonial narratives of Western imperialism pretend that’s not the case. In the process the local indigenous life is disenfranchised and then slowly brushed out of history. The decision to ignore this issue is political. It may not have been consciously so, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a political narrative that the game reinforces. When you say ‘you’ve made this political’ what you’re actually saying is ‘the politics in this don’t align invisibly with my own’.

MYTH #2: This stuff isn’t accessibility

This is going to sound insufferably arrogant, but I get to decide what accessibility means in the context of this blog. I’m an active researcher in this area. I publish papers on the topic. I’ve been actively involved in this subject area for years. I am part of the academic conversation on accessibility and part of that means being allowed to shape my own conception of the term. I will freely accept that sociological issues are often not a part of accessibility discussions. It is my view that they should be, and it is a view for which I agitate in my professional life. The best I will grant you here is that ‘this stuff isn’t traditionally considered to be accessibility’.

Even that isn’t actually true – issues of economic disempowerment are a standard feature of accessibility discussions in many areas because finances intersect with disability and impairment. It’s one thing to have accessible buses – it’s another thing for those buses to go to the areas they’re needed, and to be affordable for the people that need them. Those are sociological issues. They’re economic issues. But critically they are accessibility issues. The old, increasing discredited view of disability is that it should be viewed as a medical matter – that there are impairments in people that need to be fixed or simply accepted. The modern framework is the social model which argues there is no such thing as a disability. The social model argues that society unconsciously adopts conventions that are disabling. When stairs block a wheelchair getting into a doctor’s surgery, they didn’t appear there by magic. Someone decided to put the doctor’ office there. Someone decided to put stairs. Someone decided to do that over putting a wheelchair accessible ramp. It is the stairs that are disabling, and they were put there as part of a wider sociological context. Nothing in life happens in a vacuum. It is my view that you cannot meaningfully take a comprehensive view of accessibility without addressing the sociological and economic factors within which people operate.

MYTH #3: Only sensitive snowflakes are bothered by issues of inclusion in gaming

Consider what we mean by the word accessibility. Something is accessible if people have access to it. People have access to something if there are no barriers in their way. Accessibility in gaming then is the process of removing the barriers that prevent people enjoying gaming products. Sometimes those barriers are physical. Sometimes they’re cognitive. Sometimes they are in terms of approachability or in terms of perception.

Back in the day, Lego was a toy enjoyed equally by boys and girls. Over time, advertisers began to pitch it more to boys than girls. As a result, it became a boy’s toy. When it was sold in toy shops it was in the boy’s toys section. Lego have realised their mistake in recent years and understood they couldn’t simply wipe clean decades of subtle exclusion – instead, they put out a range of ‘Lego for girls’. All to solve an invented problem created by years of systematic reinforcement of an invented cultural stereotype. That is – that girls don’t like to build things. How did that manifest? That’s easy – when girls looked at the lego boxes, or the advertisements, they saw boys playing with their fathers. They didn’t see girls anywhere except as onlookers.

A lego advert from the 80s

Two boys and their toys

Why don’t boys play with dolls? Because they are constantly assaulted with the idea that ‘dolls are for girls’. Whether it’s parents telling their son ‘don’t play with that, it’s belongs to your sister’ or their friends making fun of them for the ill-understood conventions they have picked up at home, society exerts pressure on people to conform. That’s what society is – it’s an engine for conformance. You need considerable force of will to resist it, and that will needs backed up with the insight that the pressures are there. Remember – politics are invisible unless they no longer align with your own. For many people, gender roles and assumptions of play are so internalised that they are as familiar as oxygen.

Gendered crayons

Picture (c) Cory Doctorow, available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/7961433594

Why were little girls so delighted at The Force Awakens? Because they got to be the hero Jedi for once. They could look at the movie and see someone like them doing the things they wanted to do – they didn’t have to be Leia or a Twi’lek stripper. Why was it so valuable for Diego Luna play such a major role in Rogue One, speaking his part in his own native accent? Because it meant Mexican people could hear themselves talking a major movie without having to conform to Hollywood homogenisation. Listen to Riz Ahmed when he talks about how necessary representation is to how society sees itself. On the other hand, why did I cringe when I first heard the Proclaimers singing Scottish songs in a broad Scottish accent? It was because the dominant culture in which I grew up made me feel inferior for being Scottish. Inclusion matters. Representation matters. It’s important that people can look at the shelves of board-games around them and say ‘Oh look, I can see people like me playing this’ or ‘I can see people like me on the cover’. Those two things reinforce each other.


Perhaps the easiest way to approach this myth though is to look at it from the other perspective – if you genuinely believe representation doesn’t matter, why do people get so het up about multiculturalism in entertainment? They wouldn’t if it didn’t matter. If cultural products are to be accessible, they also have to be inclusive. I want board games to go from strength to strength, for them to become as culturally relevant as video games and movies. That won’t happen while the dominant stereotype of the industry is a relatively affluent middle-aged white man shuffling bits of wood around a cardboard board with four other affluent middle-aged white men. That’s not what the hobby is. But that’s in many ways that’s the audience to which it is pitched.

This is a tipping point scenario. In any one particular game it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the gradual accumulation of ‘that doesn’t really matter’ to the point it becomes an avalanche. At that point you can either accept being buried under the oncoming snow or begin digging your way out.

MYTH #4: You have no credibility when talking about moral issues

I’m pretty well published on the issues of ethics and morality in games and education but I take your point. It’s a good thing then that, with only a few notable exceptions, I don’t consider this to be a moral issue. Sociological accessibility is a key topic in several of the modules I teach and have taught over the years. Every year, I am challenged on it. I’m challenged as whether it exists, whether inclusion is as bad as I claim, and whether people should just need to ‘man up’ or whatever. Every year I am reasonably successful with the answer I give, which is this.

It doesn’t really matter what you think about this.

The reason it doesn’t matter is because whether you agree with me or not, the action plan is exactly the same if you want to increase the accessibility of the work you do.

If you believe in the value of inclusion for its own sake, then you’ll want to ensure your games are well expressed in terms of sociological accessible as a moral impetus. That’s fine, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. This should not need the praise of the groups you are hopefully enabling, and should be immune to the critique of those tedious blowhards that think this is all part of an ongoing ‘culture war’.

Even if you think ‘the snowflakes just need to toughen up’, it doesn’t matter. If you want ‘the snowflakes’ to play your game, you need to make allowances for the way they prefer to consume their entertainment. There is one key truth I have learned from working in user-facing research – you can’t fight city hall. In this case, city hall is human nature. If you have two entrenched viewpoints your choices are ‘meet the other side half way’ or ‘keep things pretty much as they are’. If you want more people to play your game, you’re going to be the one that has to make the move because they’re the ones with the money and time. If you don’t want them to play, then you don’t have to do anything. You can look at these sections of the teardown and ignore them entirely. They contain points about exclusion – they’re only relevant if you want to avoid excluding people.

Whether you agree that it’s a product of the game, or a product of the people, the accessibility issues remain the same. The solutions too are the same regardless. For the most part this is not a moral issue. It’s an issue of expanding an audience so that it includes people that may not have previously been encompassed. It’s a market issue, not a moral one.

Myth #5: You hate freedom of speech

I’m actually a free speech fundamentalist. I believe everyone should have the right to say whatever they like, whenever they like. I just wish people would be a bit more thoughtful about what they say (and do).

People that complain about ‘political correctness’ as a tool of oppressing freedom of speech almost always fail to grasp the double-edged sword of what they’re hoping for. You get to use whatever inflammatory and discriminatory language you like. That’s your freedom of speech. Everyone else gets to call you out on it. That’s their freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is not ‘freedom from consequence’ or even ‘free access to a platform’. Meeple Like Us is my virtual house. I’d throw a mad ranting racist from my real house without a second thought. I’d eject someone who came into my living room and started shouting about how terrible I am. I won’t hesitate to do the same here. I’ll defend to the death your right to call me an asshole, but that doesn’t mean I have to subsidise that right by hosting the content.

For those that consider multiculturism to be an attack on freedom of speech in an attempt to marginalise white culture, well – actually, you’re probably right there. Inevitably attempting to broaden accessibility for marginalised groups will come at the cost of the dominant groups. There’s only so much attention in the world, and at the moment it is disproportionately directed towards one group. If that upsets you, well – you probably already guessed this isn’t the blog for you. I’d like my playing ground to be a good deal more level than it is now.

MYTH #6: Objectification is inevitable because of human nature

I get it – lots of men like sexy women. That’s hot-wired into our monkey brains. Sex sells, and even when it’s being attached to trading cardboard chits in the Mediterranean there are an awful lot of men that like to see sexy women. It’s natural. However, it’s also natural to shit where we stand and die at twenty four. We evolved civilization so that we could overcome the limits of our nature. Just because we’re wired a particular way it doesn’t mean we need to pander to it. Civilization is one long exercise in becoming more than our base biology permits.

MYTH #7: Most gamers are white, abled and male – this stuff is therefore pointless

The recent stats on membership of BGG are staggering in the gender divide – they show that there is real evidence to suggest this hobby is overwhelmingly dominated by men and that women are a relatively minor footnote. Now, the accuracy of those figures can certainly be disputed but they do suggest that women, by and large, aren’t playing board-games in large numbers. Or at least, they’re not passionate enough about it to congregate on the main discussion forum for the hobby. Whether that’s because they never joined, or left because of an exclusionary culture online, I don’t know. Reasonable arguments can be made for both hypotheses.

BGG stats

93% male. Goodness.

I don’t look at this though in terms of the audience that board-games have. I look at it as the audience board-games could have. Board-games mostly aren’t designed for people with impairments– they’re accidentally accessible, if they’re accessible at all. As such, people with disabilities often don’t consider board-gaming as a viable hobby. Therefore, there are relatively few people with disabilities playing games. That’s a self-reinforcing cycle that will only be broken when more games are widely accessible.

Similarly with issues of inclusion – if women aren’t playing games it’s because games aren’t welcoming to women. It’s common to dismiss this as ‘women don’t like this kind of thing’ but that’s biologically illiterate nonsense. There is no such thing as a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’. While some traits are expressed more in one gender or the other, every brain is a mix of everything. The hardware is broadly the same. It’s the cultural software that is most distinct. If we want more women to play games, games have to be more broadly welcoming to women.

And again, the same issue comes up when we talk about race. Accessibility is an intensely intersectional topic – not just in the usual sense of how race, sex and gender interact, but in terms of how they interact against a backdrop of interrelated disability. Everything impacts on everything else. To passively accept the status quo is to implicitly accept the proposition that ‘some people just aren’t built to enjoy these games’, and I don’t think the evidence remotely supports that. That then argues that the problem is cultural and not biological. That is something, with effort, we can fix and expand.

MYTH #8: I’m not affected, so it doesn’t matter

I am genuinely delighted that you have not been directly impacted by these issues. I’m not even being sarcastic. However, there are people that are, and until everyone can say this the content remains relevant. Most people can read the visual accessibility section, even if they are not blind, and understand that issues there exist even if they aren’t personally impacted. Similarly with physical, or cognitive accessibility. For some reason, sociological accessibility is a stumbling block. I put it down in many cases to a basic failing of human empathy – to believe that your own experiences are the only benchmark against which inclusion should be measured, or to assume that your own privilege is generally reflective of society as a whole.

MYTH #9: I have plenty of POC/women/disabled friends and they don’t have a problem. That means there isn’t one

That’s also great – but just as with people in general, there is no homogenous group in these demographics that is reflective of the whole. There is just as much, if not more, variety within these groups as there is in society at large. There will be people in these groups that have wildly different views, experiences, social contexts and more. Convenient sampling of viewpoints that reinforce your own does not prove anything. Additionally, issues of acceptance often mean that marginalised voices are disincentivised from talking out about these issues – that’s especially true given the often hostile reaction they provoke.

I mentioned above that I used to cringe when I heard the Proclaimers when I was young. Not only did I cringe, I also did my best to reinforce the dominance of the culture in which I functioned. ‘Scottish isn’t the accent of rock and roll’, ‘why do they have to bring up Scotland every time they sing? It’s so parochial’. Why was that? Neither of those things are true, but I fought as if they were because of what is often known as the Scottish cringe. It was a reaction to a low self-esteem inculcated through a million small cultural cues. I don’t feel that way now but I can certainly still remember how that felt and how I acted.

MYTH #10: The people that bring up this topic are creating a divisive atmosphere in the hobby.

I’m not going to deny that this topic is divisive. That at least is not a myth. The myth is that the problem lies with those bringing the topic to the fore. I appreciate many people are tired of hearing about it. They’re mostly good people. They’re not actively discriminatory. They’ll happily play with anyone of any gender, and any background. They’re not really the problem. The problem is those that are tired of hearing about it and yet somehow not tired of commenting about their exhaustion. The problem here is those in our community that have set their opinions to broadcast only.

I’m tired of seeing ‘What should I get’ posts on Reddit, and endless repeats of ‘Check Out My Collection’, all of which look identical to the last except with a handful of games swapped around. What I don’t do in those circumstances is demand a halt to the constant carousal of repetitive content. Other people still want to talk about it. I just don’t click on those links. I don’t read those posts. It’s entirely possible for whole groups of people to have a conversation about a topic they care about without my having to interject how tedious I find it. And I do. It’s so tedious.

When people say ‘Stop talking about this, it’s so divisive’ what I hear is ‘I cannot be trusted to curate my own experience online’. The division, such as it is, comes from those that have set their shoulder against the cause of inclusion and representation and won’t shut up about their opposition. It’s important for a healthy community that important, even controversial, content can be discussed freely and civilly. The correct response to those complaining about division is to shut out those voices that are creating that division. Grown ups can discuss complicated things without it being divisive. The nature of commentary online makes that difficult, true – but the fault for that lies with those looking to suppress the discussion as a consequence of their own ideological prejudices. If you don’t want this content to be divisive, either ignore it or contribute your civil and reasoned counter arguments. If you’re not prepared to do that you are the one creating a divisive atmosphere. For those most active here that’s not going to be an epiphany – it is a self-admitted tactic of many in this sphere to be the noise that drowns out the signal – that their ongoing tantrum should be so consistent in its high-pitched fury that all discussion of the topic is rendered verbotten.

What is essentially being said with this is ‘My comfort zone is more important than yours’. It’s incredibly easy to ignore this topic if you’re in the fortunate majority for which it is completely invisible. ‘Anyone can play if they want to’ is a content free rejoinder. ‘Anyone can be Batman if they put in the effort’ is equally true – all it takes is the ability to earn billions and perfect your physical and mental faculties to a level beyond our greatest Olympian athletes. It was a lot easier for Bruce Wayne though since he started from a much stronger position. We make our own fates, in situations not of our own choosing. Anyone can play if they want, but the hobby as it currently stands is doing a damn fine job in making people want to not play. That is the problem, not the discussion.