As part of our roster, we include academic researchers into inclusivity, accessibility, and human-centred computing. Some of these directly associated with the site, other are involved in a consultative capacity. It’s only natural then that some of us may look at the board games we play and think ‘Huh, that’s a problem’ every so often. It’s our intention after every review to do an accessibility tear-down that looks at each game and gives our view as to whether it’s something you can enjoy with people around you, regardless of their impairments or otherwise. The bad news is that almost every game has significant accessibility problems. The good news you’ll almost always find a pile of great games that work for the people around you. We are big believers that the solution to inaccessible game design is to raise the floor, not create ‘accessible gaming’ niches. Everybody wants to have access to the same cool games that their friends are playing, not their own accessible games that nobody else wants to play. There are accessible versions of Scrabble, Monopoly, Chess, Cluedo… but those aren’t the exciting games we look at. We’re looking at the ultra-cool designer games that have bubbled up through the board game renaissance, and we want everyone to be able to play those with us.
Accessibility is about removing barriers to play, and to that end we also focus on those elements that are more sociological – sometimes it’s not that people can’t play, but that they feel the games are not for them. They’re excluded as a result of portrayals of race, or gender. They’re disincentivised to participate because of tone, or content. These are also important issues of accessibility because they stop people participating, and so we take those into account too. When we talk about these issues we mean ‘when they have an impact on day to day life’. For example, I’m visually impaired – I wear glasses. When we talk about visual impairments in the teardowns, we’re assuming that you’re already making use of whatever corrective tools and technologies are available. The teardowns focus on what remains after that.
So, to that end, we’re work-shopping an experimental accessibility diagnostic framework we can use to analyse board games into six key areas of accessibility:
- Visual, relating to blindness, visual impairment, and colour blindness
- Cognitive, relating to issues of memory, fluid intelligence, attention and emotiveness
- Physical, relating to fine-grained and gross motor skills. That is to say, motor skills involving large movements rather than those that are horrible.
- Communication, relating to issues of hearing, of talking, of reading, and of expression.
- Emotional, relating to issues of anger and despair.
- Socioeconomic, relating to issues of representation, gender portrayal, inclusion, and cost.
Disabilities are a big part of our teardowns, but they’re not the only part – any time we look at something and think ‘That could stop someone playing’, we’ll discuss and dissect it in our teardowns. Not all the issues will be of relevance to everyone – we’re not trying to persuade you to buy, or not buy, games based on our analyses – we’re just trying to make sure you have the information you’ll need to make an educated choice.
It’s not enough to look at these issues by themselves though – it’s a good start, but it misses out on all the actual complexity that comes with ensuring accessible gaming products. We also need to look at the intersectionality of these issues, and how particular game elements may impact upon multiple categories, or how the combination of categories may create issues that individual categories by themselves don’t. This is where much well-meaning work on accessibility falls down, because a lot of this is counter-intuitive.
For example, let’s say you are blind and you want to read a book. Well, audiobooks are a perfect choice. What if you want to read a book that isn’t in audiobook format? Well, you can run any arbitrary chunk of text through a text-to-speech interface and have it read to you through a digitized voice. Again, perfect – in fact, maybe even better. But, listening to synthesized speech is actually more cognitively expensive than listening to real people talk, which causes problems if you are blind and have some degree of cognitive impairment. If you advocate for a digital voice that works for any text, you’ve actually made the problem worse for some people. That’s an intersectional issue, and we’ll be looking at those closely on the site. It’s possible to deal with inaccessible cards with special braille sleeves that you can buy – but what if you’re also on a fixed income? The economics of this make it an intersectional issue.
There’s an important disclaimer here – the site has trained accessibility researchers as contributors, advisers and consultants, and they have plenty of publications to our names. But, logistically we can’t actually test each game with actual people with every kind of impairment and combination of impairment. These teardowns then represent an educated analysis of the accessibility issues, but are unlikely to catch every possible issue that people may have. We invite those with their own experiences to submit their thoughts on what’s missing, or ways you can compensate for things we’ve flagged up as problems. We’ll keep the tear-downs as living documents, evolving them over time as our own understanding of them changes. To that end, we’ll keep active changelogs for each that show when they were last edited, and what was added or removed.
Related to this, the question has been raised as to where the conclusions in the teardown come from – given how they’re often not being tested with ‘real players’, is it all just made up? Well – kinda. Basically, the conclusions are derived from the following:
- Familiarity with the literature of accessibility. Since we include active researchers in this area, we stay up to date. We publish regularly on the topic of accessibility in conferences and journals.
- User experience of accessibility in other contexts. These are not ‘board game issues’. These are just issues that board-games demonstrate. We have experience in conducting user trials, and we’re generalizing from that. We have experience with assessing and implementing accessibility solutions in gaming settings, as a result of work over on Epitaph Online and ongoing collaboration with BBC R&D. We also have experience working with disabled children in educational settings. We can extrapolate from those experiences for a range of individual and intersectional accessibility issues.
- Simulation of impairment. There are some excellent tools out there that allow you to simulate various visual impairments, and we make use of those to assess various issues. One day, I’ll put a list of these together for others that may be interested, but the toolkit is changing on a regular basis at the moment. This kind of thing is never sufficient in and of itself, because accessibility is an embodied discipline. Just because something passes muster here for me, it doesn’t mean it would for someone impacted in real life. However, if I have a problem with these it’s very likely that others will too, and that gets assessed and taken into account.
Your mileage will vary, but while these teardowns are not experimentally validated they are informed by expertise.
If you’ve got any thoughts on any of our accessibility tear-downs, mail them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you. And if you’re doing anything cool in this space, let us know so we can publicize your efforts.