10 Quick Accessibility Wins for Game Devs

Ten Quick Accessibility Wins for Game Devs

The following post is a guest contribution from Brandon Rollins, who runs a game design blog over at http://brandonthegamedev.com/ – it’s really interesting and one I regularly read. Brandon also kindly provided us a guest post last year, which you may also find interesting. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and not those of Meeple Like Us.

Game development is one of the most rewarding creative endeavors that a person can become involved in. It is such a fantastic outlet for creativity and such a great catalyst for socialization between different people with varied interests and unique backgrounds. Witnessing adults coming together in a room, taking time out of their busy schedules to drop their worries and play is a beautiful sight to behold.

As a game developer, I find myself having lots of big, lofty, hard-to-achieve goals for both games and their intended uses. It is incredibly difficult to make a game play well because of the myriad factors that one has to consider in order to get it right. For this reason, rugged pragmatism is also a value of mine. I have big dreams, yes, but I also want to get a game shipped. In fact, I’ve dedicated an entire blog to showing neophyte game developers how the sausage is made in regards to board games.

These two impulses of idealism and pragmatism fight within me all the time, an unending battle between yin and yang. It would be so easy for me to put accessibility issues on the backburner because they don’t seem so pressing to getting my game pressed. Where’s the business case? Where’s the clear need for prioritizing accessibility?

This line of questioning is folly. Board game accessibility must be a priority. That is the only way through which we can fulfill the promise of gaming as a way to unite people of disparate backgrounds. Plus, there are a lot of ways to improve our games that don’t require much time or money.

I’m not here just to add my voice to the echoes within a chamber. I want to show you specific ways game developers can make their games more accessible right now, without too much hassle, and without too much money. Game developers, you don’t have to change the core engine or mechanics of your game to implement these suggestions. You don’t have disrupt your game at its core. Indeed, I’ve specifically chosen these “quick accessibility wins” that are intended to give your game the most benefits for your time.

1. Optimize your board and components around colorblindness.

Roughly 8 percent of men have some sort of colorblindness. About 1 percent of women are colorblind as well. That means a very good chunk of your players – who, let’s be honest here, are probably still predominantly male for the time being – have trouble differentiating between colors. Most often, that means your players can have trouble telling red and green apart, but there are other combinations of colors that blend into sameness for others with different types of colorblindness.

If you have a game where color is incidental to gameplay and not an integral part of it, you may find it beneficial to experiment with color schemes that don’t cause issues with various sorts of colorblindness. Take photos of your game – the board and all its components – and run them through a colorblindness simulator. You may very well find that the subtlest of tweaks greatly improves your game’s visible accessibility for the approximately 1-in-15 who might otherwise have to leave your game on the shelf. It’s such a small touch that can do wonders for a large group of people.

2. Optimize your board and components around color contrast.

Sometimes people have trouble differentiating between colors and shades, even in the best of conditions. They may find it difficult to read text or differentiate components in your game. Yet this isn’t just a problem that strikes people with visual impairments. No, not at all. Have you ever found yourself playing a game in a room with inadequate lighting?

Another great way to make your game visually accessible is to make sure colors are not too close to one another in shade or contrast. Not so sure about your game? Try taking a photo of your game and viewing it in a room with poor lighting. Don’t want to bother with printing out the photo? Here’s another alternative: take a photo of it on Instagram. Don’t post it! Just open up the photo editing tools and turn the Brightness setting way down. Can you still read the text? Can you still differentiate colors? If the answer is no, a little bit of color tweaking could make your game way more useable for little effort.

3. Use shapes to differentiate objects along with colors.

Sometimes you need a bunch of different colors in a game because you’ve got 8 or 10 or 12 things that need to be classified uniquely on their own. That is not an entirely crushing issue in and of itself. However, if color alone is used to differentiate objects, that’s an issue. Suppose you have a game with cards that are red, green, blue, and yellow. An easy way to make your game accessible is to assign a shape to each color. For example, red squares, green circles, blue triangles, and yellow hexagons. If you run out of shapes, you can also use symbols like exclamation marks and lightning bolts.

4. Simply your rules and text.

This should go without saying, but well-written rules and well-written game text provide some of the strongest ways you can communicate with your players. Text is right behind good use of symbols and a smartly designed layout as far as really important communication methods go in game development.

Omit needless words. Do not wax poetic in your rules. Use simple English. You want your game to be understandable by people who speak English as a second language. You want your game to be understandable by people who only skim the rules. Spending five or six hours making meticulous rules greatly improves your game quality by means of making it more cognitively accessible.

5. Use reference cards and trackers.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I get home from work, I’ve got a headache. That makes it hard to remember all the little things that I need to do when playing a board game. For some people, it goes deeper than that, and they’ve got cognitive issues that making remembering information really difficult, despite not hurting their overall intelligence.

For both people with serious issues and people like me who are perfectly healthy, we can all benefit from reference cards and trackers in games. You know those little cards in Pandemic that tell you what you can do and when you can do it? That massively improves the pace of the game. You don’t have to commit rules to memory and you don’t have to fiddle with the rulebook. You simply glance at the card. It’s so simple!

Likewise, some games will limit you to a certain amount of actions per turn. They have a point system and each action takes a different amount of points. What’s easier: counting backward from 10 as you play actions or moving a counter on a card that has all the numbers from 0 to 10 spelled out? The latter is easier, by far, because you don’t have to keep count and make strategic choices at the same time.

The magic of including reference cards is that it’s so, so cheap to do. In fact, for most games that involve cards, they print them in multiples of 18. If you need 50 cards for a game, you can use the 4 cards left over as reference cards – no extra cost! Likewise, if you need to make punch-out boards and you have to squeeze a few more pieces onto the board, it also comes at a minimal cost. This is a tiny detail that makes a big difference in game usability which improves quality and often doesn’t cost a dime.

6. Use standard size cards instead of big or small ones.

If you have a game where cards are held by each player, you generally want to stick with standard size cards. If the card will be sitting flat on the table, it doesn’t matter so much. However, if your game has cards that need to be held as a hand for the duration of the game – it’s critical.

Consider this: holding gigantic cards (such as a tarot size cards) is really tricky for people with small hands. Likewise, holding onto small cards introduces two issues: they are too fiddly to comfortably hold and font size is often reduced to the point of being cramped. Standard size cards, by which I refer to 3.5” x 2.5” (88 x 63 mm) were designed as such for usability.

As if making your game more useable for people of various hand sizes and visual acuities wasn’t enough of a selling point for you, there is the added benefits of cost and ease-of-use. It’s far cheaper to produce standard size cards than custom cards. It’s also way easier to explain to the printing company, too. This simplicity of communication is of extra importance to folks who directly buy from printing companies overseas, such as ones in China.

7. Ditch fiddly components and behaviors.

There are some kinds of components that are almost always trouble. Paper money is among the troublemakers and you’re better off using tokens. Punchboards are not expensive, so this isn’t so hard to do in terms of cost or logistics. Anything really small should be avoided, too. Some people have shaky hands and others are like me and just get annoyed with really small components.

Even the best designed components can be annoying if you require players to use them too much. If you have to constantly adjust tokens, something needs to change. If you have to shuffle cards all the time, something needs to change there as well. (Tangentially, the shuffling issue was a serious problem in the early development stages of my current game, Highways & Byways.)

8. Represent different races and genders in art.

One could opine for a long time on the complex nuances of equal representation in the media. Many people have. It’s important, but let’s direct away from the complex issues which must be unpacked slowly so that you can ask yourself a simple question. “Do you like seeing people who look like you in the movies?” I know I do, and I’m so white that more than one person asked me for directions in Dutch when I was in the Netherlands, and I had a touristy backpack on, too. If it’s sweet for me to see someone who looks like me in the media, how much sweeter is it for someone who doesn’t see that often enough? Be considerate of that. It’ll make someone’s day.

In all probability, you or your publisher will need to find a dedicated artist. To have different people represented in your art, you can fix this with a single line in your art spec. “Please use [Insert Name of Art Piece] as an opportunity to represent people of different races and genders.” Like I said, it’ll make someone’s day, doesn’t take any material effort on your end, and doesn’t cost a dime.

9. Use gender-neutral pronouns in your rules.

Ever read a rulebook that uses “he” and “his” exclusively through the rules? I have to imagine at least a few women rolling their eyes at that. While it is simpler to stick to one pronoun in your rules, it’s also very easy to alternate between “he”, “she”, “his”, and “her”; or to simply use the grammatically accepted singular “they” pronoun. It’s a tiny touch, but it’s meaningful to a lot of people.

10. Don’t overcharge!

Board gaming, in particular the hobby subset of board gaming, is an expensive hobby. That’s really unfortunate because hobby board games are really cool and are primed to break into the mainstream in much the same way that superhero movies have over the last decade. Appealing to a larger economic group could be as simple as pricing a game under $50. This is not always possible, but any sound cost-saving measure you can apply to your manufacturing and fulfillment processes could make it more achievable. Sometimes, it’s as easy as dropping your price to the nearest $X9.99.

To game developers reading this, this is a call to be mindful and deliberate in your game-making choices. Sometimes mindfulness doesn’t cost much and doesn’t take too much effort. Games bring people together. Anything we can do to make more people feel more included in this world is a kind deed.