Unwon and Unwinnable Causes

Unwon and Unwinnable Causes

‘You talk of Scotland as a lost cause’, John Steinbeck once remarked to Jackie Kennedy. ‘That is not true. Scotland is an unwon cause’. As a supporter of Scottish independence, I take those words to heart. Here we are, shackled to a political state that is alarmingly self-destructive in its excesses but I can hope for a better future. An unwon cause, versus a lost cause. It’s comforting, even in the face of unpalatable circumstances and unenviable difficulties ahead. The fight, this says, is still worth fighting.

At what point though do we transition? At what point does an unwon cause become a lost cause?

Scotland indyref

It’s something I think about a lot, because the answer to that question is bound up tightly with the future of this site. I’m prepared to put in the effort for an unwon cause, but I’ve tilted at enough windmills in my day to be wary of over-committing to a lost cause. Into what camp does the battle for meaningful and widespread improvements to board game accessibility fall?

Honestly – I’m not sure.

We can probably begin answering the question by first defining what we might mean by a lost cause in the first place. Generally, ‘A thing or person that can no longer be changed for the better’, but that’s distressingly binary. We live in a world of greys, no matter what people might like to think. As such, we need to soften this and consider the features that might be ascribed to the opposite scenario. What does a winnable cause look like?

I think there are a number of key features.

  1. There is a target audience that can be clearly defined.
  2. There is a desired state of affairs that can be clearly articulated.
  3. The target audience falls short of the desired state of affairs which is advanced by advocates.
  4. Advocates have a loud enough voice that their desired state of affairs can be heard by those in a position to make change.
  5. The target audience is aware of the desired state of affairs as being an option.
  6. The target audience generally agrees that the desired state of affairs is worth adopting.
  7. The target audience is able to make changes in itself to bridge the divide between ambition and actuality.
  8. The target audience has a willingness to make changes in itself to bridge the divide between ambition and actuality.
  9. The target audience is confident that the effort expended in achieving the desired state of affairs is proportional to the benefits that are to be reaped.

When all of these line up it creates a circumstance that I tend to call ‘Pushing on an open door’. Sometimes a door is closed just because nobody realised there are benefits to be had in opening it. The door isn’t locked, it’s not stuck, it’s not keeping monsters at bay. It’s just in one state and moving it into another state might take a push but no significant other barriers will be experienced. It’s the ideal state of affairs for an activist.

We don’t live in an ideal world though. Sometimes the hinges of that door need oiled, and that’s where advocates come in. Their job is to make that door open smoothly by applying the necessary lubrication to the points where the resistance is most noticeable.

The amount of oil available to expend on a cause though is limited, and you only have so much to last you. If the door requires more oil than can be provided, it becomes – at least for the time being – a lost cause. If the supply of oil is greater than the surplus of resistance, then we have something more encouraging – an unwon cause. Struggle with the door long enough, and hard enough, then that sucker is going to burst open whether anyone originally wanted it to or not.

Wild Scottish Seas

The oil we have as advocates is unfortunately drawn from precious reserves – it’s made up of time, it’s made up of effort, it’s made up of energy, and it’s made up of emotional capital.  For a large-scale cause, there may be hundreds, thousands or millions of people who are sharing this cost and buoying each other up. For a small cause in a niche area, it might be a handful of activists. The problem with unwon causes is that they’re tiring. Actually, let’s go farther – they are exhausting. And because of that, we need to be very careful when assessing a situation. We need to be able to tell the point where a cause becomes unwinnable.

The problem there is that we aren’t dealing with fixed trajectories – we don’t draw a linear line from now and then and see where it converges with ‘meaningful change’. The lines that describe progress are curved, and occasionally they bend away from success. Sometimes the door gets creakier over time. Sometimes our oil supplies runs out before we expected. We’re aiming for a tipping point that may have seemed achievable from one vantage point but becomes ever more distant with time. Attitudes ossify. Sometimes people just prefer a time when nobody cared about the door and they actively work against anyone who would aim for otherwise. The convergence point between achievement and activity is forever shifting its position.

If you don’t recognise when that point moves from achievable to unachieveable you run the risk of wearing yourself out from root to trunk, and yet still fall far short of accomplishing your goals. The worst-case scenario is you put in the effort and nothing changes except you – in the process you become less than yourself because you spent so much of your own essence and never got anything back. Self-care demands knowing when it’s time to stop.

So, where does board game accessibility fall here? Let’s go step by step.

There is a target audience that can be clearly defined [yes]

There are two, in fact – players that would benefit from greater accessibility in board games (pretty much everyone), and the publishers, designers and developers that can incorporate greater accessibility in their game designs. This part isn’t a problem.

There is a desired state of affairs that can be clearly articulated [yes]

Definitely. Board games are not as accessible as they could be, and this is a state of affairs that should be changed so that the audience of potential players is expanded. More people get to play games, more people buy games, everyone has more people to play with and games become more interesting as a result. The market expands, careers become more secure, and more and more people can make a living from this excellent hobby. If that’s not desireable, I’m not sure what is.

The target audience falls short of the desired state of affairs which is advanced by advocates [yes]

Our regular agenda of teardowns is the evidence we have of this. So are our ongoing graphs that show the categories in which board-games most often fall short of the target of being accessible. Our masterlist also shows this pretty clearly. Each individual teardown, while not necessarily being 100% accurate in every respect, provides comprehensive documentation for each data point. I think it’s a reasonable proposition that there are accessibility flaws, many of them avoidable, across the widest expanse of this hobby.

Advocates have a loud enough voice that their desired state of affairs can be heard by those in a position to make change [no]

When I started Meeple Like Us, there were a handful of articles on the topic and they were usually scattered across multiple blogs and videos without any real coherent or consistent presence. I think over the past three years we’ve managed to create a vocabulary and a presence around the topic. Even so I really don’t feel, even now, like we have a sufficient voice to even make these concerns meaningfully heard. That’s not a problem in itself – it takes time for a cause to build up steam and attention. Video game accessibility is thriving and I can remember a time, not all that long ago, when nobody gave a damn about it. However, here we must acknowledge our shortcomings – our voice as a site is not loud enough, and that’s something that we need to address if we are to have any success in moving forward.

There are more sites out there now though, and that’s great – but honestly I still don’t think there are enough of them to break through the background hum of the crowd. At least for now. I certainly don’t think Meeple Like Us is sufficiently loud to do it alone. I suspect we’re probably the biggest ‘board game accessibility site’ by quite a long way, but that’s not really saying much. There aren’t enough of us, and none of us are drawing the kind of attention needed to make a convincing case that publishers should be doing better. If we are to ensure this cause remain winnable, we must make sure our voices are heard.

The target audience is aware of the desired state of affairs as being an option [maaaaybe?]

I think this is definitely true for gamers with interaction difficulties in games. I would like to think it’s true of publishers too, but it’s hard to say. This cause, the one to which I have dedicated pretty much all my free time over the past few years, is one of dozens of causes and many of them are likely to draw more obvious support and approval. We tag in every publisher when we put out a teardown so they must at least be aware that accessibility is an issue. Surely?

The target audience generally agrees that the desired state of affairs is worth adopting [no]

This is a major problem for this work. Honestly, I think 90% of publishers are utterly indifferent to the cause of game accessibility. Some have actively gotten in touch saying they are straight up disinterested in anything I have to say about the accessibility of their games. Some claim they’re ‘doing fine, thanks – not interested in working with you’. For at least two of the companies that have said this, I have teardowns that show their position is demonstrably untrue. Most publishers though don’t even respond when I send an email or tag them in on a teardown, not even privately. The 10% that do are marvelous and while I don’t want to single them out (this isn’t a naming names post) I am appreciative of each and every one.

9-1 is a shitty ratio though. I honestly think the largest bulk of publishers just don’t care, with a long tail willing to pay lip-service to the topic without doing anything meaningful to address it. The problem for us here is that often saying you’re in favour of something is enough to get pretty much all the social juice that would come from actually doing it, and it’s a good deal easier.

That can change, but it changes only with a loud enough voice. I am heartened at least by how over the past few years people now complain about inaccessibility rather than simply accepting it as inevitable. Sometimes the only way people will care about a cause is when it has an impact on the bottom line of a spreadsheet. There is a growing movement of people simply refusing to buy inaccessible games, and if that builds you can expect this problem area to become less bleak in a hurry.

The target audience is able to make changes in itself to bridge the divide between ambition and actuality [yes]

This is definitely true, although it also has to be considered in line with the fact that not every game is going to be a candidate for being fully accessible. Almost every game I look at though has some way in which its accessibility could have been improved. This doesn’t require more, in most cases, than some consideration of the issue. A lot of the time it doesn’t even incur any extra cost. There’s very much room for improvement.

The target audience has a willingness to make changes in itself to bridge the divide between ambition and actuality [no]

For those impacted by inaccessibility in games, hundreds of ingenious workarounds have been invented and applied. Gamers have shown a willingness to work around publisher indifference to accessibility that would be inspiring if it weren’t so one-sided. Even in 2019 we’re seeing games released that are completely inaccessible to a condition as easy to cater for as colour blindness. Again, this isn’t every publisher but it’s the overwhelming majority in my experience. Where games are accessible, it’s usually accidental.

The target audience is confident that the effort expended in meeting the desired state of affairs is proportional to the benefits that are to be reaped [no]

Clearly not. This is something else that needs to be aggressively addressed. This is likely to be a stick and a carrot issue. The carrot is the expanded marketplace that comes from board-games being a hobby that is friendly and inclusive of people with disabilities. The stick is the eventual backlash that will occur for a hobby that isn’t.

It’s a mixed bag, then – and therein lies the problem when it comes to assessing if this work is worth continuing. Given the overwhelming wall of indifference I face when trying to advocate for accessibility in games, do I have the oil left for the hinges? Do we, as a community of activists, have enough oil between us to make something happen? Perhaps this door is going to stay shut for the time being and we just need to make peace with it. Perhaps my role in proceedings is simply going to have been the one that pushed hardest for a while before others came along and forced the door open after I collapsed from the exertion. I’m an old man, after all.

Part of the problem I have is that the questions to which I have to say ‘no’ are inextricably linked and they rely on factors beyond me. This isn’t simply a case of doing more work – it’s doing work that this site is not well positioned to do. All it would take I think is for an outlet like Shut Up and Sit Down or the Dice Tower to make accessibility a focus in how they review games and the entire industry would come to heel. I don’t have that kind of reach, or that kind of audience. The entirety of three years worth of work in this site could be superseded by a single SU&SD video. It would be a revelation to people – the first time it was ever raised and why haven’t people been talking about this before? Meeple Like Us wouldn’t even merit as a footnote in the attentions of people in that event. Believe it or not, that would still be a win for me. The cause would be advanced. For what it’s worth, I have made several attempts to get larger sites to cover the issue but to no avail. Again, usually what I get back is silence. Some people have success in getting their causes addressed by larger outlets, and that is a force multiplier on impact. We on the other hand have to build that impact largely brick by brick. It’s slow, ponderous, tiring and frequently disheartening work. I can point to signs of progress, but also to periods of the past few years where I’ve almost given in to despair.

Aberdeen sunshine

I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m yelling into a void. Sure, we get hits and attention. Both are at least an order of magnitude less than where is needed for us to be an influence, and at least two orders of magnitude less than what is needed in order for us to make a difference. All the things I’ve done over the past few years are suffering from diminishing returns. Where we need to be kicking into a higher gear, we’re just idling in neutral. That means I spend a lot of time wondering if this site will ever be able do what I want it to do. I spend a lot of time trying to drive attention to the site not because I want it in and of itself but because that’s a tool that lets me address the other things. Without an audience, I can’t exert pressure.

On the other hand…

Ah, that’s always the trouble with a sober assessment of a situation. There is always that optimistic spirit that says ‘You’re just in a funk, snap out of it little buddy’. After all, I’m comparing a site that is three years old to sites that are much, much older with all the network effects that age brings. It takes time for momentum to build up. Even massive blogs were once where we are. It’s important to be patient. It’s important to let matters take their course. The world has no obligation to speed up according to your own self-important timetable. Stay the course. Stay strong. Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. Hold the line.

Maybe that’s even true.

In the end, that’s probably the biggest issue I have at the moment with Meeple Like Us as we wrap up our third year of operation. I honestly don’t know if this cause is unwon or simply unwinnable.

If board game accessibility as a whole were an unwinnable cause, I’d probably in a perverse way be happier. I would feel like I could stop without it being a premature reaction. Where I am on the spectrum of opinion on this wavers on a day to day and even hourly basis. I wrote this editorial a few weeks ago during one of the extended down-slides in my optimism and this conclusion was unremittingly negative – ‘This is an unwinnable cause’ I had written. I’ve softened a lot of the sentiment in this post and it’s still pretty downbeat. Brexit has weighed heavily on me for quite some time and honestly it has made me a lot more negative about everything around me. I feel sad, anxious and powerless in the face of an impending tragedy that is utterly pointless and equally utterly preventable. It’s no co-incidence that I’m in my darkest moods just after seeing the news.

This isn’t my resignation letter from the site. This isn’t me throwing in the towel. It’s just me trying to set the groundwork that explains, when I perhaps do, that the towel’s trajectory was probably inevitable. I probably have another year in me with the current state of affairs. I can probably keep my sword up that long. More than that though is going to need a increasing sense that the sword is occasionally finding its target.

In other words, it sure would help at the moment if I could see some evidence for the winnability of this cause. How are you applying oil to the hinges? And if you are, has that been at least in part as a result of the work we’ve done over the past few years? Think of this as an informal survey – testimony, or silence, will be valuable evidence for us going forward in the future.

  4 comments for “Unwon and Unwinnable Causes

  1. R A Bardy (at mangozoid)
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    Another excellent post, Michael, and I totally sympathise with your current plight (as I perceive it at least).

    I’ve been writing blogs, columns and articles for many years (and was very active in the SF/Fantasy community previously) and understand all too well the feeling that you’re just (and excuse the phrasing) “pissing in the wind” – it can be hard to stomach, and very frustrating when you feel people are not listening / not bothered / not reading what you write (delete as appropriate). In the case of my own blog I certainly get the impression no-one is bothered one way or t’other about what I write, and that I’m the only one that cares what I think, but truth be told if I wasn’t writing it, I’d be going stir crazy looking for an alternative outlet! I don’t know what that says about me as a person, but I can’t change who I am — I have long passed the point when I could feasibly put more effort into ‘making myself heard’, so to speak. To wit: “Perhaps I’m just too old…”

    I agree with you that getting somebody like Tom Vasel or Jamey Stegmaier to make a video and talk about this sort of stuff is the best way to take a sledgehammer to that door you’re talking about –and it may even cause a ripple in the community– but like you already said, until it starts affecting the bottom line (profits) there’s no immediate need on the part of the publishers to adopt any sweeping changes. The annoying thing is that some of those changes are easy to implement if publishers would pause to think about them. [Not to point the finger, but the pastel palette of Wingspan did absolutely nothing to prevent it selling out across the world, for example]

    I would like to add that a lot of my friends in the educational community are well aware of all your incredible work on gaming and user accessibility, so I urge you to please keep beating that drum. I promise you that if I ever get to the point of publishing my own game(s) –or find a publisher for any of them– I will seek your advice and recommendations long before that ‘point of no return’ re. mass production. Arguably, maybe as a designer I should be doing that before even making any prototypes and pitching those designs, but honestly I’m just not that organised or confident enough to do so… 🙁

    Here’s hoping those doors come down any which way. Eventually. And thanks again for your continued efforts to educate and inform.


  2. Behrooz Shahriari
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    Like James, my approach to making games has almost certainly been (in part) directly influenced by your writings.

    After your tear-down of W++, I tried Faybell with 4 story elements and that is definitely still ‘enough’.

    I redrew the ‘V’ for the 2nd edition. I think I was already aware by then that the ‘G’ was an issue, but it encouraged me to think more deeply about it.

    In my next next game (‘The Conversation’) I hope there will be maybe 2 white cis men, and 23 other humans (from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and identities).

    These are things I already cared about but you have definitely aided my approach.

    In the past year, I’ve heard folk talking about accessibility on BGDesign Lab, and BGWorkshop podcasts. Another blog/podcast – Sightless Fun – has started. And you are cited as an influence in all cases.

    I think that one possible way to reach even more folk is to do a segment for Boardgame Breakfast.

    This might well be more energy than you currently have. And I’m not saying to run yourself dry – that would be the worst thing. But the essays you’re writing (and the reviews/teardowns you continue to put out) are doing good.

    • 18/09/2019 at 5:33 am

      This is lovely of you to say, thank you – I’m feeling a fair bit better than I was when I wrote this post, but it’s going to be hugely important to me over the coming months to feel like this stuff is making an impact even if it’s not as big or as wide an impact as I would wish for.

  3. James Naylor
    18/09/2019 at 5:32 am

    An excellent post.

    Before first encountering MeepleLikeUs, I have to say, I didn’t think about accessibility *at all*. But since reading it’s something I think about a lot.

    One very basic entry-level but concrete example. As a result of your work I resolved completely in Magnate to ensure that there was never any information in the final product that is communicated in colour alone. I am currently wrestling with the best way to deliver paper money for people with visual accessibility challenges. Had I never heard of MeepleLikeUs, I don’t think that would have happened.

    In broader ways, accessibility now permeates my thinking all the time: How can I eliminate barriers to entry while fulfilling the vision of the game? What can I do to allow people to participate in different ways? I am convinced that this has helped build the case for a tutorial mode in my mind or tools for people with specific accessibility challenges (like the cognitive barrier presented by some of the game’s endgame maths). Sure – I may have had those ideas separately, but the priority has shifted.

    For me, your work has helped me clarify what I think within the broadest notion of accessibility: If there are people that would enjoy this game that can’t for a really fixable reason, why would you *not* fix it? Every game I make should be enjoyed by the widest audience it practically can. On the most selfish level that means more customers!

    Sometimes, of course, the practical barriers are big in an industry running in tight margins. I know I will have to make decisions that limit some people’s accessibility because they are simply too costly to fix; beyond the natural limits of what the game is. But I would be kidding myself if – without having considered the issues – I had yet done the job of finding all the possible fixes. I suspect nearly every publisher could be doing a much better job within cost constraints. And, depending on the fix, they might actually make *more money* as a result.

    Infact, your post makes that sadly obvious – it is disappointing to see how few publishers are – in the very least – beginning to think in this way. But it blows me away that anyone should ever tell you where to shove it rather than thanking you *for doing a free accessibility analysis for them* that they can use to inform future decisions.

    In that though I would say there is a source of optimism. It strikes me that ignorance is still a huge problem. From what I have seen I would almost put “The target audience is aware of the desired state of affairs as being an option” is more in the no than maybe. But ignorance is, to some extent, fixable just through awareness and I think you are so on the money when you say that the *the moment* a SUSD, Dice Tower or Jamey Stagmeier talks about it, it will leap into the consciousness of a ton of people. There will still be the refusniks, but more of them will find it hard to shake off when the big influencers are talking about it.

    Weirdly the commercials also make me optimistic. The more the sector grows the more the more the ROI of accessibility improvements goes up. Once people are aware it might actually make them more sales… the work surely has to follow.

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