Accessibility and Boardgames

The 4th to 17th June is Make a Noise in Libraries Fortnight in the UK. Run by the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB), Share the Vision and the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) this is a yearly celebration of accessibility and inclusivity for blind and partially sighted people in local libraries. To tie in with this initiative we have this guest post from Dr Michael Heron from Meeple Like Us about libraries, games and visual accessibility.

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Libraries have a hugely powerful role to play in improving the accessibility of board and roleplaying games.   It’s a cliché, but we’re in something of a golden age of analog games – never before has there been so much choice and so much variety.   However, this is still a luxury hobby and the price-tag associated with many high-profile games can be eye-watering. The Kickstarter phenomenon Gloomhaven, currently rated as the #1 game of all time by the hobbyist website BoardGameGeek, has a recommended retail price of $140.   Pandemic Legacy, at time of writing sitting at #2, has a somewhat more reasonable MSRP of $70.   There are certainly many cheaper games available, but even staples such as Pandemic are $40. While you certainly get your money’s worth it’s still a lot of cash for something you might not even know you like. The fact that libraries are supporting this hobby is genuinely a source of joy for me.

Pandemic boardgame
$40 to save the world

The thing is – it’s more complicated than just making games available, and I appreciate that’s not at all straightforward in and of itself.   Libraries are at the forefront of accessibility in one important sense of the word – physically giving people access.   Bound up in this is a second kind of accessibility – making sure the games that are available are playable for the widest plurality of people.   Here, we need to consider gamers with disabilities, as well as people with more temporary impairments.

Accessibility in this sense comes in a wide variety of categories. We need to consider cognitive accessibility, physical accessibility. We even need to consider more sociological categories of accessibility such as representation and the economic expectations that go along with participation.   In this blog entry I was asked if I could comment specifically on visual accessibility, so that’s what I’ll do.

I run a board game accessibility blog called Meeple Like Us. We look at games through a number of what we call ‘heuristic lenses’. That’s really just a fancy way of saying ‘a list of rules of thumb’.   We talk about issues of aesthetics, presentation and game design that come together to create difficulties, or easements, for people with accessibility needs in particular categories.   Visual accessibility is one of these, and one of the things that often surprises people is just how many games we tend to recommend.   Our recommendations though are often conditional and often tentative. Of the 122 games for which we have published accessibility reviews, 64 of them have at least a tentative recommendation for people with visual impairments.

That though is a misleading statistic, because the truth is all of our recommendation grades are largely nonsense.   It’s impossible to collapse a complex topic like ‘visual accessibility’ down into a judgement.   That’s why every one of the games we look at comes with a comprehensive accessibility analysis explaining the reasoning behind each recommendation. When we drill down into that, we find out that the real story is somewhat more complex.

Part of that complexity comes from a mistake we made early on in the blog’s lifetime – to address visual inaccessibility as an axis from ‘fully sighted’ to ‘totally blind’.   Total blindness is actually a rarer condition than people think – ‘blind’ by and large doesn’t mean ‘darkness’.   Visual impairment is far more common and includes everything from cataracts and glaucoma to diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration.   The problem here is that there is a world of difference between being severely visually impaired and being totally blind. The difference between some visual information and no visual information is massive – more massive than a largely linear spectrum can ever really encompass.

As such, while we recommend the majority of games for people with visual impairments, the situation is considerably more grim for those with total blindness. Somewhere in each accessibility teardown you are likely to find a discussion of total blindness that sums up to ‘Sorry, this probably isn’t going to work for you’.

Comparison of Yamatai for varying color blindness
Yamatai is almost totally inaccessible if you are colourblind.

There are many reasons for visual accessibility issues in gaming. Some of the ones we tend to address in our discussions include:

Colour blindness Largely an issue when colour is used as the sole channel of information in a game.
Contrast The extent to which foreground and background are highly differentiated. High contrast is better.
Font choice Ornamentation and complexity of fonts, as well as the size.
Tactility Whether tokens and game elements can be identified by touch, and whether multiple tokens share a touch profile.
Binocularity The extent to which judgement of distance and perspective comes into play.
Paper Money If a game uses paper money, which tends to be visually inaccessible because real-world compensatory strategies don’t work in the rapid economy of a game.
Non-Standard Dice Whether the dice provided in the game could be substituted with accessible variants or whether they are used in a way that creates inaccessibility.

However, mostly what we look at is the amount of visual information, how well clustered it is, how much can be remembered, how much need be remembered, and whether that information can be gleaned by close inspection or querying of players. With that we also take into account how simply asking a question can often ‘leak’ gameplay intention. If you’re asking about something, it’s presumably because that thing is involved in plans that you’re making.

Accessibility is complex, and making recommendations is tightly bound up in a full appreciation of how a game plays. This is not a quick assessment that anyone can be expected to perform. That’s where we come in.

Our recommendations aren’t perfect – indeed, recommendations in this area can’t ever truly be perfect because of how complex any individual manifestations of disability and impairment will be.   They do though serve as, we hope, useful starting points.   We have made some efforts to try and turn some of this guidance into useful advice for libraries, although our coverage of games is spotty at best. This is complex, sophisticated work and time consuming to do.   Libraries looking for an easy list of suggestions for accessible games might find our buying guide useful. Those looking to address more complex use cases might find value in our recommender tool.

The provision of accessibility in libraries needs both aspects of the term to be addressed. It’s not at all easy but if anyone wants to make the effort they should absolutely feel to get in touch with us at Meeple Like Us and we’ll be happy to do whatever we can to assist.   You’re doing a very worthwhile thing making games available – games are a great way to spend more time with the people we love. The least we can do is try to make the job a bit easier for you if we can.

Photos courtesy of Meeple Like Us

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