180 Days Later...


180 Days Later…

Introduction

We’ve just passed the point where Meeple Like Us has been running for 180 days.   That’s not quite half a year, but it’s close enough and a round-ish number that makes for a satisfying blog post title.  I thought it would be worthwhile here to do some summing up of how it’s gone, and what’s in the works.

Some Stats

To begin with, here are some rough stats that are likely of interest to no-one but me.  If you have a blog of your own though, it might be interesting to compare.

Over the course of the project to date, we’ve managed to get ~37,000 hits and ~20.000 visitors.  That’s a figure drawn from my WordPress stats.    Other metrics argue for more, others argue for less.  WordPress is about in the middle, so it’ll be the basis of comparison.  20,000 visitors are far more than I ever expected to reach in this span of time – averaged out, it’s around 110 visitors and 205 hits per day.   I have other websites that don’t manage either of those totals in a month.   This relatively good traffic is reflected in our Alexa ranking (I know, it’s not accurate but it is at least a benchmark) which is at the time of writing 589,229.    The combined might of my other Internet endeavours (all hosted off of the imaginary-realities.com domain) doesn’t manage to crack the top million.  So, that’s very exciting.

We have 102 posts registered in WordPress, including this one.  Not all of these are published, because I write these things a long time in advance.  Currently, there are fourteen reviews and teardowns that are sitting there in draft format.   That gives me about three months of wiggle room when work obligations prevent me putting together a new review/teardown combo.   The total word-count in the system is 367,054, or an average of 3,634 words per post.    Each game gets two posts, a review and a teardown, so that’s a touch over an average of ~7,200 word per game.  We take this stuff seriously.

Reception

Reception has been generally very positive, with a few interesting dissenting voices that are appalled to their core that the site exists.  To be fair, this is less to do with the focus on disabilities and more to do with the fact we’re getting ‘social justice bullshit’ all up in their games.

Generally speaking though, those complaining the loudest often don’t really understand what is being done with the site.  Most of the initial feedback I got for early posts was ‘This is an awful review, it doesn’t even talk about how good the game is’, or some variant of that.  ‘Oh, we should avoid this game because people with disabilities can’t play?  That’s dumb’.    Some have been more critical of the basic philosophy behind the site, arguing that you shouldn’t talk about problems unless you have solutions.  That is obviously ass backwards – you need to talk about the problems so that you can find the solutions.    Part of our job on Meeple Like Us is to map out the accessibility of existing games so people can make meaningful choices as to what games they can realistically play.   However, this is all part of a process in which we are building the empirical evidence we can use to say ‘And these are the solutions’.

Someone on twitter remarked ‘Your content is the only stuff I ever see people getting really angry about on Reddit’.  /r/boardgames is generally a reasonably chill place, but it exists in a perpetual groundhog day of content.  It’s an unending cycle of ‘Check out my Collection’ and ‘What Should I Get’ posts.   The predictability of most of the content has resulted in a hilarious subreddit called /r/boardgamecirclejerk which nails the style and substance of the majority of postings.   The community there is relatively laid-back because almost every day has the familiarity of a comfortable sweater.  Whenever more controversial topics enter the front page, it can be like hitting a wasp’s nest with a bag of dice.  We’ll get to that.

It seems to me, as someone that is a fan of games but not particularly part of the board-gaming community, that acceptable critique exists within an Overton window that rarely shifts.   The parameters of what constitutes ‘fair game’ in review and analysis are extremely limited, and those outlets that explore outside these parameters are unlikely to do so without considerable pushback.    As I have argued though with regards to video games, if board-games are going to achieve the cultural credibility that so many desire, the community must accept the varied lenses of criticism that come with it.   You can’t say ‘We want all the benefits of being taken seriously, with none of the awkward scrutiny’.  It just doesn’t work like that.

However, I have a degree of sympathy for the fact that suddenly these games are being assessed against a set of invisible criteria that nobody had previously made a concentrated push to apply.  It’s a bit like turning up for your history examination only to find the questions are about economics – sure, you can’t meaningfully talk about one without the other, but it just wasn’t what you were expecting when you flipped over the exam book.    Accessibility should always have been an important topic, but historically it hasn’t been.

Overall, accessibility in board-games doesn’t seem to be a topic the industry is particularly interested in discussing.   I have had some useful feedback from a few game designers, a few publishers, and a nice bit of signal boosting from Geek and Sundry.     My Reddit activities earned me enough notoriety to justify a Meeple of the Week Thread.  Some of our work has gone on to inform, in private, design processes in those organisations that see the merit and opportunities in the topic.  Our teardowns are far more likely to go ignored by publishers though – I make every effort to tag them in on Twitter, several times, when the post goes live.  I am only occasionally given any kind of response.   Similarly, my attempts to get the more prominent voices in the hobby to engage with the issue have gone either ignored, or (politely) dismissed.   That’s a shame, but we remain a young blog and I’m sure those individuals we contacted already have plenty of other blogs and advocates asking for their pet issue to receive more attention.

The Community

The boardgaming community is largely friendly and welcoming.  I’ve met some very good people through the work I’ve been doing with Meeple Like Us.  On the whole I’d say the community on Twitter is far better in terms of meaningful engagement than Reddit.  Conversation is freer and more meaningful, and there is a diversity of voices there that the aggressively confrontational and passively misogynist culture of Reddit tends to drive away.   There is also a far richer plurality of content posted.

On Reddit, our posts regularly top the ‘controversial’ tab of /r/boardgames– the topic makes some people feel genuinely uncomfortable.   To be fair, overall the feedback we receive is far more often positive and constructive than it is aggressive and unhelpful.   /r/boardgames remains one of the better communities on the internet with regards to hard-core nerdism.  That doesn’t change the fact there is a considerable overlap between fans of board-gaming and those toxic elements of Reddit more at ease with Gamergate and the hilariously self-pitying KotakuInAction subreddit.   Reddit as a whole is a safe haven for alt-right sensibilities, and has numerous communities that nurture and stoke the resentment at the core of that movement.  It’s only natural that it would seep into every pore.   The moderators on /r/boardgames do a generally good job of dealing with this on a case by case basis.  Every so often you’ll return to a thread to find a wide swathe of [deleted] notes – when things get out of hand, ‘scorched earth’ seems to be the moderation policy that reigns supreme.

To be fair, it’s entirely possible the lion’s share of the downvotes are due to people simply thinking the content isn’t very good.  It’s also difficult to unpick how much of the negative reaction some of our posts get from the general, self-defeating, site-wide policy of ‘avoid self promotion’.    Reddit is a site that, at its core, parasitically feeds on the unremunerated labour of content creators.  It’s certainly feasible, and indeed likely, that some of the aggressive down-voting we receive is related to this.    I am not comfortable with self promotion. I never have been.  I have forced myself to do it for Meeple Like Us though because I believe the message is important.   I have been very careful to do this in line with Reddit’s general guidelines on what is and is not acceptable with regards to self-promotion.  That doesn’t limit the community as a whole enacting its own downvoting justice.  As such, I am hugely grateful when someone else takes the time to post our reviews and teardowns onto Reddit for us – that happens on occasion, and it is tremendously useful.

So, it’s hard ascribe a precise breakdown of motives with regards to aggressive down-voting on Reddit.  However, the comments we often get on our postings can be very spicy, aggrieved, incensed, or even downright aggressive.  I’ve been told point blank that ‘I have a problem that you’re discussing these issues at all’, and that ‘these posts would be okay if it wasn’t for all the social justice bullshit’.   That’s fine – nobody is forced to agree with anything that is written on the site, but it’s interesting to see just how upset some people get at the mere fact the topic is raised.   It’s not just that they aren’t personally interested – they would rather the site did not exist at all.

This has led to me adopting a kind of hard-nosed policy on what warrants engagement and discussion.   I need to do that, otherwise I will lose whole days in pointless argument.    I was once the ‘someone is wrong on the Internet‘ guy.   I just don’t have the time to be a flame warrior any more.  My policy for engagement is now made up of three basic principles:

  1. There is no point engaging with people that deny the basic validity of the work.
  2. There is no point engaging with people that are contributors to the more toxic sub-communities on the internet.
  3. There is no point engaging with someone that begins a conversation without assuming basic good faith.

A certain deficit of empathy is demonstrated in the way many critics have engaged with the teardowns.   It follows in many cases an unconscious reversion to the ‘four Ds’ of shutting down discussion:

  • Denial.  ‘I don’t see these problems in my life, so they clearly don’t exist’
  • Dismissal, ‘You’re making far too big a deal about all of these things’
  • Defending, ‘It’s okay because of these mitigating factors’,
  • Derailment, ‘Oh, we should care about this but not about what happened to me in this vaguely related situation?’

It is extremely telling that 95% of the argument the teardowns have spawned is in relation to one single category – that of socioeconomic accessibility.  The criticisms aimed at other sections are usually splash damage, such as the comical chap that claimed that the only real categories of accessibility were visual and physical, and nothing else actually existed.  That still makes me chuckle.   There has been real, and valuable, critique given for other parts of the teardowns but it’s so rare that it is basically a rounding error in the white-noise the teardowns generate.

I know that it would be much easier to get the community on board with the Meeple Like Us project if I removed this section from the teardowns.  I also know that this is an important topic and a genuine barrier to play for many players.  As such, it’s staying, and I won’t waste a lot of time trying to convince the unconvinceable that this content matters.   Every teardown now comes with a note saying that people shouldn’t read the socioeconomic section if they are offended by matters of representation or inclusion.  They still read them.  They still argue about them.    Some people just like to be angry.  I can’t do anything about that other than ration out my own responses as parsimoniously as I can.

For others we move away from the innate stubbornness of the hobbyist nerd (a group I consider myself a member) to the more focused, actively malevolent elements of the crypto-fascist alt-right.  Before I reply to a comment on Reddit, I check the subreddits where the commenter frequents.   If I suspect I’m dealing with an acolyte of Gamergate, TheRedPill, or the Men’s Rights Activist movement then I don’t bother replying.  The simple fact is I don’t have enough time to do all the things I want to do, without banging my head against those attempting to push their own explicitly anti-inclusion agenda.    My view is that these people won’t be convinced, and it’s better that they are simply ignored like the career trolls they are.

The overlap between the loudest complaints about the teardowns, and a posting history in the most poisonous marshes of Reddit, is incredibly high.     The simple fact is – not everyone warrants a response, and not everyone is going to be worth the time to provide one.   I’m almost always going to respond to comment threads directly on the blog, but elsewhere – well, it depends.

The upside though of the controversy these teardowns generate is that it’s given me a reason to brand myself as the bad boy of board games.   That seems justifiable given the reservation my posts get for the top of the controversial tab.   That’s Meeple Like Us – bad to the board.

The Work Itself

If nothing else, the work of Meeple Like Us has revealed to me a vast, largely unexplored landscape of interaction.  There is so much richness in the way people interact with tabletop games that every single title I look at reveals something genuinely new.

However, I do have to make note of the fact that while I undoubtedly come across as a smug, self-assured know-it-all in these postings I am deeply aware of my own fundamental limitations.  I refer to the work we do as being based on a ‘heuristic framework’, which is a pompous way of saying ‘Some guidelines I knocked up’.  These are informed by expertise, by research, and by observation and discussion.  They are not informed by direct experience.  I don’t know what it’s like to play Galaxy Trucker while blind.  I don’t know what it’s like to play Concordia whilst physically impaired.  All I can do is look at the game from different angles, with reference to my own work, and try to say something useful.

For this, I console myself with the belief that a subjective, imperfect, and incomplete analysis is better than no analysis, and that was what was previously on offer.   The extremely gratifying feedback I have had from those that the work has helped has been supporting evidence for this.  It doesn’t change the fact I often feel like something of a fraud.

See, the thing is – I talk about impairments in the teardowns because that’s the language I’m used to from academic discourse.   It’s as value-neutral as common parlance can be for the topic, and the people first principle I use for the teardowns is designed to avoid patronising or unconsciously offensive terms.  I’m not perfect in this, and even where I am there are many people that would disagree with this philosophy.  It avoids though the well-meaning patronisation of terms such as ‘differently abled’ or ‘handicapable’ – terms which do more harm than good.

If I was to pick my own language for this, I would probably talk about ‘constraints’ rather than ‘impairments’.  If my years of research have taught me anything it’s that if someone wants to do something, they’ll find a way to make it happen.   That’s even more true of those that have become so comfortable with their own constraints that they adapt their behaviour with fluidity and grace on the fly.    Impairments sounds final.  Constraints are an accelerant for creativity.   Whenever I say ‘I don’t recommend this’ in a category, what I am essentially saying is ‘This will require a great deal of creativity on your part to work around’.   If the will is there, I don’t believe any game is genuinely inaccessible.

I don’t have that automatic, natural assumption of creative interaction because I have few real impairments of my own.  I’m very short-sighted, and getting older by the minute (so are you!), but that’s it.   My gut feeling on any given teardown might be absolute bollocks.  That’s why the rating comes with a detailed discussion – to let people make up their own minds as to whether the issues I described are going to be things that genuinely stand in the way.

All of this said, it’s not going to stop me pushing forward with the rest of the plans for the site, which are mainly:

  • Finding a venue for the Meeple Centred Design paper I have written. This talks about the heuristic lens we use on the site, and how you can apply it to the different accessibility categories to catch interaction subtleties.
  • The writing and publication of several other papers from the work done as part of Meeple Like Us. These are going to focus on specific intersections of accessibility in games, on digital compensation for accessibility, and on the fascinating way app-driven board-games completely subvert traditional expectations of accessibility.
  • Writing and submitting a research grant proposal for the continuation of this work, so it can be properly funded and supported. Currently, every penny spent on Meeple Like Us comes out of my pocket.   Every post I write comes at the cost of my own free time.
  • The Tabletop Game Accessibility Guidelines, which will be a comprehensive set of actionable guidelines designers and publishers can use to ensure maximum accessibility of the games they produce. There is a small consortium of people interested in progressing this work – if you’d like to be a part of that, get in touch.
  • Further mapping out of the accessibility landscape, so that those that wish to know which games are appropriate for their groups have a large data-set of information they can consult.
  • Finding publishers, designers, and developers willing to work with Meeple Like Us to create a framework for accessible games that is respectful of nuance, and of the business context in which board-games function.

All of these are on-going, with varying degrees of attention, and progress on each should hopefully be a major feature of our ‘one year on’ post.

Conclusion

We’ve done a lot over the past 180 days – it’s been a whirlwind of activity.  Thank you to all of you that have been reading the site, and an especially heart-felt thanks to those that have signal boosted the work we have been doing.  Every share, every submission to a social bookmarking site, every conversation you have where you mention us – it all helps.   The more visibility the project gets, the harder it becomes for people to ignore the issue of accessibility in board-games.   The harder it is to ignore, the larger the chance an effort will be made to make real improvements so that everyone can game.


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