The last time Global Accessibility Awareness Day came around Meeple Like Us was a mere six or so weeks old. We were still very much finding our feet as a blog – a process which is still ongoing. However, it was obvious quite early on that we had found something interesting to talk about – before too much time had passed, this blog went from vague research journal to fully fledged personal obsession.
My first brush with accessibility as an academic discipline was in 2008 when I started my PhD at the University of Dundee in Scotland. Before that I had taught modules in college and university on human-computer interaction but I had never really been much of an expert. I paddled in very shallow waters, talking about colour harmonies and user feedback and ‘the magic number plus or minus two’ and so on. It was very traditional, very safe, and very boring. It also never mentioned the interface implications associated with support for disability or impairment.
I moved to accessibility as a discipline largely as a result of it being the path of least resistance to achieve what I wanted from my career. I’d been teaching in a further education college and hating literally every moment of it. It was a job that gradually nudged me ever closer to a literal nervous breakdown. I knew I needed to get out, and I knew I wanted to get back to teaching in higher education. I also knew the path that went most directly there passed via a doctoral degree. The University of Dundee were offering a fully funded PhD into ‘technology to aid an aging workforce’, and I thought that sounded interesting enough to justify the three years it would take. My only goal really was to get the title, and use that to get back into university teaching.
I really wasn’t expecting the topic to be so interesting, so deep, and so nuanced and subtle. I didn’t just flirt with accessibility as a topic – I fell in love with it. It turned out accessibility makes everything more interesting and more challenging. Do you think it’s technically difficult to write a clever piece of artificially intelligent software? It’s more technically difficult still to write that software in a way that is fully accessible to everyone that might use it. I’d often dismissed accessibility as a soft topic. Now I know better.
What I have learned most from Meeple Like Us in the past year has been how much more there is to learn. Mere months before I wrote the first post, I hadn’t even really considered the topic of board game accessibility. I was deeply immersed in the literature of video game accessibility, primarily in more unusual environments such as entirely text driven experiences. Most of my primary work was on adaptive accessibility in more traditional environments. When I turned my attention to board gaming, I expected it to be a momentary dalliance. I’d maybe get an interestingly unique paper out of it and then never think about the topic again.
If there is a constant theme of my exposure to accessibility as a discipline, it’s that it is always surprising me with how little I really know.
I remain, a year into this project, in awe of the rich variety of accessibility implications to be found in the study of board gaming. Accessibility in other domains is far from a solved problem but we know by and large how to make software accessible. We may not, as an industry, be particularly disciplined in actually doing so but we know how it’s done. With board games though I was dipping my toe into a topic that only a handful of people had really talked about before, and finding that the water was very, very welcoming. This is a topic in which it would be easy to drown. I study this subject because I find it fascinating, and because I need to keep swimming otherwise the waves will take me.
Global Accessibility Awareness Day is an opportunity to reflect on what this work actually means to others. Accessibility for gaming often seems frivolous – even trivial. There are other challenges out there – other mountains that need conquered. The accessibility of recreation may come across as being far from a worthwhile use of researcher time and attention. Even many of those that benefit most directly from accessibility research might argue that there are better things on which people should be focusing.
Luckily, accessibility research is not a zero-sum game, and the lessons learned in one domain often translate cleanly into others. The accessibility of a video game meaningfully informs the accessibility of simulations. The tactile accessibility of the table top can likewise inform the accessibility of other real-world, embodied interactions. There is little difference between an extraordinary person in an ordinary context and an ordinary person in an extraordinary context. More than that though we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that recreational is optional, or that access to cultural products is in any way less important than other, more fundamental concerns. Culture is the common medium through which we generate social capital. It’s true that this is more invisible, and less tangible, than other societal resources. That doesn’t mean it has no value. It’s the glue we use to ensure that we are comfortably secured in the wider context of society.
When we play games, we are participating in the construction of a shared cultural context. We are consuming, and hopefully enjoying, the raw fuel that will serve to power the conversations we have tomorrow with our friends, colleagues and loved ones. There are few things as intensely isolating as being unable to connect with the people around us. Being able to fully participate in, and appreciate the value of, gaming is of real cultural value. We grow closer to the people around us through shared experience. With board games, that shared experience is something more visceral. With board games, we spend time around a table with the people we love. That is why this topic matters – because it makes it easier for people to frictionlessly enjoy the time they spend with those that matter. That is anything but trivial.
One of the emerging themes of Meeple Like Us too is in how important representation is to the shared exploration of culture. Board gaming is not yet really considered a mainstream hobby for those with impairments or disabilities. In our ‘year of Meeple Centred Design’ post we spoke about the report card we’d generated for the industry to date. Board gaming, as a hobby for people with accessibility concerns, got a tentative recommendation. However, that only matters if it’s a recreational pursuit that people see as being of relevance to their lives. Meeple Like Us isn’t just about board games and disability. It’s about removing any barrier that stops full participation in play.
As a result of this we talk a lot about issues of representation and diversity on Meeple Like Us. That’s not because we’re rampant social justice warriors, or ideologues with an axe to grind. I mean, we are, but that’s not why this is a primary topic of discussion. It’s because accessibility is too rich and too broad a topic to be constrained within the narrower parameters implied by disability and impairment. There is a hugely important cultural aspect to this. We seek out experiences that seem welcoming to us, and the impression that a hobby gives is in large part driven by how it presents itself to the outside world. When people look at a board game box and see only some dead-eyed white men staring into the faces of other dead-eyed white men, they think ‘This is a hobby for white men’. When they see objectified and overtly sexualised representations of women, they think ‘Yes, this is definitely a hobby for men – and straight men, no less’. This can be off-putting to many people that aren’t tacitly included in the ‘core demographic’, but it’s also off-putting to many people that are. I am a straight, white man – the advertising for the majority of these games is aimed directly at me. And yet, I feel deeply uneasy putting certain games in front of people because I feel like an overgrown man-child because of infantilising titillation in art and design. If it puts me off playing the games, imagine how much it might put off someone that isn’t part of the default audience. Some of the accessibility barriers table-top games put in front of people are related to the game interactions and elements of design. Many others are more sociological.
If we want a wider panoply of people playing board games, we need the art and culture and commentary around the hobby to be more obviously diverse. That diversity cannot begin and end with race, sexuality and gender. It has to include representations of disability, and all the complex intersections these sets will bring about. It’s difficult. It’s complicated. It’s easy to screw up and make mistakes. It’s easy to offend, and it’s easy to come across as callow or naïve. That’s no excuse – those things are true of anything worthwhile in life, and we still manage to make progress. We all have a role to play in making sure the diversity of the people we want to see playing games are represented in the social and representational context around those games. Inaccessibility is a product of a barrier between someone and the thing they wish to do. Some of those barriers are cultural, but that doesn’t make them remotely any less real.
Meeple Like Us is an unpaid project of personal passion, and as such I feel uneasy about approaching more diverse voices to produce content for the site. I believe strongly that people should be rewarded for the work they do and I’m just not in a position to act upon that. What guest posts we have published in the past have been offered up freely by volunteers. We don’t have an especially large audience (although you know, 105,000 hits last year isn’t chicken scratch). However, if you have something you want to say and have no access to an outlet of your own, please do get in touch. I would love to do what I can to signal boost voices in this area whether it’s about direct experience with disability and games, or diversity and inclusion in board-game culture. As I say, I can’t pay anyone for this but the platform is yours for the asking.
That’s really what Global Accessibility Awareness Day is all about I think – boosting the signal of those voices most able to articulate why this topic matters. And matter it does, to all of us. My life has been immensely enriched by the diversity of people within it. I want my hobbies to be similarly enriched, and that’s only going to happen when we all accept the fundamental importance of accessibility for all. We’ve all got a role to play in this – as agitators, as advocates, and as informed consumers of culture. Board games and the industry around them will become more physically and culturally accessible when the call for that becomes impossible to ignore. We all have a voice. Let’s use it.