Meeple Centred Design

Meeple Centred Design:  A Heuristic Toolkit for Evaluating the Accessibility of Tabletop Games

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Heron, M. J., Belford, P., Reid, H., Crabb, M. (2018). Meeple Centred Design – a Heuristic Toolkit for Evaluating the Accessibility of Tabletop Games. The Computer Games Journal, 7(2), 1-18. [Available online from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40869-018-0057-8]

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About this Post

As many of you know, I’m a university lecturer. One of the things that I have to do as part of that is publish papers in academic journals. It’s been hard to find an appropriate publication outlet for work on board-game accessibility – it doesn’t fit anywhere especially neatly. Well, for a fair few months I’ve also been acting as guest editor for a special issue of the Computer Games Journal. That special issue was on game accessibility and we broadened the scope of the journal to include games of any stripe. Two papers on the topic of our board game accessibility work were submitted and accepted. I wasn’t able to approve or peer review either of those papers (obviously) so they have gone through the usual quality control processes you’d normally expect of a Springer journal without my sticky fingers probing into their various nooks and crannies. Rather than simply link the papers to you and forget about it I thought I would actually engage with my responsibility to communicate specialist academic literature to an audience made up of real people. I think that’s important because, by and large, academic writing is obtuse and impenetrable to outsiders. I try to do my best to be entertaining within the confines of the format but you know – success is mixed and whimsey is often the first casualty of Reviewer #2.

These papers though contain an awful lot of information that you might find useful, and I’m going to summarise the findings and processes so you can decide for yourself if you want to actually read the full things. As we go along I’ll also try to explain what the different parts of an academic paper are doing – every section has a job to perform. It might look like academics are just tedious blowhards in love with their own text. That’s true. The format of a journal paper is also designed to ensure it covers all the bases that people expect.

These papers are published Open Access which means they aren’t hidden behind a paywall. Anyone can read them, and that’s hugely important to me as an advocate for a cause. People not being able to get hold of these papers would have been an ironic inaccessibility all of its own.

Let’s start with the paper that discusses the Meeple Like Us methodology – a philosophy of game accessibility analysis I refer to as Meeple Centred Design. If you wanted to do your own teardown at home, this is how you’d do it.

Introduction and Sociocultural Importance of Board Games

I won’t spend too much time summarising the first two sections because they are essentially setting what we refer to as the academic context. You have to assume with a paper like this that you are writing for an expert but not necessarily specialist audience. The readership of a journal tends to be academics and professionals who are active within a particular research niche. However, even something as restrictive as a niche can be quite broad – different people will be exploring different parts of those tight intellectual confines. The job here is to give everyone the information they’ll need to contextualise what follows.

Essentially the introduction makes an argument that will be familiar to anyone that reads this blog.

  1. Games have incredible value as cultural artefacts.
  2. Part of what makes society hang together is our ability to share culture.
  3. Inaccessibility in games prevents people from fully engaging with cultural conversations.
  4. The video game industry is far from perfect but is generally more tuned in to issues of accessibility than the tabletop game industry.
  5. We’re trying to change that with Meeple Like Us.

Everything in these parts of the paper comprises what is known as a literature review. This covers an exploration of the people working in this area, what have they found, and how does this new work build on what they have done?

Here though there isn’t any previous work in academic writing that I could find. That can be good – it suggests what you’re doing is genuinely novel. It can be bad – maybe nobody is writing about the topic because it’s already been written off as a lost cause. I think it’s the former, but it’s sometimes hard to convince people it isn’t the latter.

Accessibility of Board Games

We next move into a more formal explanation of the specific elements of tabletop games that make them interesting and distinct from the angle of accessibility research. This is also part of the literature review but it’s more specifically relevant to the topic of the paper. For reading a literature review think of it like a triangle where you start off broad before eventually narrowing the focus until it is a laser-beam on the work that you conducted.

The thing about video games is that we know how to make them accessible. The difficulty there isn’t solving the problem but trying to encourage compliance to the standards that are emerging. As more AAA studios take on the mantle of focusing on accessibility it becomes easier to get everyone else to do it. Video games are on the periphery of a seismic shift – from accessibility features being considered indulgent bonuses to their absence being a source of sustained criticism. When that transition is fully completed, woe betide any game publisher that doesn’t do what they can to make their games more accessible. This is the trajectory I believe we are following for board gaming, although progress is obviously slower than I would like.

In many ways ensuring video game accessibility is a simpler task than it is for tabletop games. You have a computer, a controller, and a display device. You have a constancy of interaction that puts a rope around the problem and makes it tractable. It becomes difficult again once you start looking beyond the common staples – when you start introducing virtual reality or motion controls or such. For most games though it’s a largely solved problem.

It’s not like that though for tabletop games because there is no such thing as a tabletop game interface. Components may be common (dice, meeples, cards) or entirely unique (Tzolk’in’s gears, Photosynthesis’ trees, or Parfum’s scratch and sniff mechanisms). Common components may have a role that is not functionally fixed (dice as spaceships, meeples as construction blocks, cards as buildings) and that may involve traversing between one mode of interaction and another. Sometimes roles are mutable, or asymmetrical. The simple presence of a component does not necessarily imply anything about how it is used and what physical and mental skills its employment will tax. Some games have boards. Some games don’t. Some games require complex negotiation and sophisticated communication. Some games don’t let you talk at all. Some games use roll to move. Some games use flick to move. Some games blend all of these things together in different ways at different stages of the game.

There is so much variety in tabletop games that it’s impossible to talk about accessibility in a broad-based way. All accessibility in tabletop gaming is situational.

It’s also tightly bound up into the ‘feel’ of a game and the feel of a game is often enhanced by inaccessibility. Indeed, that’s even true of the basic idea of fun. All fun is built on the idea of inaccessibility in some form.

This is a hard problem to solve.

Our approach with Meeple Like Us has been to map out the accessibility landscape with bespoke analyses of individual games. We entertain the hope of putting together a set of observations and guidelines that could be used to assess titles in a meaningful and consistent manner. Ideally without the direct involvement of myself.

The Meeple Centred Design Heuristric Toolkit

Finally we’re in to the real meat of the paper. This is what we’ve done and how we’ve done it. Here we talk about the methodologies, assumptions and limitations of the work – and there are lots of each. We are as honest and open about these as we can be on Meeple Like Us. It tends to get diluted though because the structure of a blog, and the prominence of information, is malleable. Within this paper we explain so people can interpret the work in its appropriate light. It’s important here we don’t claim more than the evidence can reasonably bear.

First of all, Meeple Like Us is not a blog about disability. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true – we’re a blog about accessibility and that is an entirely different (but related) thing. Disability is the single most important use-case for accessibility but it’s not the only one. We all encounter inaccessibilities all the time – sun on a phone screen, typing on a rickety bus, trying to listen to something complicated in a noisy pub. The solutions that work for people with disabilities are also the ones that work for those of us with more situational or temporary impairments. If there were no people with disabilities, inaccessibility would still be a problem.

As such, we adopt a ‘symptoms’ approach to the work we do, and that’s a conscious choice designed to ensure that we are not attempting to co-opt a cause or speak for people with disabilities. Occasionally people have criticised that we don’t offer specialised guidance, and that’s fair – we never say ‘If someone has glaucoma, we’d recommend these games’ or ‘If someone has selective mutism we would point you towards these titles’. We don’t do that for two reasons:

  1. It’s always more complicated than that.
  2. Even if it weren’t, we’re not qualified to prescribe board games on the basis of medical or psychological conditions.

What we can do is look at games and say ‘Hey, this asks you to do this stuff which will be difficult if vision is a problem’, or ‘This needs you to do fine positioning of things at speed which will be a problem for those with fine-grained motor control issues’. The distinction here is vital because we’re perfectly qualified to talk about what a game asks people to do but not at all qualified to say what conditions would prevent people from doing it. We put that judgement squarely on the reader who will know much better than we do on the basis of their knowledge of themselves and their friends and family. Explaining this approach is necessary to putting our framework in context because it is not based on embodied experience and it would be misleading to claim or imply otherwise.

We’ll have more to say on disclaimers on the work we do with the second paper that was published, and in this section we add the reference to that to make sure those additional qualifications don’t go unacknowledged. Suffice to say – nobody is more critical of the limitations of this work than I am.

Next we’re into the toolkit itself, and it presents our framework as a series of lenses through which a game can be viewed. This is basically what I do with each teardown – take each of these and apply them to the game in front of me and make a note of my observations.

Visual Accessibility

The lenses in this category relate to issues of colour blindness, visual impairment, and total blindness. For visual accessibility, here’s what we have to take into account.

LensDescription
Colour blindnessHere we look at how colour works in a game, where there are palette problems, and whether colour is accompanied by secondary channels of information.
ContrastWe check the contrast between text and background, and between information bearing elements of the game state and the way they are presented in the game.
Font choiceHere we look at ornamentation and size of fonts, and whether these are readable.
Tactility of TokensWe look at tokens to see whether they can be differentiated by touch, and if that actually makes a game more playable. Consistency of tactility and ease with which that can be assessed and manipulated are also important.
BinocularityHere we check to see if judgement of distance and perspective are going to be important in accomplishing game goals.
Paper moneyPaper money is an inaccessibility wall to wall, but especially so in a game where the economy is likely to move too quickly for standard real-world visual impairment compensations to work.
Non-standard diceDice are important randomisers, but players with visual impairments will usually have their own accessible variant – oversized dice, braille dice, app-based rollers or other digital tools. Here we assess whether players can make use of these if necessary and how difficult it would be to make that work.

Cognitive Accessibility

These lenses relate to fluid intelligence (think of that as a rough analogue of processing speed) and crystalised intelligence (the ability to draw and generalise from experience). These two are conflated in our teardowns because I’ve found trying to explain the often subtle interrelationships between them makes the explanations far more difficult to understand. As such, we adopt a loose distinction between fluid intelligence as a catch-all and memory specifically for tasks of recognition and recall. It’s not at all accurate as a way of talking about this but it’s the best I’ve found for the aims of a teardown.

LensDescription
Required literacyHow much reading is needed, and how sophisticated is that reading? Here we assume there’s no need for a player to read the manual – the game will be explained to them somehow or they’ll make use of one of the many fine ‘learn to play’ videos out there.
Game state complexityHow many ‘moving parts’ are there in the game and how dependent is one part of the game state on another? If you change one part of the game state how much does it affect other parts?
Memory requirementsWhat do you need to memorise in order to play at all? What do you need to memorise to play effectively? What do you need to memorise to play well?
Game flowHow different will one round be from the one that preceded it? How different is your current round to the next one? How consistent is turn order, and how reliable is the flow of play agency?
Number of token combinationsHow many different tokens do people need to track, and how consistent is their meaning?
Synergy of rulesTo what extent do players need to leverage subtle (or not so subtle) card interactions to attain core game effects?
ScoringWhat skills are needed to work out how well you’re doing, and how much of the scoring is going to be based on implicit understanding of concepts like risk and probability?
General knowledgeWhat information do people need to know that comes from outside the game? Do they need to know history or geography or social context? If they don’t need to know, does a well of general knowledge help or give an advantage? Does its absence impose a penalty?
MultitaskingHow many interrelated game systems will a player need to simultaneously track in order to execute upon a plan? How tightly bound are those systems?

Emotional Accessibility

The emotional accessibility category relates to issues of anger, behavioural control, and occasionally simple ‘bad winners’ and ‘bad losers’. Here’s what we take into account for that:

LensDescription
ChallengeHere we assess how the challenge of a game manifests and how likely that is to be fulfilling or frustrating.
DespairSome games work on the assumption you are going to fail and do everything to make that happen. This requires players to find enjoyment in their failure and it can be a powerful trigger point for upset if that’s not possible.
Arbitrary fatesThe extent to which an outcome is controllable is a predictor for how suitable it will be for a player. Some players like to be able to take comfort in losing through randomness. Others hate losing because of something that they couldn’t control.
Bluffing or LyingIf games involve misleading players it requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence and this can be a heavy ask for some people with specific interest in this category.
Need for closure or symmetryCertain emotional and behavioural conditions include a strong compulsive aspect, and games that involve pattern creation without permitting pattern completion can be problematic.
‘Take that’ mechanicsThe ability of a player to countermand the intentions of another can be an important aspect of emotional inaccessibility if not managed well. This is essentially frustration with a proximal cause that is associated with a particular player at the table – it binds intention into the frustration which can be a significant problem.
Upsetting themesMature themes and ‘edgy’ content can run the risk of bringing a game into dangerous emotional territory. Some people do not like to engage with violent themes. Others may have a history or experience of trauma that can be triggered with careless game content.
Player eliminationIf players can be removed from play at any point this can create an intense feeling of exclusion that becomes worse the longer a game goes on. A related concern is about elimination of competitiveness – it’s not much better to be in a game you have no hope at all of winning.
The ability of players to gang upSome games incentivise players to gang up on a runaway leader, which can be frustrating. It can be worse when games incentivise players to pick on the losing player.

Physical Accessibility

It’s rare that games ask nothing in terms of physical interactions from their players but the extent to which physicality is required is what is most important here.

LensDescription
Size of cardsUnconventional card sizes can be a problem, whether it be over large or over small.
Token shapesThe smoother the tokens are and the lighter they are, they more they will tend to be difficult to manipulate. The number of tokens and how much they need to be manipulated plays an important part in accessibility.
Regularity of piece manipulationHow often do players need to manipulate pieces on the board or in their player areas? Do they need to stretch over a board? How much of the board do they need to take into account? The more you ask of people, the harder it will be.
Ease of verbalisationHow easily can a player issue verbal instructions in a game to indicate what they’d like to happen? How much of the game’s fun is bound up in the tactility of the experience? How much judgement must another player exert in the interpretation of instructions?
Physical actingDoes the game require any physical acting such as raising hands, acting out instructions, standing up or sitting down? If so, these will often have an impact on the accessibility of play.
Paper moneyPaper money tends to clump, is hard to manipulate, and is often susceptible to environmental elements such as wind. Basically, avoid paper money if you can.
Number of tokensHow many tokens will a player need to control, and how much physical movement is required to handle them?
Size of game board elementsThe tighter the constraints of a target zone, and the more densely knotted the pieces are around it, the harder it is for people to manipulate game state.

Communication

We work on the assumption that communication within a group is largely a solved problem – some combination of techniques ensures that people can be conversational. In these sections we mostly focus on the communication requirements within the game itself.

LensDescription
Expected reading levelComplex text on cards and components can create a problem, partially due to the need for literacy and partly due to the context of that literacy. The issue might be due to the sophistication or nuance of language or the use of metaphor, antonyms or the like. It also includes jargon and unusual wording since these may have no immediate and direct analog in alternative modes of communication.
AudibilityAre there external audio cues in the game, and are there alternatives provided for those that are hard of hearing? How effective are those alternatives, and do they change the nature of the game in any way?
Lying/BluffingLying and bluffing are based on confidence, verbal fluency and body language. Communication impairments can make it difficult for a player to fully engage with these gameplay systems.
Communication of StrategyIf it’s a co-operative game, how much communication of strategy is required and how contentious will that communication be? What are the risks that go along with mistakes in communication or interpretation? How much do you need to convince people, and how much freedom are you going to have to express your view without someone being incentivised to talk over you?
Need for audible communicationDoes a game mandate the making of some kind of non-trivial sounds during the course of play? What is lost if these are translated into written text, or a visual communication language? For example, if communication must be secret then sign language would not be an appropriate compensation even if it’s otherwise a perfectly reasonable ask.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

One of the more controversial aspects of our work is the emphasis we place on socioeconomic aspects of gaming. This we consider to be a form of ‘sociological accessibility’ although that’s not a term that is in common currency. We consider barriers of exclusion or representation to be inaccessibilities even if the barrier is primarily perceptual. We use several lenses for this analysis:

LensDescription
Inclusivity in ArtworkWe look to see if the artwork for a game is inclusive in terms of gender and ethnic balance. We want to make sure that everyone can see ‘people like them’ reflected in the artwork.
Sexism in Art and InstructionHere we look at the extent to which a game is objectifying in its art or assumptive in its descriptions. This comes through in terms of art choice, wording in a manual, assignment of colours to roles and the defaulting to masculinity for pronouns in instructions. We also assess games for the extent to which they make use of gendered, cisnormative or heteronormative assumptions although in that we lack the necessary experience to do as much as we’d like.
ThemeSome games have themes that are inherently problematic and come with a risk of alienating players simply as a result of how the theme is pitched. We do not judge games for incorporating this kind of content – our focus is on ensuring that there is appropriate guidance so others can consider whether the game is suitable for their groups.
Player countsThe number of players a game supports, cross-referenced against its cost, gives a rough measure of ‘cost per player’. Those on a budget looking for games that support large or complex family environments will often need to take this into account.
CostBoard gaming is largely a luxury hobby, but value for money is important for many. More important though is the expectation that goes along with the business model for the game. Consider a ‘one and done’ purchase versus the longer investment of money required for a collectible card game or miniatures game. In this case we ask ‘How much fun can you have with just the base box?’ and ‘How much will you have to spend to get game everyone is raving about?’

Intersectional Accessibility

There are many issues that emerge primarily through the combination of impairments. It’s impossible to be too proscriptive here because it is highly dependent on individual, game and social context. However, there are some common lenses we use.

LensDescription
Physical / Cognitive
Size of cards / HandsThe number of cards, and the size of the cards, will determine whether or not a game is physically accessible but also cognitively and visually accessible. The number of options a player must concern themselves with at any one time is a factor here.
DiceRandomness can create compounding problems because it leads to unpredictable game states. When impairments intersect the tractability of randomness goes down because it becomes more difficult to ascertain cause, effect and outcome.
Hidden handsHidden hands of cards usually have gameplay information that must be obscured, and this prevents players seeking assistance from others at the table if they have queries.
AgencyThe extent to which a supported player is still in charge of their own role in the game is important – physical and cognitive impairments that intersect can often result in games where someone is participating but not actually playing.
Emotional / Cognitive
DowntimeDowntime can make it difficult to keep someone’s attention focused, and also create a cognitive burden as players try to constantly re-evaluate their coming turn in light of another player’s actions. That in turn can create an anxiety as players suspect something horrible is heading their way yet being unable to prevent or perhaps understand it.
CompetitionCompetition is a common part of games, but here it depends on just how pointed the competition will end up being. Many games rely on players being able to mislead someone away from their real objective. Accessibility support from the table relies on people perhaps pointing out things someone else might have missed. Aggressive competition undermines the collegiality that is often at the core of respectful, supportive game experiences. It leads to situations where someone may not have understood what was happening and then lose because of someone’s active choice not to inform them of something they reasonably would have known.
Cognitive / Visual
AestheticsThere is a cognitive cost that comes along with trying to read things that are artistically presented – even if they can be visually perceived they take more mental processing to comprehend. The more visually impaired a player may be, the harder it will be to read, which in turn makes it harder to understand.
SymbolismSymbols on game components are an effective way of encoding lots of complex information in a visually compact way and this can be great. It can also be very problematic because it adds a memory burden to play – there’s a translation process between symbol and its meaning that must be navigated.
Physical / Communicative
VerbalisationThe solution for many players with physical impairments is verbalisation. If this intersects with a communication impairment then it might not be appropriate. Not always though – sometimes games are playable with some agreed upon way to indicate assent along with an exhaustive exploration of a player’s options.
All
Time constraintsAccessibility compensations take time – whenever there is a time constraint on an action the accessibility of a game takes a major nose-dive. The impact of time constraints in an accessibility context is often intensely asymmetrical.
Ability to drop in and outAll impairments exist on a spectrum, and players may have symptoms that modulate in severity on a day by day, hour by hour, or minute by minute basis. Games that are resilient to players that find it necessary to drop out of play tend to be a better prospect than those that aren’t.
Length of game sessionsThe longer a game is, the more likely it is to bring about discomfort. This might manifest as physical symptoms or emotional and cognitive distress. The longer a game lasts too the larger the consequences tend to be for inaccessibilities, and the greater the perceived cost for players who feel that need to drop out of play. It’s less psychologically costly to drop out of a ten minute game than it is a game that you’ve been playing for three hours.
Board complexityWhen there is an intersection of physical, visual or cognitive impairments players may lack one of the compensatory regimes they could use to understand game state. For example, a visually impaired player might be able to inspect a board closely and remember board state. That wouldn’t be true if there was also a physical accessibility consideration, or a memory impairment.

Conclusion

An academic paper tends to follow the old standard of ‘Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them’. The conclusion summarises the key take-aways of the paper and usually situates that in a context of future work. Good academic writing is ‘feed forward’ – it looks ahead to what’s to come and how the work you just described can help others working in the same area. In this section we make some notes on the procedure we follow on Meeple Like Us:

  1. It is very time intensive.
  2. It can’t be easily replicated because of the intersection of skill-set and board-game experience.
  3. Direct testing with impacted user groups is not feasible due to the complexity of the logistics.
  4. The work of Meeple Like Us represents primarily a first attempt to codify guiding principles under which board game accessibility might be consistently assessed.

This work is not sustainable or scalable – the bus factor of the work of Meeple Like Us is almost (but not quite) one. Increasingly the sense of impending burn-out is weighing on me. As such the paper concludes on an obvious note. The future of board game accessibility exists in a world beyond Meeple Like Us and in a realm that encompasses both analog and digital tools into a coherent compensatory regime. We have plans for how that might work, but that’s a story for another paper.

 

 

 

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