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A Level Playing Field?

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Blue player, red player, green player; same shape, same weight, same value. But is that really true?

Board gaming is a hobby that is quickly realising it cannot and should not exist in a vacuum. Despite its reputation for being all things technical, tactile, and gentle, on some hive-mind level, it is developing a social conscience. From contemporary politics to deep rooted historical injustices, board game designers, publishers, and players are making choices about what games say about them as corporations and as individuals.

Social responsibility is by no means a new thing; PR departments across myriad for-profit sectors of industry have been shoehorning ethical, environmental, and political awareness into their branding for years. The cynical amongst us might take renewable energy initiates funded by oil companies with the same pinch of salt as big-pharma giants who extol the virtues of natural remedies alongside their mountains of high-priced, patent protected medications. Indeed, it is difficult to take global efforts to reduce reliance upon fossil fuels seriously when the technology for fuel cells and hydrogen power is held under lock and key by the very same companies that keep us drinking from the petrol pumps.

And whilst enormously important, high level movements like the #BlackLivesMatter are causing a shift towards greater diversity in board gaming from end-users all the way up to designers (great examples being Richard “Rahdo” Ham and Mik, Starla and Grant of @ourfamilyplaysgames who are trailblazing content which celebrates inclusivity in boardgaming as well as positive initiatives from the likes of Backerkit shining a spotlight on black creators), there seems to be less of a drive to acknowledge and address accessibility issues in our beloved hobby.

Now, as alluded to at the beginning of this piece, whilst we each have our own skills and experience when it comes to playing board games, we usually begin with the same components, the same resources, and the same chances to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But that is a presumption which is incorrect at best and grossly unfair to a great many gamers. For those with disabilities, the playing field is more moguled than millpond.

Of course, for many reasons, some gamers simply do not like and therefore do not play certain games. Personal tastes, preferences, theme, player counts…….Like any good romance, a LOT of factors meld together to make a particular game attractive to a specific player. I do it every day. Looking at my own collection and the almost overwhelming choice of new games out there, I make sometimes snap decisions, other times balanced judgments based on box art, set up time, theme, mechanics, my game buddies’ predilections (let’s face it, nobody wants to be the person who recommended the game that utterly tanked game night!), really whatever is on my mind that day. I know I won’t like or want to play every game all the time and that’s ok.

Furthermore, just like the greatest love stories of old, a once infatuated player can suddenly fall out of love with a game or gradually grow out of that special thang they had going on together. If you have ever had the “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation with your once favourite board game, you’ll know the pain; it somehow feels like a betrayal; sadness on a spiritual level.

But, in the modern world of gaming with a community making strides into greater representation and progression, where players have direct access to designers and publishers online and do not shy away from recognising where we fall short as a group, should somebody still be prevented from playing a game which they could and would otherwise play but for a simple lack of accessibility considerations in its fundamental design?

Perhaps I am sensitive to the issue because I have a minor physical disability and therefore the injustice becomes wonderfully dramatic in my own mind. In the interests of transparency, I admit to an occasional audible sigh or a headshake dripping in disappointment when discussing games in my very limited sphere of influence (it sometimes gains me a generous concession, other times just a chocolate – all depends upon who I’m playing!).

I won’t bore you with the gory details (mainly for being at serious risk of overpromising and underdelivering) but I will say that an accident left me with limited function in my dominant hand. This means that I cannot play some types of games (dexterity, concealed information etc.) without either DIY adaptations or enduring an unavoidable disadvantage/discomfort compared to other players.

Do I do it? Of course I do; I am very lucky to have a husband who is both very understanding and great at woodwork and so is now au fait with making all sorts of game add-ons and assists. However, there is a fundamental difference between a game which has a core mechanic that cannot “fit” with my own brand of physical challenge and one which, because of a basic design choice, is just made less suitable or appealing to me.

Now, I promise, I am not turning this into a personal injury ad, but my story gives my feelings context. Furthermore, there are other gamers out there facing much more challenging circumstances than me. For that reason, I would not presume to opine on situations outside of my personal sphere as patronising players on any subject, let alone something as individual as this, is a definite no-go. But as a gamer, a writer, and a member of our wonderful community, I do feel a duty to highlight the accessibility issue if I am granted the platform space to do so because, ultimately, if we don’t talk about it, nothing changes.

Chatting with the wonderful writer, educator and gamer, Ruel Gaviola, on Twitter a few months back, he mentioned that he has colour vision deficiency (CVD) and it is something he discusses when streaming and making videos online. For those who are not aware, CVD means that Ruel struggles to differentiate between certain colours (in his case, red and green) and, given the visual predominance of our hobby, makes it difficult and sometimes even impossible for him to play certain games.

By sheer coincidence, I had recently bought a lovely little two player polyomino gams and had played it several times, thoroughly enjoying the puzzle and strategic challenge. With its chunky components and perfect information format, it was and remains a game which I found easy to play from a practical perspective. There is no need to hold anything for extended periods of time (hugely helpful given that my right hand cramps after around 30 seconds leading me to drop decks, reveal my hand and lose…..well, that’s my excuse and I am sticking to it!), and for that reason, it got an extra tick from me.

But then, reflecting on Ruel’s experience with CVD, I realised that, if someone with CVD were to play the same game, they would be disadvantaged by the designer’s choice of predominantly blue and purple colouring in a way that I would not. Now, I understand the game is set at night leading the colours to be both thematic and appropriate to the scene. However, given that player-specific icons are used in other components within the game, it left me wondering why the designer chose not to include symbols to enable CVD players to tell the difference between their particular spaces and the communal spaces. A simple best-practice solution that would include players otherwise excluded.

Not that it is particularly within my remit, but with my business-minded hat on, it also does not make a great deal of sense for designers and publishers to exclude or disincentivise an important and influential section of a target audience; more players equals more games sold equals more profit. Right? But perhaps I am being over-simplistic. The economics of successful board game production is fraught with complexity beyond my math-deficient mind and based upon a matrix to which I am not privy. As an end-user, however, I appreciate and value all efforts to raise our game when it comes to accessibility within our hobby.

By highlighting this example and discussing the issue generally, please understand that it not my intention to disgrace any part of our wonderful community. As any good parent knows, the shame game gets us nowhere. Rather, through greater awareness of accessibility issues, it is simply my hope that, where possible, we can raise standards across the board (pun intended!) and enable all players who choose to play a particular game to start from the same position. No more, no less.

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