How to Develop Inclusive Board Games

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the twelfth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

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Accessibility is a big issue in board gaming. It’s also a very complex issue that is hard to talk about succinctly because it covers game design, product testing, individual behavior, and group behavior under a lot of different circumstances. To help understand this subject, I’ve brought in Dr. Michael Heron of Meeple Like Us.

This our third accessibility article. I recommend you read the first one and the second one as well.

Twilight Struggle does better than you’d think on a colorblindness test. (Photo from Meeple Like Us).

But first, let’s go ahead and define accessibility, using Michael’s own words (paraphrased):

Accessible games are ones where people can still play your game even if they have extraordinary usability needs. An inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier to enjoyment. Mostly it’s about how information is presented and how the game is manipulated, but I also include aspects of cultural inaccessibility and representation.

This guide comes in three parts:

  • Socioeconomic Accessibility
  • Intersectional Accessibility
  • Parting Words

Below is a transcript of our conversation over Discord DMs. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

Brandon: Now what about socioeconomic accessibility? What is that and what does it entail?

Michael: For this we need to recontextualise the discussion a bit – this kind of work is often characterised as being about disability, but it really isn’t – disability is just the most obvious “use case” for the findings. As such, when this category comes around people tend to be a little quizzical because it doesn’t look like it’s in scope. But if we go back to the earlier discussion about accessibility, I said “an inaccessibility is any feature of a game that presents a barrier for someone when it comes to enjoying the game you’ve designed.”

Michael: Sometimes those barriers are in terms of how a game presents itself to gamers that don’t fall within the usual stereotype bracket of what a gamer involves. Here we tend to discuss issues of representation and inclusion. I firmly believe, and the research backs me up, that people need to see people like them reflected in a cultural product before they see it as being for people like them.

Michael: When under-represented groups look at a shelf of board games and see only white men staring back at them, that creates an accessibility barrier – one that exists before you get into the interaction model used for the game. It’s not something that stops someone from playing a game, but one that puts a psychological obstacle in place. Boys don’t play with Barbies very much because Barbies are “for girls.” Lego, until very recently, had a reputation for being “for boys.”

Michael: You see this divide in any toy shop – boys’ toys versus girls’ toys. Play isn’t gendered though, and these are artificial distinctions. They keep kids from playing outside of their expected sociological role. Board games do the same thing when they don’t have women in the art, or have a sea of white faces, or portray ethnicities or genders in careless ways. Scantily clad women, stereotypical Middle Eastern cultures, the reductive portrayal of complex and sophisticated cultures… all of that is a sociological accessibility issue.  It makes people less inclined to play even if there’s technically nothing actually stopping them.

Thankfully, representation on boxes doesn’t have to be that hard.

Michael: And this is bound up in an economic context too because the groups most impacted by all the categories we discuss on Meeple Like Us are the ones that, statisically speaking, are the ones most likely to have economic considerations that prohibit full and unconcerned engagement with the hobby. But the issue is further interlinked by the way in which many games handle diversity in their representation, especially in licensed properties.

Michael: The “big names” in a franchise are overwhelmingly likely to be white men and they’ll be the ones most prominent in the game that you buy. Other characters, if they’re available at all, are often offloaded into expansion packs. So there is a kind of economic tax you pay just in order to see “people like me” reflected in the game that you want to play. Any game that is lazy about its representation, or is lassiez-faire about the implications of its business model, or how those intersect, are going to have that discussed as part of a Meeple Like Us analysis.

Michael: Coupled to that is the issue of “value for money” which is somewhat nebulous but also bound up in a socioeconomic context.

Michael: Buying a game for £100 that only supports two players is a hard sell for someone that might only have £20 they can spend on games in a month and have to make the game cater for a large family with varied patterns of work and availability.

Brandon: To sum it up, socioeconomic accessibility goes beyond simply making games that work for people with disabilities. It goes beyond even using good game design practices and simplifying game processes and experiences. It’s about making games for more gamers.

Brandon: Cultural sensitivity on board game boxes and in art goes a long way – no chainmail bikinis or offensive stereotypes of other cultures. Something as simple as including people of different genders and ethnicities in prominent art can make a difference. Everybody likes seeing people who look like them in the media. It’s just a cool feeling. Why not share that with people who don’t get that as often?

Brandon: It can make somebody’s day, you know?

Brandon: As for cost issues, strictly the “economic” part of “socioeconomic” – that’s complex for game devs. It’s a fact that hobby board games in small print runs have to run a bit expensive compared to what’s in Walmart or Target. That is unavoidable. You can, however, reduce cost problems for both you and your players by researching manufacturing and fulfillment in great detail.

Brandon: This is one of the critical things you have to get right if you want to make it in this industry.

Intersectional Accesibility

Brandon: Now you briefly touched on intersectionality – the last of the accessibility categories that we listed a bit earlier.

Brandon: Intersectionality is kind of a complex subject. How would you describe it in a nutshell?

Michael: Occasionally there are issues that manifest not because of one condition or another, but because of how they come together. For example, a hidden hand of cards might be fine for someone with visual impairments if they can bring them up close for examination. It might be fine for someone with physical constraints because their card holder is holding them in place without discomfort. However, if someone has to take into account visual and physical impairments there’s a problem that comes from that intersection. It’s about dealing with the fact that accessibility issues are often cross-category and there are implications with that.

Brandon: Any really good, familiar examples come to mind?

Michael: Verbalising instructions might be fine if someone has physical restrictions, but that compensation may not be feasible if paired with a communication impairment.

Michael: It’s also something that covers factors that don’t belong to any one individual category. For example, many conditions have modulating severity – you might be fine at the start of a game but experience discomfort as time goes by. Game length, and intensity of the game, becomes a factor there. If things get too difficult to bear a player might want to drop out of play – some games permit that without too much difficulty, others basically needed to be ended when a player drops out. Time limits in games cause accessibility issues for almost everyone, as does intense competition where players are looking to benefit from informational asymmetry.

Brandon: So it’s best not to see intersectionality as strictly corner cases where multiple unlikely things converge at once…

Michael: That’s definitely part of it, but not the whole of it.

Brandon: It’s also a matter of regular accessibility issues being exacerbated by time and intensity.

Michael: But it’s also one of the things you need to consider generally – one of the most common causes of visual impairment is diabetes. That often comes with nerve damage in the extremities, which in turn makes physical interaction more difficult. It’s often not the case that there’s just one accessibility complication to consider – they often come in sets.

Michael: And that’s especially true when you consider accessibility as a function of age. We all suffer various physical degradations as time goes by, but not uniformly. And it happens so gradually that often we don’t even think of ourselves as needing accessibility support.

Michael: Everyone is a unique data point – a highly individualised blend of individualised considerations of varying severity.

Brandon: Just to drill your diabetes point home, a quick Google search on my end shows that 9.4% of the US population has diabetes.

Yeah, it surprised me when I first saw it, too.

Brandon: That’s about 30 million people here. So this is not some academic issue. This is a practical issue for game developers.

Brandon: Also, wow, that is a much higher number than I thought it would be.

Brandon: Plus just about everybody will have some sort of accessibility issue as they age. It could be as simple as “I needed reading glasses once I turned 40.”

Michael: Definitely. The number of people who are actually impacted by these issues is massive. Around 8% of the male population in the west has some form of colour blindness. About 10% of the population in general have some form of self-reported disability, and it’s probably closer to about 20% given that many people don’t consider themselves to fall into that category even if they would benefit from accessibility support.

Michael: In fact, I just checked and the CDC says one in five.

Brandon: So with all this in mind, what is the best approach to handling intersectional accessibility?

Michael: I think by far the most useful tool for this, and all accessibility categories, is just designing with empathy in mind. Consider what you’re asking people to do and where the stresses in your game system are. We’re working on formal tabletop accessibility guidelines to give some actionable advice in each category, but in the end it’s always going to be down to the unique combination of your game and someone you likely don’t know out in the world. Simply trying to consider your game from angles you may not have considered is incredibly valuable, although if you can actually test with people with disabilities that’s obviously so much better.

Brandon: If you try to cover all the other areas as best you can, it tends to alleviate some of the worst intersectional issues too.

Brandon: And as always, play-test, play-test, play-test. That’s the best way to identify problems. The more people the better. In fact, I bumped up Byways font from 9 point to 12 point because I saw somebody squinting at the card text.

Parting Advice

Brandon: Any last parting advice for game devs hoping to make games for more gamers?

Michael: It’s great to make games accessible because it’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t have to be the reason. It’s also good business sense – the competition out there is fierce, and there is a massive and largely untapped market out there for a game designer with a focus on accessibility. It’s a selling point – it’s good marketing, and every time you show people that you’re taking accessibility into account you show more people that this is a hobby that’s for them. You’re designing for yourself in the future, but you’re also expanding your own brand and your own audience. Morality is a great motivator, but there’s nothing quite like self-interest to really seal the deal. 🙂

Brandon: Forget economic good sense and ethics, I’m in it for the self-interest! 😛

Michael: So say we all.

Brandon: Thank you very much, this has been great and I can’t wait to share this online!

Michael: Fun chatting with you as ever.  🙂

Often times, small tweaks and a general sense of awareness go a long way toward creating professional and polished board games. By exploring some of the ways we can make games more accessible, especially socially, we can create games that more people can play. More fun for everyone!

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Don’t stereotype your players.
  • Represent women and ethnic minorities in box and game art.
  • When representing women and ethnic minorities, do not stereotype in the art.
  • Make sure you represent all kinds of players in your base game – not just expansions.
  • Don’t make your game super expensive.
  • Use gender neutral text in your written materials.
  • Realize that sometimes multiple accessibility issues happen simultaneously, creating intersectional accessibility issues.
  • Be careful about your game’s run time.
  • If possible, make a game where people can drop out without breaking the game.
  • Make games that you’ll still be able to use as you age.
  • Accessibility isn’t just about morality or cost – it’s about making something you and others will be able to use for a long time.

Got any questions or comments? Leave them below, I’d love to read and respond to them 🙂

2 thoughts on “How to Develop Inclusive Board Games

  1. Do you know of any organization or committee that would ‘approve’ games based on these criteria? I’m wondering if there’d be interest among publishers if something like a “Seal of Inclusion” existed.

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