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April 19, 2018
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The Terrible Twos – The Second Anniversary of Meeple Like Us

by Michael Heron on 04/09/18 09:30:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

This is a modified version of a post first published on Meeple Like Us.

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online.  You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.

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Introduction

Oh my God.  Two years.  It’s really been two years since we started Meeple Like Us and it feels like something might have gone wrong with the space-time continuum.    It can’t be that long, surely?  And here you are, reading our anniversary post – whether this is your first visit to Meeple Like Us or your thousandth – thank you so much for coming along and checking us out!

This is the third ‘state of the site’ post – we did one six months in and another a year in.  April the 6th is the site birthday, but it falls on a day that makes tracking a whole pile of things awkward so I suspect that we won’t do this for our next year and instead do an end of the calendar year summary.  That just feels neater.  It’s also a change that means here I won’t need to keep checking the date to remind myself when this post needs to be written.

ANYWAY.

Let’s talk about where we are and what the future holds!

The Findings of Two Years of Investigation

As with our year one summary, these figures derive from the work done rather than the work published.  At the time of writing this post there are currently twenty-four games that have been analysed and written up but not yet posted.  That’s an increase of six over where we were last year but since our catalogue of content has increased it also represents a smaller proportion of the work.   I would include only those games we’ve published on the site but it’s an ache in the backhole to do it and I can live without that pain in my life.  I’m forty years old now.  I have pain enough already.

For calculating averages for accessibility profiles, I employ a numerical conversion from alphanumeric grades to number values.  F is a zero, E is a three, and each successively higher grade is one integer greater than the one before.  For individual accessibility categories, this is how the averages shake out.

Colour Blindness B
Visual Accessibility C-
Emotional Accessibility C+
Fluid Intelligence C-
Memory C+
Physical Accessibility C+
Socioeconomic B
Communication B

I stress that these don’t really correspond to passing or failing grades, and it was probably a mistake to cast them in that way at the start.   These instead signify the extent to which we would recommend games in each category and even that is a hugely misleading value.  The reason we publish extensive annotations for each grade is because accessibility is too nuanced for a single grade to mean anything of real worth.   These are basically a way of directing attention away from troublesome games, or towards those games likely to be a good prospect for people with accessibility considerations.  They’re filters, not final judgements.

There aren’t really an awful lot of changes here from last year.  Physical accessibility has degraded from a B- to a C+, and Communication from a B+ to a B.   We looked at a few more dexterity games this year and also a few more social deductive games.  Overall though the grades have pretty much stabilised and haven’t changed much for a few months.   That’s important, for reasons that I will discuss a bit later…

Our overall average aggregate remains a C+ and our view remains the same as last year – some of these categories skew positive because of the way we approach the task of examining games.   Overall I think the industry is closer to a D than a C+ in terms of how well it supports accessibility needs out of the box.  There’s still a lot of work players with disabilities need to do to find ways to access the playability they pay for.

We have a few extremely good performers this year – Blank from the Creativity Hub got an overall A as did Cottage Garden (not yet published) and Wibbell++.   Since last year we’ve been putting strong performers on our special build an accessible game library on a budget special feature, but some games that do well don’t end up there because their cost is a little high.

Worst performers this year include the Arkham Horror Card GameXCOM, and Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization.   These are all games that run the gamut from good to great, but unfortunately their design and execution means not everyone will get to enjoy what they have to offer.

We have a new least accessible game on the site too – the Unlock series of escape rooms in a box took that dubious crown from Star Trek: Frontiers and now sits atop the dismembered remains of a Romulan officer that serve as its dark and troubled throne.   In certain respects it’s not fair that the game should be so maligned – its inaccessibility is fundamentally bound up in the game it sets out to be.  Still – inaccessible is inaccessible.

The Scale of the Task

The task ahead of us remains vast.  We have now covered 136 games for Meeple Like Us, and even with our heavy focus on the BGG top 500 we’re still not at 20% coverage.  Technically, at a game a week, we should be getting through more than 10% of that per year.  2017 however included a fair few games that aren’t in the top 500.  That’s good because it means we’re occasionally covering games that would otherwise get no attention.  It’s also bad because it means that progress towards our main goal has been slower than I might like.    In terms of our Top 500 stats, we’ve now got teardowns for 92 games, which is 18.4% of the list.    It’s gone past ‘a trivial fraction’ and into ‘a slightly less trivial fraction’.

Last year at this time I was hoping production of posts would step up, and that’s sort of true – we’ve explored a lot more territory than just accessibility over the past year.  It’s still just me though doing the majority of the work and as such all this change in focus has done is result in different posts rather than more posts.   Importantly though I’m noticing a lot more impact of the work and a lot more attention given to the topic.  I obviously don’t claim to be the reason why accessibility is becoming a thing people talk about more often but I am willing to accept some credit for having raised awareness of the issue.

It’s a good place to be in, two years later.

Reviews and Scores

Our reviews still skew high, but there’s no mystery as to why that is.  Meeple Like Us is still overwhelmingly supported by money out of my own pocket rather than review material.  Our focus on the BGG Top 500 means that we only rarely look at games that aren’t at least good.  Even when that’s an opinion we don’t share, it’s usually the case that we can see why other people would have had a better experience than we did.   Our average is 3.55 stars, and that’s a little higher than it was this time last year.

I’m still not sold on the idea of numerical grades anyway, but at this point I think I’m pretty much resigned to them.   I added a small chunk of Javascript to provide a short text description of reviews where the number by itself is likely to be misleading, but I haven’t made as much use of it as I had intended.   I’ve also written a WordPress plugin that will improve the meta-data we provide for games and hopefully I can get that working with a more nuanced rating system.     If I have time…

We’ve covered enough games now on Meeple Like Us that both Mrs Meeple and myself felt comfortable in putting together our top ten at Christmas.   There aren’t many surprises on it for readers that have been with us for a while – Concordia is still the best game I have found during this project, and Scrabble is still I think the finest game anyone has ever made.  Mrs Meeple still ranks Jaipur as her favourite game.  That at least hasn’t changed since last year.

Still, it’s been a good year full of excellent games.   Some of the highest performing games include Century: Spice RoadFive TribesInnovation, Hanamikoji (not yet published), the Exit series of escape rooms, and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (not yet published).  All of those got four and a half stars in their reviews (spoilers for the ones that haven’t been published yet I guess.  Whoops).

Our lowest performing games in the review section include Magic Maze and HMS Dolores (not yet published).  Magic Maze in particular puts us at odds with 90% of the internet but that’s life.

Reception

I continue to be amazed that people read the site in the numbers that they do.    Over the past year we managed to record almost 202,000 hits from over 100,000 people.  Our average is a touch over 550 hits per day, and 250 unique visitors.   That blows my mind.    I now though pay a lot less attention to the chatter about MLU on platforms such as Reddit.  While that means I don’t know what people are saying it also means I’m much less likely to find myself wading through the negativity that pervades the internet like a low-grade corrosive fog.  If people want to actually get in touch with me about things then TwitterFacebook and the MLU comment sections are all available.   Increasingly though I feel like Reddit and its equivalents are there for people to talk about content creators, not to them.    We do have our own Meeple Like Us subreddit now, but conversation there is all but non-existent.   It’s useful if you want to keep up with what we’re doing though and I make an effort to post what content I find that I believe would be interesting to the small subscriber base.

In any case I remain deeply grateful to those that post our content to Reddit and other social media platforms because they help us raise the prominence and importance of the issue.   I just hope people don’t feel aggrieved that when they do I choose not to engage with the comments.

I do occasionally find myself drawn back to Reddit discussions because I sometimes get tagged in when accessibility topics raise their heads.  I’m always happy to do that and offer thoughts and suggestions.  My active participation though has dwindled down to almost nothing and I’m much happier for it.

I’ve been in more discussions with more designers and publishers, forged some links with numerous companies, and even done some pro-bono accessibility consultancy on a few games.   This coming year we’ll be doing an accessibility seminar at the UKGE (come along) and a few other things here and there in terms of visible outreach.     Material support for the project from publishers is becoming easier to arrange, even if many emails go unanswered and occasionally the response comes back as ‘We’re not interested in accessibility’.    We’re still, even now, seeing major games released that demonstrate obvious accessibility blunders and that can be discouraging.   There are signs of progress though and it feels on occasion like some momentum might actually be building.

Some signs of that will be seen via the Computer Games Journal in April – I was permitted to helm a special issue on game accessibility.  I was able to specifically broaden the scope of the journal to incorporate accessibility in all games, not just computer games.  Increasingly we are seeing people willing to see gaming as a spectrum from digital to analog and back again and the conversations that we are having in academia are a reflection of that.   I’ll post more details of the two papers I will be publishing in that special issue later.

Supporting the Site

Okay, before I get into this section I want to stress one thing right away.  There is no immediate danger. Meeple Like Us is currently not in the position of being at risk.   The site will continue running for the next year at least.  Even if I stopped writing new posts there would be six months before the site eventually stopped having anything new, and I don’t intend to stop writing posts.

But…

Last year at this time I said that we weren’t soliciting financial donations to the site, and explained why – this is a public good; I’m an academic and I consider this a research project; and I believe it’s important for research to be accessible to the public.  That was all true then and it’s all true now.   But it’s also the case that the work that has been done to date is now enough that the results have converged and stabilised.   The averages of the accessibility categories that we’re looking at on Meeple Like Us might still change a bit.  They’re all though approximately in the ball-park of where they would be after we’d covered 100% of the BGG Top 500.   That’s essentially what happens when you have enough data points – any variation after a while is relatively minuscule and unless you’re using the data for fine-tuning any additional decimal points of precision are lost in the rounding of real-world application.   What I have now is enough to serve as the necessary context for seeking research funding for the work to continue in an official capacity and that’s something that’s currently ongoing.

I spend anything between twenty to forty hours on Meeple Like Us in the course of a week.  Some weeks it’s more, some weeks it’s less, but it’s always a lot.   When I could mentally cast this as research work that was easy to justify.    That doesn’t really hold water any more – there’s a point in every research project where you have to say ‘Okay, I don’t think we’re going to find much more that’s genuinely new from this point’ and wrap it all up.  There’s a point where something stops being a research interest and becomes a research obsession and a wise academic knows when that happens.

There is very little new research value to come from the work of Meeple Like Us continuing in its current form, and all its future forms need some research funding for them to manifest.  That will come, if it comes, from sources other than the readership of the blog.   That’s in the hands of the capricious Gods of Academic Research Grants.   The research angle of Meeple Like Us was only ever one facet of its role though.  The site was also intended to act as a resource for gamers with accessibility needs – a map to a complex landscape that helped them find games they could play.

The need for that hasn’t gone away and I am still very keen to do what I can to assist in that arena.   While these recommendations aren’t always going to be correct and the discussions aren’t always going to be properly comprehensive they are still useful if only because nobody else is doing anything like this.   There is, as far as I am aware, nobody else that is building up a map of the accessibility landscape in tabletop gaming.  That makes Meeple Like Us a unique resource with I believe has considerable social value.   It brings visibility to a topic that has long been neglected and it gives actionable data to those that may have previously thought board-gaming was not a hobby that was open to them.

This site doesn’t just cost me time though, it costs me money.   I spend approximately £100 a month on Meeple Like Us over a range of expenses that include hosting, content delivery networks, adverts, subscriptions to support services and plugins and so on.   I think the site is worth that which is why I haven’t complained at all about the expense or the opportunity cost that comes with doing 20-40 hours a week of essentially passion-project work.    I’d like to do more with the site but I’m capacity locked.

So, very soon I will be opening up a Patreon account for Meeple Like Us and I am SUPER ANXIOUS about it.  I stress again this isn’t a case of ‘if I don’t make money from the site I’ll shut it down’.   The site still has value as a public good, but the question I need to start asking myself is ‘how much of a good do the public see it as being?’

I have to ask myself if the site can’t actually generate sufficient income to cover its expenses and at least a portion of the time I spend on it… is it actually worth what I think it’s worth?  After all, there are dozens of reviewers that receive sufficient funds from their audience to at least subsidise or even fully fund the work they do.   If Meeple Like Us isn’t one of them, isn’t that really just evidence of a lack of merit?    What would those 20-40 hours be worth if I invested them in some other project?   I don’t even need to be paid minimum wage for my time, or even an appreciable percentage  – I love this work.   I think though I do need some sign that others value the work too.   Call it a ‘merit calibration’ if you like.   The value of this project is currently untested in any real sense.   It’s time for that to change.

I don’t want this to seem like a guilt-trip and I certainly don’t want anyone that can’t afford it to pledge anything to the site.    I have said it before and I will say it again here – there are forms of support that are absolutely free that are far more valuable than money.   You can throw a review up on the Amazon collection of editorials I published.  You can tell a local retailer or library about the site, or start directly quizzing publishers and designers about how they are considering accessibility.   If you run your own blog you can install our BGG/MLU integration plugin and make use of it.  You can use our affiliate link to buy anything you’re considering from Amazon.  More than anything else you can share our content – I get more traffic from someone posting a link to Reddit than I do from any £100 I spend on Facebook advertising.    That’s how valuable your support can be without it costing a penny and I am grateful for every bit of it.

if you do have some cash cooling its heels though and would be willing to support this unique project to give meaningful accessibility guidance to tens of thousands of people – I would be very appreciative of your consideration.   If it turns out the site can’t raise enough from its readership to demonstrate the value I believe it has, then I’ll investigate Adwords or other routes to subsidise the costs.   I’d rather not do that, but in the end that’ll be entirely up to the tender mercies of the Capitalist system.  If that’s still not enough, then it’ll be time to take a long hard look at the time I’m putting into the project and consider whether that time is really being spent as wisely as it could.

I say again just in case it got missed in the panhandling – the site is in no immediate danger!  This isn’t ‘put up or shut up’ but rather ‘Is this site actually worth the effort it takes?’.  If it is, we could do an awful lot more with a bit of funding coming our way.   You’ll see more of what we’d like to do with regards to that in the rewards section of the Patreon when we launch in a few days.

Thanks all!

Wow, way to end on a downer right?    Let’s not do that.  Let’s end on a positive note.

This year has been incredibly successful for the site and I am very excited by the possibilities that it has opened up.   Many of those are in the realms of academia, but I feel sometimes like we’re just getting started here with the site.     My most successful academic paper is sitting at 35 citations and picked up around 7,000 downloads in the last year.    Our top ten got that many hits in twelve hours.   I’m mostly used to the relative austerity of academic attention where a ‘someone cited your paper’ email is the equivalent of a saucy sext.  It’s thrilling to know that people are reading (and hopefully benefitting from) your work on a daily basis.  This is what academic research should be – something that is useful to people outside of paywalled journals and self-referential papers.

Thank you so much to everyone that I have met on twitter or in real life on the back of this project.  Thank you everyone that has ever posted about the site on their Facebook pages or thrown a link up on Reddit.  Thank you to everyone that has read a post or changed your mind on the basis of something we’ve written.   You are the reason the site exists and the site continues, and I hope that we’ll continue from strength to strength for years to come.


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