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Stay in your Lane

by Michael Heron on 03/13/19 11:03:00 pm

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.

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I think I’ve been consistently upfront with what I consider to be the biggest weakness of this site. It’s included as a disclaimer at the bottom of every teardown, and it’s persistently the thing that makes me feel most uneasy about Meeple Like Us on a day to day basis. I could perhaps be considered something of a minor expert on accessibility, insofar as a PhD qualifies anyone to consider themselves an expert on anything. I’m the first to say that is in itself a considerable leap of faith. However, I don’t have embodied experience regarding the vast majority of the things I say. I’m relatively abled, and yet I’m rating games for accessibility in circumstances where I have little day-to-day real life experience. Sure, I have my own minor intermittent impairments. I’m diabetic, with high blood pressure. Those two things occasionally flare up into problems that impact on my ability or willingness to play games. I have chronic shoulder pain that makes certain physical interactions uncomfortable, but not impossible. I spend a lot of time aching. I’m profoundly short sighted. All of those things make a difference, but it’s not the same as living with uncorrectable issues on a day to day basis. Insofar as these conditions manifest personally for me they are inconveniences, not disabilities.

I mentioned all of this in my post on imposter syndrome. The observation of the disconnect between site output and embodied experience has led to a persistent, nagging voice at the back of my head. One that constantly makes me question whether I should be doing any of this work at all. It feels appropriative and puts a massive question mark on all of the recommendations that come out of the teardowns I do. After all, why should anyone trust a conclusion when I don’t actually live a life where I have genuine embodied experience?

In case you’ve missed it, here’s what we say about every teardown we do:

A word about teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

 

That’s the real reason why I always tell people to ignore the recommended grades and focus on the teardown texts. I say it’s because recommendations are too flat to be useful (which is true) but the secret message underneath that is ‘I don’t know if they’re even accurate in the best case circumstances’. I sometimes think that it was a mistake to put recommendation grades into the site output but there’s no denying that they’ve been useful for a whole rage of algorithmic and statistical purposes. Still, as we say in the computer biz – garbage in, garbage out. I can’t say for certain that any recommendation, or indeed any teardown, raises itself above the level of garbage. I hope it does, but all I can really can do is hope.

It weighs on me.

This isn’t just a phantom concern either. I know it’s a viewpoint held by numerous people – that those of that are relatively abled should not opine on matters where we have no real experience. That we should ‘stay in our lanes’. That we’ve no business injecting our opinions into the discourse because it’s fundamentally not ours to commandeer. It’s certainly not a universal viewpoint, but it’s one that I think deserves a meaningful response because it’s not unreasonable even if I don’t agree with it. It’s also not an argument that is unique to accessibility work. You’ll find it making its way into a whole range of areas in cultural discourse.

There’s an old adage that authors should ‘write what they know’, but that’s always struck me as intensely unhelpful advice. What if what you know isn’t what gets you excited? What if you don’t have any stories to tell about what you know? It’s advice that tells people to stop dreaming. That their horizons extend only as far as their physical circumstances permit. At its heart this is essentially a gatekeeper’s argument. It demands people stay in their lanes.

A far more useful and affirming philosophy is ‘Know what you write’, and that’s the one I have always used as my guiding principle. I can’t write from an embodied perspective of disability, at least not in any significant way. I can’t know what it means to be disabled in any way other than what my own various ailments and chronological decrepitude permits. However, what I can know about is accessibility because experience of accessibility is not actually necessarily bound up into a context of disability.

Dundee V&A Beano Exhibit

Weird or not, it’s true and it’s really at the core of my understanding of what accessibility means. We are all impaired, at some point or another, for some duration of time. We’re all impaired often multiple times during a day. Whether it’s sun in the eyes (a visual impairment), a loud environment (a communication impairment) or carrying a heavy bag (a physical impairment) – we all get to experience situations in which accessibility would make a meaningful difference to our quality of life. What distinguishes disability in this regard is not the binary need for accessibility support but rather the importance that accessibility support assumes.

We sometimes refer to this observation as ‘inclusive design’ – that we are looking at mismatches between humans and their goals, not between humans and their personal health considerations. It’s not controversial to say that accessibility improvements benefit everyone – that’s why we talk about the ‘curb cut effect’. Back in the 60s in Berkley, disability activists convinced the city to cut ramps into sidewalks to permit easier movement for wheelchairs. Turned out that was great for many people – parents with strollers, postal workers with trolleys, cyclists and lots more. We all benefit from more accessible approaches to life. The big difference is that the abled perspective of inaccessibility is situational and temporary. When we break an arm, it will heal (probably). When we are weighed down with baggage, we can put it down. We either swap in and out of intermittent impairment or simply power through it. For temporary impairments, we know that we will likely get better with time.

My old PhD supervisor used to say that ‘extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances are the same as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances’, and that particular observation was genuinely revelatory for me. Truth is, I did my PhD in accessible computing because I wanted to do a PhD and that was the one I was offered. Before I started studying the topic, I was indifferent at best and sceptical at worst. I thought that the PhD would be a springboard to do the research I wanted to do – a chore I had to perform before I could really focus on the ‘stuff that mattered’. I changed my mind on the topic because of me supervisor’s notion actually connected it to me. It went from being ‘something we do for a minority’ to ‘something we do for everyone’. It’s a kind of social advocacy informed by naked self-interest.

We’re all getting older. We’re all going to develop impairments, decrepitudes and disabilities. We need to get this shit sorted out now before it’s too late. I’m sorry if that makes it sound like improving games for everyone else is just a happy side-effect, but I never claimed to be a good person.

There’s a reason why the greatest achievements of the accessibility movement have been co-opted by other disciplines. It’s the same principle behind ‘If alternative medicine worked we’d just call It medicine’. If accessible design works, we just call it design. The fight for accessibility is hugely bound up in an understanding of disability, but if there were no people with disabilities there would still be a need for accessible design. The two aren’t the same thing.

That’s the philosophy behind the teardowns of Meeple Like Us. They don’t really talk about disability, but rather about impairment. The issues that impact on someone playing a boardgame under poor lighting are often similar to those of someone playing with colour blindness. That equivalence doesn’t always hold true but the universality of the solutions usually do. This is why we on the site talk about things in terms of ‘these are the problems’ rather than ‘these are the solutions’. I can’t tell you what the solutions are because that’s tightly bound up in the context of embodiment. I can however explain what a game is asking of its players and let other people decide upon whether it is still an appropriate choice of a game for them. I can talk about what the game asks you to do, and then you decide whether that’s a thing you can work with or work around.

A photo of the Resistance, for no reason

The secondary benefit of this approach is that it’s actually a lot easier. While we do make positive recommendations in the blog, it’s not because we’re identifying (in most cases) special design choices for accessibility. Rather it’s because we have gone through a list of the common mistakes, looked at where information comes from and how it is used, and then mapped that on to individual categories of impairment. It’s easy because it’s highly structured.

Let’s say for example key information about the game state is available only visually. That means we need to discuss whether it’s feasible for alternate methods to be used and what the impact is likely to be on flow, experience, and the stresses placed on other faculties. We’re absolutely not qualified to recommend games for people with particular disabilities, and so we don’t. Instead we focus on general cases. On interaction patterns. On the things that a game asks of everyone, so that individuals can consider if it will be asking too much of them.

It’s easy to miss that because of the common expectations that a discussion of accessibility must necessarily focus on disability, but it’s a very conscious decision we’ve taken in the work. We will say ‘Players with moderate visual impairments may find this difficult’ but we don’t assume what those impairments are or how chronic they might be. Of critical importance though is this: we don’t say things like ‘This will be fine for people with glaucoma’ or ‘We would recommend this game for someone with dyslexia’. That’s not our place to say – the spectrum of disability is huge and complex. There is more variability within members of a ‘disabled population’ than we can possibly address within even our relatively lengthy teardowns. All we do is say ‘This is what the game asks you to do’ and ‘These are some likely problem areas’ but we leave everything else up to the reader. If I can’t actually give you an embodied perspective, I won’t. I will just point out what I can in the hope it’s of use. Feedback certainly seems to be that it is helpful more often than it’s not, but we’re always very willing to listen to comments and revise teardowns accordingly.

We do have numerous people with disabilities feeding in on teardowns, and I will always prioritise their opinions over my own. We have modified many teardowns on the basis of feedback we’ve had, but the truth is we don’t get as much of that as we’d like. I’ve always considered these teardowns to be the start of a discussion rather than the end of one – it’s just a discussion that to date is monopolised by me.

There’s another reason why we do what we do.

It seems pretty unreasonable to expect people to be able to weigh in on all the reasons they can’t play a game unless they have actually played it enough to be able to articulate the inaccessibility. It’s a lot to ask of someone to buy and play a game in the hope they even can. Games are not cheap – not in terms of money, and especially not in terms of social capital and time. While embodied accessibility reviews are hugely valuable, it seems that the cost of their production is unfairly borne by those that may not be able to enjoy them in the first place.

Meeple Like Us is now in the happy position of being able to request review material but it’s not as if review copies are in abundant supply in the general ecosystem. There are real costs that go along with providing a physical game to someone for review, and as a natural consequence those costs get spent where there is a return commensurate with the outlay. It’s problem for an accessibility reviewer – they buy games until they achieve the reputation, or perhaps notoriety, to request games. It’s not really fair to expect someone buy games to review the accessibility if they are essentially spending money to say ‘No, I can’t play this’. At the very least those of us working on Meeple Like Us can play almost everything, so nothing is ever a truly wasted spend.

The simple logistics of the exercise mean that to require embodied experience is to doom the entire enterprise to failure. I would absolutely agree that the perspective of someone with a permanent visual impairment is more valuable than mine when discussing the visual accessibility of a board game. I would equally agree that the perspective of someone with a physical disability is more valuable than mine when talking about the physical accessibility of a game.

I would dispute though that no information is better than some information and that’s really the alternative – it’s the environment that existed when we started. There was some discussion of accessibility, a few embodied accounts of a scattering of games, but there was certainly nothing like what we do where all kinds of accessibility categories are discussed, documented, and made searchable and comprehensible. At best, if you searched widely and carefully, you might find a physical accessibility overview of one game, a visual accessibility overview of another game, and perhaps a cognitive overview of another still. Three disparate data points, each very valuable, but with no impact because their perspectives were so scattered and so specific.

Photos of games, for no reason

A crowd-sourced project where lots of embodied perspectives are collated for dozens of games would be great – one where every data point is fully sourced from someone with an appropriate disability. Ideally multiple data points for each. That’s not going to happen though, at least until there are more people with disabilities playing board games. It’s a catch-22 situation – more people with disabilities won’t play more games until they are accessible, and an accessibility project can’t include embodied perspectives until there are more people playing. The logistics simply don’t shake out. I think about this a lot though, and I think it’s almost certainly the final evolution of the Meeple Like Us Pokemon. For us to get there, we need to go through all the other evolutionary forms even if some of them aren’t optimal.

In the end, my view is that perfect is the enemy of the good and to demand that a site like this do everything perfectly is to argue that this work should not exist in any form. The simple fact is that nobody can do this site in a way that enforces a rigorous perspective of embodiment. There is no one person that can talk meaningfully about all categories, and no eight people that can talk about each category for the same set of games. You can do some fractional subset of Meeple Like Us in that way, but you can’t do Meeple Like Us.

Essentially if the standard we need to meet is embodied experience, then nobody can really talk about any accessibility issue except with an intended audience of one – the writer. No one person can speak for all visually impaired people. No deaf person can speak for everyone who is hard of hearing. The variability is too high, the specifics too personal. Any intersectional issue is going to completely undermine the applicability of everything else. Even within a condition as comparatively simple as colour blindness there is a massive amount of variation – so much so that one person with Protanopia will say a game is fully playable while another will say it’s entirely impossible to make out the colours. The simple fact is that if we carry the principle through to its conclusion, nobody can speak for anyone other than themselves and so none of us should say anything about anything.

I understand then the impulse to demand people ‘stay in their lanes’, but I think it’s an attitude that has immense problems when you really consider where it takes us. It takes us to a situation where the solution can’t exist. Perfect is not just the enemy of the good in this circumstance. It’s the obliterating anti-matter of the good.

I think it’s better that we cut ourselves some slack so that we can at least do something even if it’s not the perfect thing. Otherwise we’ll never get anything done at any time. Our approach for the site has been to focus on accessibility as an inclusive principle, not one that emerges from disability. We discuss games from the perspective of what they ask of people, not in terms of their suitability for people with disabilities. We seek to incorporate embodied perspectives into the documents we do, revising grades and recommendations accordingly. More than this though, we hope to eventually become such a recognised and useful resource that we can essentially crowdsource ourselves out of a job. We’re not at that point yet, perhaps will never be, but everything has to start somewhere.

The right person at the right time never really exists – you get some person at some time and work your way up from there.


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