Now that I am satisfied that the best way forward is to design a system to support visually impaired players in playing existing games, the next question to answer is ‘what aspects of gameplay will the system support and how?
In order to determine the most appropriate response to this question, I have been exploring the nature of modern tabletop games in order to gain a better understanding of where accessibility problems may arise, drawing upon both my observational notes on play from the VI gaming group and my own considerable experience as a tabletop gamer, as well as analysing the constituent elements of winners of the Spiel De Jahres (the most prestigious award for game design) from the last decade or so.
On a physical level, games emerge from the interaction of things – a piece moves along a static board, a board is constructed randomly at the beginning of each session, a certain combination of cards causes a visible change in the game state – signified perhaps by the assignment of tokens to a player or the relocation of a meeple. However, it is not the things themselves that are important but their interactions – my first game of chess was played with little pieces cut from a puzzle book and a paper board, and my latest was played on a beautiful wooden board with carved and painted Roman legionaries and patricians as pieces, a set given to me by my parents for my eighteenth birthday. Both games functioned identically from the perspective of game mechanics, though the experience of the physicality of the games was radically different.
What a game essentially consists of then is interactions; between players and information, and between different pieces of information. This information generally falls into three categories: public information, for example the position of a playing piece, the value of face up cards, and the rules, which is available to all players; privileged information, for example the value of cards held in hand, which is available only to an individual player or team, and randomly generated information such as that produced by rolling dice (this information may be public or temporarily privileged depending on the game). In some modern games the layout of the board itself is randomly generated from shuffling and distributing cards or tiles.
While it is not ideal for a visually impaired person to rely upon sighted players to inform them of public information, it is not generally disruptive to most games, and it is quite common in many games for sighted players to request information from each other such as the number of cards they are currently holding, or the function of a card placed face up in front of a player at the far end of the table. However, requiring a sighted player to assist in reading privileged information is detrimental to the experience of gameplay for a group. The sighted player must ignore knowledge about his or her sight impaired opponent’s cards or face-down tokens when making decisions about his or her own play or sit out of the game entirely. The information contained within the cards must also be relatively simple, or it will be impossible to relay to the sight-impaired player without revealing it to all the prayers at the table. Visually impaired players may feel guilty for spoiling the experience for others, reluctant to ask for a reminder of the cards or tokens they hold, and find it difficult if not impossible to play against other visually impaired people with no sighted players present. As it is inherently a barrier to accessibility, I have chosen to focus specifically on privileged information with the goal of creating a system which will allow visually impaired players to read privileged information for themselves.