Yesterday I took a trip up to Aberdeen to speak with Michael Heron, a lecturer at the School of Computing Science and Digital Media at Robert Gordon University and founder of Meeple Like Us, a blog in which board games are reviewed from an accessibility perspective using heuristic analysis. As visual accessibility is only one element on which a game is assessed and scored, the blog had not appeared in any of my previous search results, but the instant I widened my search to ‘accessibility + board + gaming’ with no specific mention of visual impairment, it became the top result. While the research phase officially ended before Christmas, I couldn’t not contact Michael, and realising how close he is, I had to try to set up a meeting with him to discuss my project.
It was a very interesting, and in a way, encouraging conversation, as he has been considering ways to make board games more accessible to a broad range of people and has come to similar conclusions regarding the need for the involvement of the wider gaming community as I have in my own work. Furthermore, it provided an opportunity to explore an issue I have been increasingly concerned about: at what point do modifications or assistive technology detract from the experience of playing a particular board game, transforming it from a fundamentally tactile experience to something less tangible, an increasingly electronic game which may no longer be recognisable as the original game? Michael described a session he ran to teach paper prototyping in which students made paper prototypes of board games. Some were very successful and fun, even at such low fidelity, and some were not. In particular the group found that when custom dice were prototyped using a combination of standard dice and lookup tables in which standard dice values were assigned to game-specific symbols, the process of checking the values created a less emotionally engaging experience than that of rolling the game-specific dice themselves. While this might not be an issue during the rapid, inexpensive prototyping of a new game with unique dice, it suggests that part of the experience of tabletop gaming is lost to visually impaired people who employ the same technique to differentiate between special symbols using standard but tactile dice, and this is something to bear in mind in the design of my app. It should not simply encode game information into an accessible format, but also retain or replicate the emotional experience embedded within the discovery or generation of that information and the interactions between player and game. Playing a game with the aid of my app must not be as radically different as the experiences of watching a television programme, and hearing the audio description of the same show, which as Rachel pointed out, is often clinical and lacking in emotional content.
Michael also requested that I update him on the progress of my work. As I am hoping that I will be able to take my project further, it is reassuring to know that other people are interested in this specific area of accessibility.
Finally, the conversation revealed an oversight in my persona spectrum; the app may also be helpful for people with cognitive impairments as it could also play complex game text in simplified vocabulary.