17.2 Concept Generation

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?

 

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Identifying visual accessibility issues within gameplay

 

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.

 

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Analysis of interactions within Love Letter, and cards from the game

 

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.

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17.1 Constraints

 

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Exploring constraints

 

While the primary constraint – that the usability of the solution must not be wholly dependent upon its visual elements – is obvious given the target user group, the research phase revealed a number of important possible additional constraints to take into consideration. Firstly, games are played in different environments; in the home, in a pub or café, even outside. If the key feature of the solution, that is, the aspect of the system which facilitates access to the game for the visually impaired user, is entirely dependent on a constant, stable wifi connection, it would become unusable in some locations in which games are played. This problem was flagged by David during our pre-game chat, and under certain circumstances, wifi is even used by sighted players to retrieve more recent rules related information. This is particularly common among players of customisable card games, which receive rules errata and addenda where necessary as each new set of cards is published. Additionally, old cards are often reprinted with updated versions of their text to reflect current conventions, or functionally altered in light of changes made to the game or ambiguous wording, leading to players interpreting it in an unintended manner.

Secondly, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of sight loss among working age adults in the UK. This is a complication of diabetes, a condition which also causes sensory neuropathy: a loss of sensation which usually presents in the feet but can also affect the hands and arms of a diabetic, rendering them unable to read Braille. Relying upon haptics to inform the user of the game or system state could therefore result in the exclusion of a significant proportion of potential users.

Thirdly, three quarters of visually impaired or blind people of working age are unemployed. While they are eligible for benefits they also incur costs which sighted people do not – some of which are one off, for instance to buy specialist equipment, and some of which are recurring, for example to pay for taxis to participate in social activities or attend appointments. The solution must not rely on very expensive technology to function.

Week Seventeen: Sporting Chance Initiative

Yesterday we took a break from our projects to participate in the Sports Innovation Challenge, organised by the Sporting Chance Initiative. While the competition is ongoing, the visit from Kirsty Hepburn presented an opportunity for a rapid ideation and design challenge with entry to the competition being encouraged on the day.

Due to the extremely short length of time available for this task, considerations of how our group’s new product – a lightweight, expandable set of mounting steps for disabled riders – would actually function were sacrificed for imagining the practicalities and general experience of its use. Where would it be stored in transit? Does it fold into a backpack or would it be better to attach it to the tack somehow? Could it be integrated into the saddle? At no point did we discuss materials or technology which could be utilized to make the idea a reality; this was an exercise of pure imagination, and as such was somewhat liberating as concerns about how to actualise a concept are always present in project work.

While our entry would no doubt have been stronger had the workings of our proposed product been fully or even partially elucidated, I would like to begin all design projects this way – although given the group was composed entirely of interaction designers it was probably much easier for us to ignore issues of materials and physics than it would have been to put all considerations of the implementation of a purely digital artifact out of our minds!

16.2 Personas

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Yesterday I wrote a couple of personas to help ensure that my designs will be helpful to the target user group. These are primarily based upon members of the visually impaired gaming group I visited last semester, but also incorporate aspects of other young to middle aged people I have met with visual impairments and / or an interest in tabletop gaming.

While sight loss is often associated with the elderly, this is not the group that I am designing for. The outcome of this project is intended initially to be used by eighteen to forty year olds as it is within this age range that both hobbyist gamers and people with a high level of technical literacy tend to fall, irrespective of visual acuity. However, both research and experience suggest that gaming (both tabletop and board games) is not a hobby that is set aside as a player ages. I have many friends who play tabletop games with their partners, and encourage their children to play ever more complex games as they grow. The first social gaming group I was part of was run by a man in his fifties and included his twenty-something year old daughter and her fiancé, whom she met through the group. I myself learned to play Magic: The Gathering when I was eighteen and have played regularly for ten years – not competitively, just for fun. While my system will not be designed with current elderly people in mind, it should ensure that current sighted players, who have grown up with ubiquitous digital technology, are able to continue playing even if they experience age-related sight loss, as well as fulfilling the primary goal of allowing visually impaired players to enjoy the same wide variety of games their friends and family members play without requiring either a sighted companion to assist them, or modifications made to rules or aspects of play.

 

 

 

16.1 First Tutorial

Yesterday was my first supervisory tutorial with Ewan Steel, during which the direction of the project was discussed, along with the challenges of designing an original game versus adapting an existing game or creating a parallel system through which a visually impaired player could play alongside sighted players who would be using the standard physical elements for a chosen game. We agreed that designing an original game in this short space of time for the course would be potentially risky, as focusing upon devising and refining mechanics would leave little time for working on the visual presentation of the physical elements and any companion app UI, but integrating a digital reflection of a physical game state into the experience of game play presents its own issues; how does information flow between the mirror game and the standard game? Would sighted users find it distracting? How does interacting with the system change the experience of gameplay – does it detract from the experience of playing the game or could it even enhance it? Is there a risk of replacing the physical game, destroying the atmosphere created by interacting with abstract rules through physical pieces? Aside from the last (which deserves a post of its own), these are questions which I will only be able to answer through exploration and prototyping of potential supportive systems, and answering these questions is more constructive to the goal of better integrating visually impaired players into the gaming community as a whole than creating a game specifically for people with visual impairments as that risks defining them in the minds of others as sight-impaired players rather than simply as players. Furthermore designing a game specifically for such players does little to increase the tiny number of games available to visually impaired people, and nothing at all to assist them in accessing the wide range of popular and award winning games which they have a strong desire to play, as evidenced by their experimentation with their own adaptation strategies.

Decision made.

 

Week Sixteen: Status Report

On the long journey home from a quick trip to see family and friends in England, I had plenty of time to think about the concept from my ‘final’ concept presentation and concluded that creating an original game is, while something I would like to do, not necessarily the right way to proceed on this project as it would do little to aid in removing barriers to participating in the vast array of existing table top games, except perhaps as a piece of critical design aimed at raising awareness of accessibility issues among game designers in order to promote the adoption of inclusive design in future games.

So, while part of me does want to make a fantastically colourful, tactile, pulp sci-fi inspired board game which everyone would have fun with at New Designers, I should go back to my user research now and generate some more concepts to work out how a designer could have a positive impact on gameplaying beyond creating a single game specifically for people with visual impairments.

Week Fifteen: Dissertation Complete!

For a few days at least, I actually had fun writing my dissertation. Unfortunately, these days came in the final week, after I decided to completely rewrite everything I had thus far composed, one painful paragraph at a time, over the previous months. This was the right decision; having to switch my attention between project and dissertation resulted in a highly disconnected piece of work that wouldn’t flow properly no matter how many hours I poured into trying to hammer it into something vaguely coherent.

With it now safely in the hands of DJCAD, I have a moment to reflect.

Stuff I learned:

  • I enjoy writing –
  • But only when I have time to concentrate exclusively on whatever it is I’m trying to write. This is because –
  • Writing is some kind of arcane magic within which my thought processes are inextricably entangled. The process of committing words to screen is partly a journey upon which my subconscious is leading my fingers to reveal things I feel but do not consciously know; and partly a desperate attempt to articulate the conscious thoughts that have accumulated before they take over my head entirely like a virus overwriting all the sectors of a hard drive.
  • Trying to look at the results of specific choices in video games is hard, even with the aid of video walkthroughs and published player guides.
  • The final battle with Saren in the original Mass Effect is spectacularly hard if you’ve done a speed play-through and neglected to upgrade anyone’s weapons because, well, speed run.
  • Harvard needs to update its referencing system to include video games. There should probably be two forms; one for a general reference to the game, and one for a very specific reference which includes the mission or level name in which the discussed content is found.
  • Seeing your own work in hardback is amazing. I wrote a book! Sort of.

 

Now I’m going to celebrate Christmas.

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13.1 Megagaming

Yesterday I participated in a megagame for the first time. I do a lot of gaming; I’m a committee member of the Roleplaying Society here at UoD, have been a Magic player for years, play board games with a group of friends back home, and have on occasion participated in live action roleplaying games (LARPs). I enjoy the challenge of strategy games and the imagination involved in roleplay, but my participation in gaming has not only bought me many hours of fun in my free time but also strengthened ties with friends back home, and helped me build new relationships here at university. However, most of the time I play in groups of four to eight which are highly cohesive once formed, while yesterday I played in a game involving thirty two players, plus gamesmasters / referees.

Megagaming essentially falls somewhere between a board game and a LARP. There are all the trappings of a board game: the strict definitions of what a player can do on his or her turn, turn order, rounds, tokens, and maps or boards – but each player takes on a role which not only defines what kind of actions they can take in a turn but also provides opportunities for the in-character acting of tabletop and live action roleplaying games. In this game, Galactic Throne (based on the board game Twilight Imperium), each team had four roles – President, Admiral, Diplomat and Explorer – each following different rules and having different actions available to them on their turn; for instance, Admirals met once a turn around a war table to move their forces around the map and resolve any conflicts, while Diplomats met in a separate room to discuss issues emerging from the action elsewhere and propose and vote upon resolutions to these issues. Over the course of ten hours of gameplay, a team playing reporters tweeted a commentary of the diplomatic council’s proceedings and provided single page newspapers after every round which were delivered to each team’s table.

As the written plot points developed – the appearance of the mysterious spheres, the warping of space-time, the ships’ AI apparently gaining sentience – other stories developed as a result of unscripted player interactions and unpredictable council decisions and the reporters responded to that by speaking to presidents and diplomats about their actions. Alliances were made, broken, and betrayed. A faction suffered trade sanctions after evidence emerged that they were supporting a terrorist organisations, which were later lifted as it was proven that they were set up by a rival faction who were the true backers of the terrorists. Once free of suspicion, the exonerated faction began supporting the terrorists while the original backers were punished. As a diplomat, I can report that the tension in the council was very real even though all of us were simply acting and the Galactic Council chamber itself was a reading room in a local church hall. For me the most serious moment was when we were discussing what we should do about the AI which was now spreading from fighter ship to fighter ship. Bribes were even paid to the reporters not to write anything until a resolution had been drafted and voted upon.

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The Galactic Council Chamber

While social interaction is involved in all games where there are co-located players, communication is integral to the experience of playing a megagame; whether in the context of formulating tactics within your own team, or in negotiating with members of other teams to advance your team’s agenda, or in contributing to the ever evolving storyline, you are engaging with other players almost constantly. Furthermore, while a traditional board game allows each player to directly observe each other player at all times, a megagame does not, so what one team member witnesses in one area must be effectively related by them to the rest of their team to help inform their individual strategies. Following the conclusion of the game, a debriefing is held which resolves any outstanding issues, clarifies any plot points which have been misunderstood or which were too vague for players to pick up on, and allow all participants to share stories of their experiences. This results in a very positive atmosphere, and a sense of community. While a team was awarded the throne at the end, the game itself was not about achieving an objective and winning, it was about sharing – and creating – a fictional reality which will be remembered by all those who were involved. While the level of social interaction in my game is unlikely to be quite so deep, I aspire to encourage a sense of belonging within a play group, albeit a much smaller one.

On a personal note, post-debriefing I headed to the pub with the rest of team Imperia – three guys from Edinburgh I had never met before. While talking to one of them about my dissertation, I discovered that he had been a writer on Fallen London, one of the games I have been looking at in my research, and he gave me his email address, saying he would be happy to answer any questions I may have.

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Team Imperia

Photos by Anna.Photos

Week Twelve: Final Concept Presentation

It feels strange to have been preparing a final concept presentation. The concept I will present next week is very far from being final; but nonetheless preparing for this presentation has been a useful exercise to help clarify the direction the project will take. While the technologies that could be utilised in an accessible game have never been far from my mind, this week marked the beginning of my consideration of aesthetic concerns – and while it is perhaps natural to consider how information about a game could be conveyed in a non-visual form when designing for visually impaired people, the design of visual elements is actually critical to the accessibility of this game as careful visual design can allow all but the completely blind to read and understand information. The definition of blindness varies from country to country, but a person who is legally blind in the UK is not necessarily completely blind, and the majority of people with visual impairments retain some usable sight. The game should still be accessible to someone who is completely blind, but its aesthetics should support its accessibility to those with some limited vision.