Good Neighbors: Meeple Like Us

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” ~ Mr. Rogers

Meeple centered design – its the phrase Dr. Michael Heron uses to describe the mission of Meeple Like Us. Focused on improving accessibility in board games, the site provides insight on how well individual games are doing as well as what the industry as a whole can do to improve. Through articles about the inclusivity and the way we look at accessibility in games to reviews of specific games and breakdowns of their accessibility in a number of categories (including physical, cognitive, and sociological accessibility), Meeple Like Us is helping improve our community by helping everyone have a place at the game table.

What was the catalyst for Meeple Like Us?

Probably aggressive rationalisation – we’d been playing board games for a bit and like many people when they discover this peculiar kind of cardboard crack I ended up buying a lot of them.   That could either have been ‘foolish over enthusiasm’ or hand-waved away as something more.  We went for the latter.   Originally the site was called the Dice Section (dissection – I was very pleased with myself) but it turned out about a hundred people had that clever idea before we did so it became Meeple Like Us.

Essentially though it was just a serendipitious intersection of my work interests (accessibility and video games) and my private obsession (board games).  Nobody else was doing anything quite like this and I thought ‘Hey, I might get a research paper out of this’.  Turned out it was more interesting a topic than a throw-away paper would suggest.  It’s generated two papers now and will be the basis of a number of future research grant bids.

Whats the aim of Meeple Like Us?

Grandiose, but I want to change an industry.   We’ve got a rare opportunity here with board-games – the industry small enough with sufficiently few big players that a change in the headwaters could genuinely improve the entire hobby for everyone.   It’s large enough that there are real potential business benefits that come from making accessibility improvements.    This is a hobby that I think is on the verge of becoming genuinely mainstream and with that comes opportunities *and* obligations to be as inclusive as possible.

How does promoting accessibility help the gaming and non-gaming communities?

Back in the sixties in Berkeley, wheelchair users were unable to get around the city because the curbs were too high to conveniently permit passage by a wheelchair.   Advocates managed to convince local municipal authorities to experiment with ‘curb cuts’ – parts of the pavement that were lowered to the road to permit easy navigation.  It turned out that this wasn’t just great for wheelchair users – it was great for parents with strollers, cyclists, people pushing hand trucks, postal works, older people… that phenomenon is known as the ‘curb cut’ effect, and I think what we’re looking at here is the provision of ‘cardboard curb cuts’. 

Accessibility removes barriers to play for people with disabilites, but everyone benefits.   Small text is difficult for lots of people to read.   Paper money is a wall to wall problem.   Complex conditional rules or games with colours that don’t work well in poor lighting.   Fix those things for the people most directly affected and gaming becomes easier for all of us.  We’re all getting older too, and as we get older we develop our own peculiar and unique suite of impairments.   If we want to be playing games when we’re older we need to work now to make them accessible.   We’re all also only a car crash or an accident away from more urgent need for accessibility too.   There’s a tinge of selfishness that infects everything we do on Meeple Like Us…

On a larger scale, perhaps one in five people in the world has something that could be described as a disability in one way, shape or form.  This is a massive, largely untapped market and the first companies that really double down on accessibility are likely to reap rewards far in excess of what it costs.    In the process, they’ll increase the size of the gamer market for everyone.   Accessibility is a case of a rising tide lifts all boats.  Or perhaps a better metaphor is a pie – when the pie gets bigger, everyone benefits even if their slice of the pie remains the same.

Have people been receptive to the idea? Whats the reaction to what you’re doing?

Reaction is mixed but I think broadly positive. Some aspects of the work we do are more controversial than others (we look at inclusion, diversity and representation as sociological factors of accessibility, and we look at business models in terms of economic accessibility) but by and large the core work we do gets a lot more appreciation that it gets opprobrium.    Even in the criticism the work sometimes gets it’s important to separate out that which is critical of me personally (because I don’t deny I’m a bit of an asshole) and that which is critical of the actual analysis.

Generally though I’m pleased with how the response has gone.  Most days. It varies…

What changes have you seen in the industry over the past decade insofar as accessibility? Do you think its improved a lot?

Most of my earlier research was focused on the video game industry and the improvements there have been remarkable – it’s not a solved problem by any stretch of the imagination but it’s gone from ‘how do we do this’ to ‘how do we get people to do this’ and some really big publishers have taken notice of accessibility in a big way.   It’s been very heartening to see that some games have been loudly lauded for their accessibility options and that’s made other developers sit up and say ‘Hang on, we could be doing that too!’.   It’s becoming now a case that it’s not ‘good on you’ for doing it but rather ‘Poor show’ for not doing it and that has a powerful impact on adoption in the marketplace.

For board games – well, it’s still not a conversation the industry is really having.   Even in 2018 we’re still seeing basic blunders like no support for colour blindness – more complex accessibility use cases are often addressed only accidentally.  I’m hopeful for the future.

Any particular story you’d like to share about how Meeple Like Us is helping improve the community?

I wouldn’t like to single anyone out in particular – I get lots of emails though that are supportive of the project and of the impact it has had in their lives.   Essentially all these stories have a similar theme – ‘this site has made it easier for me to spend time with someone I love’.   I’ve been publishing academic papers for years, and aside from the occasional citation that gets sent like a sext from Google Scholar there’s little sense of that work connecting with an audience.   Meeple Like Us has taught me what research needs to look like – out of the cloistered and self-referential halls of academia and into the real world of genuine impact on people.   Every email I get in this vein reminds me why the work is important – it’s easy to get lost in the idea of games as systems and the ever recycling dramas of our community.   There are people out there though that just want to be able to play great games with the people around them and anything that any of us can do to make that easier is a job worth doing.  Sometimes it’s more complicated than just saying ‘This game is great, you should get it’.

Whats your next event/project?

I keep promising this, but I plan to restart the Tabletop Accessibility Guideline project.  That’s an attempt to codify actual suggestions, directly drawn from gamers with disabilities and interfacing with publishers, designers and manufacturers.  We have literal hundreds of these on a wiki, but the big job is still to be done – editing them down into something actionable that is tractable while being meaningfully comprehensive.

Suggestions of games that do accessibility well?

That’s easy, we have a couple of pages for suggestions! One is our page on building an accessible game library on a budget – cheap(ish) games that will work, sometimes depending on how flexible you’re prepared to be. The other is our recommender where you can plug in an accessibility profile and get the matching games.

What would you say would be the #1 way for a group to improve the accessibility of their open game night?

That’s easy – ask people what they need before they need it.   Being proactive is great but there is no substitute for simply listening to what people tell you.   It’s also wonderful to be openly accommodating – to let people know that everyone is listening and people are prepared to make adaptions where they can.   To plug my own work for a bit, letting people know there’s accessibility guidance available (sometimes) can also be really useful.

You can keep up with Meeple Like Us’s latest reviews, articles, and accessibility tear downs via Facebook and Twitter. Also, you can support their work on Patreon.