“I used to think I sucked at games because of my blindness, but in reality, games sucked for me.”Steve Saylor, Accessibility Advocate
Words Matter in Gaming
In every aspect of life, words are a primary tool for communication. In gaming, we use words within game environments, while learning games, and in discussions about games. I’ve encountered three words that are sometimes used in ways that can cause confusion or harm: Approachable, Accessible, and Difficult.
Approachable is simply defined as “easy to meet or deal with.”
In tabletop gaming discourse, much has been said about making games more approachable for new gamers, younger gamers, and families. “Gateway” is a particular moniker given to a game that could bring a non-hobby-gamer into the broader and deeper world of tabletop games. Example of games considered approachable might include Ticket to Ride, Aquamarine, or Cascadia.
Weight and Complexity
Related to approachability, Board Game Geek’s Complexity Rating is described as “a community rating for how difficult a game is to understand” and uses a 5-point weight scale from 1 (light) to 5 (heavy). For example, Tussie Mussie has a weight of 1.1, while Agricola’s weight is 3.6.
BGG includes the following factors that affect a game’s weight: amount of rules, gameplay length, amount of luck, technical skill required, amount of choices available, amount of bookkeeping, and level of difficulty. Connecting difficulty to approachability makes sense. And it’s one example of the conflation of these terms leading to confusion.
The most basic definition of accessible is “capable of being reached.” More specifically, Webster’s definition #5 is “Easily used or accessed by people with disabilities; adapted for use by people with disabilities.”
Accessibility can be temporal. While I typically do not have mobility limitations, when I’m carrying a bag of groceries I am limited to using only one arm for other purposes like closing a car trunk or opening a door.
Accessibility is also personal. I have a particular type and degree of color vision deficiency, and I require glasses to read. Most board games and video games are designed with my needs in mind, so I rarely require adaptations. When I do encounter accessibility barriers, I may need to change something about the game (modify components), something about myself (find my reading glasses), or ask others for help. When I play Viticulture, one of my favorite games, I use all three of these methods.
Difficult is defined in the dictionary as “a thing that is hard to accomplish, deal with, or understand.” Like accessibility, difficulty is personal. Ian Hamilton describes games difficulty in this way.
“Games don’t have difficulty, they have barriers. Difficulty springs into existence when someone plays. It is the product of their personal capability versus the barriers the game presents.”
The related topic of a game’s difficulty has included debates related to cooperative board games like Pandemic, Quirky Circuits, and Agropolis. How often should coop players expect to win versus the game? Half the time? More? Less?
In video games, discussions continue about challenging titles like Elden Ring and Dark Souls, difficulty settings, and the impact of accessibility options on a game designer’s intended player experience.
In the midst of all these discussions, some words and their definitions have become conflated. For example, approachability and accessibility are often used synonymously, although in this realm they are quite different. And difficulty (comparing a player’s current capability to a desirable challenge) is often confused with the undesirable barriers created when games are not accessible.
Accessibility and Approachability
One obstacle to adding nuance to definitions is historical use. Approachable and accessible are listed in the dictionary as each others’ synonyms, which helps explain why they are often interchanged.
Sen-Foong Lim is a game designer and clinical therapist with experience in developmental disability. He offers the following comparison of these two words.
- Approachable: Welcoming, inviting, easy to “get.”
- Accessible: Usable by end consumer as intended/designed.
Sen-Foong continued to share his desires on the topic: “I’m hoping that more people make the distinction between these two things, because disabled folk and the people who love and support them will often look for the term ‘accessible’ when making decisions about what to try or buy.”
Accessibility and Difficulty
My favorite recent discussion of this comparison was delivered by Ian Hamilton at the 2021 Games Accessibility Conference. In this 6-minute presentation, Ian described the intimate relationship between difficulty and accessibility. I pulled out a few quotes and paraphrases here, and I highly recommend watching the full talk.
- If you and I play the same game, one of us will find it easier than the other. What’s difficult for one person is easy for another, and impossible for another.
- Disability is a mismatched interaction between capability and barrier. Accessibility is avoiding this unnecessary mismatch.
- All difficulty options affect accessibility by modifying barriers.
- All accessibility options affect difficulty.
- Options let me more people have the kind of experience the developer intended.
Colorblind Accessibility Example. When I (a colorblind person) play a video game or board game that does not offer color vision accessibility options, that situation creates a “disabling barrier” that makes the game more difficult for me to play. If that disabling barrier is modified or removed so I can overcome it (for example, by modifying the components of Century: Spice Road with a sharpie) then the same game becomes easier for me.
Where to Go from Here?
I consider this article a starting point for additional discussion, as I learn, unlearn, and relearn more about these words’ definitions and interactions. I look forward to seeking solutions to help designers, publishers, and gamers remove mismatched barriers so more of us can play more games.