Love Thy Nerd
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Online Gaming and Room at the Table for Disabled People

When LTN Con registration opened, I was most excited about being able to play board games with people. My own local friends’ group completely failed to transition to online games beyond the occasional get-together for Jackbox games when the pandemic hit. While I’ve played a fair amount of Parks, Wingspan, and Sagrada by myself, I’ve desperately missed the community aspect. As Mike Perna described at LTN Con, I’ve missed the shared experiences and common history of flipping the right card at the right time.

Gaming at LTN Con definitely provided that common experience, but it also proved to be more challenging than I expected, primarily because of dealing with unfamiliar technology. On Friday night, I eagerly hopped into a few games of Among Us, only to discover that the five minutes of practice I had given myself after downloading the game were not nearly sufficient. I was an imposter on my second game and had no clue how to vent or kill anyone. My strategy in my first game was to run around and poke wildly at anything that was glowing, but that strategy doesn’t work for imposters. It wasn’t until later that I realized my right hand was blocking the part of my touch screen with the mechanics I needed.

Playing a game of Among Us for the first time can be overwhelming while figuring out its mechanics and how they correspond to the user interface.

I had similar problems with Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator. Simple tasks like rolling dice became a challenge, and even when told how to select multiple objects at once, I still failed at it frequently. It was as if I were trying to pick up small tokens and dice while wearing thick mittens. During one game, I functionally stood on one side of the table and then “walked” around it so I could pick up a card and hold it three inches from my face in order to read it. I found out later that one key press would have done the trick. In another game, one player had mic issues. She could hear us but we couldn’t hear her. Our group used the chat function to communicate with her instead of the mic, which was good enough for our purposes but made talking somewhat more challenging..

Now, all of these examples are minor inconveniences that could be easily fixed through practice. By Saturday afternoon, for example, I had adapted to the limited field of vision in Among Us and learned how to kill my crewmates. Eventually, I’ll get better with the tools of digital tabletop games, like picking up multiple objects at once, hovering to zoom, and more. All of these struggles are only minor echoes and reminders of the inconveniences my friends with disabilities face daily. 

My own minor inconveniences while gaming reminded me of my responsibility to love and serve people with disabilities well. […] It’s far easier to serve people with good vision and good hearing. It’s easier, but it’s not right.

I think of the colorblind father of one of my friends. The only reason he can play Ticket to Ride is because of the decorative icons on the train cars, allowing him to match colors he can’t see.

I think of a deaf friend and how hard it must be to communicate with anyone when everyone around her is wearing masks.

I think of a friend with carpal tunnel syndrome who struggled to hold her newborn baby, let alone smaller objects like dice.

I think of the blind man who once demonstrated screen reading technology using a webpage I built, only to show me how I provided a bunch of “Read more” links in a row with no alternative ways for people like him to access the content or context as to where the links would go.

A game of Arkham Horror that I played online. A lot to take in, but a digital environment streamlines one’s bodily interaction with the board to a matter of button presses and flicks of the wrist.

My own minor inconveniences while gaming reminded me of my responsibility to love and serve people with disabilities well. And I need that reminder because I’ve become tired of fighting the battle for accessibility. I’m sick of reminding coworkers to check the color contrast of text on an image, let alone add alt text or, better yet, screen reader-friendly HTML text over a background image. I’m sick of fighting the fight for captions on videos, which take time, money, and effort to do well. It’s far easier to serve people with good vision and good hearing.

It’s easier, but it’s not right.

It is our job to make things as comfortable as we can for everyone to participate, no matter the time or effort it takes.

If there’s one thing I learned from my own minor technological failures, it’s that I’m fortunate that these were my struggles. For people with physical limitations, online communities may be their best and only form of social interaction, even outside a pandemic. For someone bound to a wheelchair, the act of reaching across a table to pick up a card may be beyond their capabilities, but digital gaming—while awkward sometimes—puts everyone on the same level by removing physical restrictions. Everyone belongs at the table regardless of physical limitations. That may mean working in text chat instead of just voice in online gaming, or designing games that rely on features other than color to distinguish components for low-vision users. Or it may be as simple as being patient with someone who moves slowly due to mobility issues.

Regardless of what we do, whether as a player, or in our work and life, it is our job to make things as comfortable as we can for everyone to participate, no matter the time or effort it takes.

Lisa Eldred is a Michigan-based writer and editor. By day she writes for Covenant Eyes. By night she collects Star Wars- and Harry Potter-themed LEGOs and Cthulhu kitsch. Her favorite tabletop RPG system ever is Edge of the Empire. You can find her at wasabijane.com or on Twitter at @firstcrusader.

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