The first two parts of this series looked at the basics of designing games for kids. This segment looks specifically at accessibility, particularly for players with dyslexia, color-blindness, visual impairments, and autism.
WHAT DOES ACCESSIBILITY IN GAMING MEAN? AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Accessibility in gaming, to me as a game designer, means purposefully creating ways for the widest variety of players to play your game to the fullest.
For kids, this kind of accessibility can be life-changing. Studies and personal accounts have shown that gaming helps kids feel more confident, learn new ways to express themselves, and develop important life and social skills.
Accessibility in gaming typically falls into five categories: Vision (color-blindness, blindness), hearing (hard-of-hearing, deafness), speech (speed impairments, language differences), mobility (physical challenges), and learning/cognitive (learning and reasoning challenges, including dyslexia, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome).
A few of these–namely dyslexia, color-blindness, vision impairment, and autism are particularly challenging for kids and roleplaying games.
Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols. This is especially pertinent (and problematic) for roleplaying games, where the books are often beautifully designed, with elegant, complex fonts, dark or complicated backgrounds, and lots of small text, cursive, and italics. Unfortunately, these beautiful design elements can make it difficult for dyslexic readers to understand the text.
Choosing good font types, sizes, and contrast can all make reading easier, not just for kids with dyslexia, but for new readers or those who struggle with reading for other reasons.
Font Types: A number of studies have explored the best font choices for readers with dyslexia. So far the results vary in surprising ways. One article I read even reported Comic Sans as being the most dyslexic-friendly font. Here’s what a more recent study found regarding potentially good font choices:
Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Unicode, taking into consideration reading performance and subjective preferences. On the contrary, Arial It. should be avoided since it decreases readability. Sans serif, roman and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of our participants, while italic fonts did the opposite.
So, there’s a lot of variability in what the research says makes a “good dyslexic” font, but it’s easier to tell what makes a bad dyslexic font: complicated and extraneous elements, italics, and all caps.
Font Size: Small font sizes and tight spacing between words and characters can make reading difficult. A 12- or 14-point font is recommended for adults. For kids that number is even higher.
Contrast: Dark backgrounds with white text or image-heavy backgrounds can also cause problems. A cream or matte white background with a dark, clear font seems to work well.
Game Elements: A common element of roleplaying games that can be especially problematic is charts and tables. Keeping these to a minimum is best. If you need them, designing them with lots of space and clear distinctions between rows and columns can help.
Color-blindness is an especially important concern in kids’ games, because many games use symbols and colors to help young readers who have difficulty reading. But if one symbol is a green circle and the other is a red circle, then kids who are color blind might not be able to tell the difference.
Choosing colors with color-blind players in mind, and using a variety of different shapes in icons and other symbols can go a long way toward clarity for struggling readers. The inability to distinguish between red and green is the most common form of color-blindness, so staying away from those colors within the same symbol set can help a lot. Blue-yellow color-blindness can also occur, as well as the ability not to see colors at all. This color-blindness simulator (and others like it) can help you see how your color choices will look to colorblind players.
Visually impaired players may have blurred vision, partial or total blindness, or other concerns that make it hard for them to see text and dice. For those players, having a PDF or other electronic document that can be read aloud by a computer makes a big difference. Adobe has some free online resources for making PDFs accessible and Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) talking books is another popular option. Braille dice and overlays for accessories are also great for at-the-table use, especially to supplement the read-out-loud text.
For those with limited vision, print books with large, dark fonts on matte (non-shiny, non-reflective) paper makes reading easier. PDFs with the ability to zoom way in without quality loss are also helpful.
Autism and other cognitive/learning concerns, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, are perhaps the most difficult to design for. We still know so little about them, and every child’s experience is so unique, that saying, “Here is the right way to make a game accessible for kids with autism” is something of a pipe dream.
Accessibility in this case seems to be more about building appropriate options right into the rules. Make sure that games have the ability to be scaled up or down, that rules allow flexibility for a variety of attention spans and playstyles, and that parents and other adults are given the rules and tools they need to help players. But the rules should still have a clear structure; autistic children often need to know what to expect and to be able to anticipate what’s coming next.
Games that minimize loud or surprising sounds, allow for short breaks, and encourage, but don’t require, interaction can help set players at ease and allow them to play the game in the way that makes the most sense for them. Because many autistic players struggle with verbal communication, create rules that allow players to act out what their character does rather than talk about it. (Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the other hand, are more likely to want to talk about anything and everything; allowing them to speak in a robot voice or repeat a favorite phrase as part of their character provides a way for them to use their verbal skills within the context of the game)
Also consider having an ‘opt-out’ concept built right into the rules. If players know that they can say a word or make a gesture that will stop the game any time they feel scared or uncomfortable, it gives them a sense of autonomy and control. Most kids won’t need to use their opt-out; just knowing they have it is enough to alleviate that sense of tension and worry that can sometimes build up.
All of these elements are important first steps toward accessibility, but of course, they’re only small steps and there’s so much still to be learned. Every little bit helps, though. And the more we can do today to make games accessible to those with challenges, the more likely young players will be to grow up to love and work on games themselves. And they, in turn, could use their experiences to make games that are accessible to an even wider group of young players.
SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
AbleGamers (works to make games more accessible)
Game Accessibility Guidelines (geared more toward video games, but still useful)
International Game Developers Association (also for video games, but also useful)
64ouncegames (creates Braille overlays for games and supplements)
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In addition to the way that age does (and doesn’t matter), I think there are the other two important parts of designing games for kids:
EVERY KID (AND ADULT) SHOULD BE ABLE TO PLAY
It’s not possible to make a game that everyone excels at because everyone has different skills. Numbers will be the bane of some players, while writing is the arch nemesis of others. As a kid, I failed at any game that required me to stand up and do something in front of people, because I was incredibly shy. Games like Charades terrified me.
But it is possible to make a game that everyone is able to play and have a good time at. For kids, some of the biggest hurdles to game playing are the four “R”s — Rules, Reading, Writing, and Reflection. Taking a close look at these elements during the design process helps young players jump into a game quickly and easily.
The Rules: Rules should be accessible, necessary, and interesting. If a rule isn’t necessary, or takes a long time to explain, consider whether it’s vital to the game (or whether it’s just too detailed). To me, the goal of rules is clarity and guidance. If a rule confuses things, constrains the players for no reason, or stops a GM from saying “Okay!” then I think long and hard about whether it’s necessary.
Sometimes the rule is necessary:[combat] “I want to swing my sword and kill all the monsters in this room!”
Sometimes the rule isn’t necessary, because it would force the GM to say no to something fun for the players, even though saying yes wouldn’t impact gameplay:[combat] “I want my armor to look like a dinosaur and I want to yell Rawr! while I swing my sword!”
Rules are important, and kids will look for those boundaries and push them. The boundaries that matter should matter a lot. But once players understand those limits of the game, they should feel free to be as creative as possible inside them.
Reading: Some kids are fantastic, enthusiastic readers who will read entire corebooks for pleasure. Others will read the bare minimum for what they need to know right now. Others will do everything possible to avoid reading. This might be because they haven’t picked up the skill, they’re struggling with issues like dyslexia, or they can read but just don’t like to.
Ways to help this are by choosing easy-to-read fonts in appropriate sizes and colors (I’ll talk more about this in part 3, and talk about fonts, styles, and sizes that seem to be most accessible). Symbols, icons, color coding, and shapes are all useful cues for struggling readers. Additionally, using graphic elements to point out the most important elements on the page will help players focus in on what they need to read, and will allow them to skip the non-essential reading until they’re ready.
Charts, tables, and even dice are another important element of this. Lots of numbers, lists, and lines can be overwhelming even to good readers. Dice, especially, need to be easily readable, as there’s nothing more frustrating than rolling and not being able to instantly see whether you’ve hit your goal.
Writing: The same aspects of reading are also true of writing. Some kids love to write. Others hate it. It can be useful to give players the option to write if they want to—or to play the game without picking up a pen. Good character sheets with large and interesting writing and drawing spaces facilitate interaction for those who want to scribble, while easy-to-hold and use tokens, cards, stickers, and other elements provide non-writers with other ways to keep track of things.
Reflection: Reflection is the idea that you see yourself in a roleplaying game. This, to me, has two parts that are closely linked. The first is that you can see yourself as yourself in the game. The second is that you can see yourself as someone else in the game.
Seeing yourself as yourself means that there are images and characters that look like you (or that look the way that you see yourself). This means depicting characters with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, personalities, and outfits. This is especially true in a game with human characters. Most games that focus on non-human characters, say, aliens, show every alien differently. Blue skin, yellow skin, round, square, stick-like. But when you look at kids’ games with human characters, they’re often thin, white boys. (Not that there’s anything wrong with thin, white boys — they should be able to see themselves reflected in a game too). However, having more options means that more kids will find someone they can instantly relate to. Of course, you can’t make a reflection of every person who’s going to play your game, but making every character truly unique means that there’s a larger chance that kids will find someone they can really see themselves in and feel proud of.
Seeing yourself as someone else is the creative- and empathy-building element of roleplaying games. When you start playing characters who look and act differently than you do, you begin to understand them better, you move outside yourself into a creative space, and you start to develop human empathy that translates into the real world. Games can help players do that by providing a wide range of character options in terms of race, culture, personality, gender, skills and more (within the constraints of the game and the world, of course).
YOU’RE COMPETING WITH PUPPIES (AKA: DON’T BE BORING)
The number one thing I know about designing RPGs for kids might be this: Don’t be boring. Keeping kids at the table – both in mind and body – will be a difficult enough task for the gamemaster. Don’t make it more difficult with the game design itself. Anticipate that young players will be incredibly creative, incredibly smart, and easily distracted. If something isn’t the coolest, funnest, most interesting that you can possibly make it, then cut it or rethink it. When you’re doing playtests, watch for those moments when the kids get bored (or ask them — they will absolutely tell you, probably in great detail, about all of the most boring parts of your game).
When kids DO get bored and turn away from the game, watch what they do instead. If you’re in the middle of a combat scene, and the kids jump away from the table to act out that scene, that’s not boredom, that’s engagement. If they jump away from the table to start playing with the dog, that’s boredom (and the power of dogs). So just imagine that with everything you’re creating, you’re competing with the power of a cute puppy (or a video game or a TV show) near the table. Can you keep the kids’ attention (or at least some of it), despite the adorableness of the puppy? Is the game flexible enough to incorporate the puppy as a companion or an escort or even as a friendly helper? Does it allow the GM to give the kids some kind of in-game benefit if they spend one minute away from the table as a group to play with the puppy?
Focusing in on the right age group (without talking down to them), decreasing hurdles to play, and never, ever allowing your game to be boring: Nail those three elements and you’re well on your way to making an amazing roleplaying game for kids (and their families).
Come back soon for Part 3, where I look more closely at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I became a gamer because of my grandmother. A librarian and an avid gamer herself, my grandmother was smart, creative, and utterly ruthless when it came to anything involving cards, dice, boards, and even controllers (it was at her house that I played my first ever game of Frogger). Every time the family got together, she brought out a new game that she was passionate about and got us all to play it.
We played games designed for adults and kids, and while she made sure that we kids understood everything, she never treated us—or even the most kid-focused of games—as anything other than equals and utterly worthy of her time and (competitive) attention. If you wanted to win, your age didn’t matter, but your skills did—you had better be two steps ahead of her (I never was). But if she was on your team, she would take you into the fold and teach you all her winning secrets. When I lost, I learned to take it well so that we could play again. If I was on her team, I felt like her equal. And when I finally won a game against her for the first time, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good winner, after having watched her whomp me graciously for so long.
She was a stickler for the rules—and for finding all kinds of creative ways to bend those rules without actually breaking them. On the other hand, if she thought a rule was stupid or bad for the game, she would explain why and suggest ways to work around it or offer ideas for creating a different, more useful rule instead. She made up games, too. (Or at least, I think she did. We played things when I was a kid that I have never seen anywhere else.).
It was because of her that I started looking at games from a design perspective early on (although I didn’t have the words for what I was doing). Why this rule and not that? What happened when you tweaked one thing but not the other? How could you work together as a team to accomplish the goal?
My grandmother passed away last year. Even as I write this, she’s probably teaching the devil a few new tricks in his favorite game. I’m so glad that she got to see my early game design projects, and I hope she knew how much of an influence she had on my life and work.
Right now, I’m working on a game that I wish she was going to be around to see—and to play with me. It’s a roleplaying game designed for smart kids (and their families, of course), and I bet she could teach me all the best house rules. I think of her often as I work on the game, and of all the lessons that she passed along that I’m using every day.
This is a three-part look at designing roleplaying games for kids. Part 1 and 2 will look at some general game design concepts: Age Matters (And It Totally Doesn’t); Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play; and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 will specifically explore the ideas of designing for accessibility, including for players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
AGE MATTERS (AND IT TOTALLY DOESN’T)
When you set out to make a game for adults, you are purposefully aiming for a wide age range. A 15-year-old can usually play the same game as a 90-year-old. And that’s one of the points of the game.
Games designed specifically for kids are a different matter. One of the first, and arguably most important, decisions you have to make is “What specific age group is this game designed for?”
“Kids” is a big category, with a lot of variation. A game designed for 5-year-olds needs to be very different than a game designed for 8-year-olds, and by the time you get to 11-year-olds, it needs to morph yet again. Not just the rules and language, of course, but also the entire world aesthetic, the goals of the game, the pacing, pretty much everything.
Within your answer, you’ll also need to be clear that while you have a specific age (say 5-8 years old), the game will have a secondary group of players who are probably adults (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.) as well as siblings, friends, and classmates who might be outside that age range.
Using the age ranges described by books can be helpful for narrowing in on your target audience. While the levels have many names, they generally run something like this (with lots of age overlap to compensate for varying skill levels):
Ages 0-3 / Listening / Board Books
Ages 3-6 / Beginning Reading / Picture Books
Ages 6-8 / Reading With Help / Easy Readers
Ages 7-10 / Reading Alone / Chapter Books
Ages 8-12 / Advanced Reading / Middle Grade Novels
Books in these categories can help you gain a better understanding of good image-to-text ratios for each age group, art style, word choices and sentence length, complexity of concepts, and even font choices and size. But of course, every kid is different and their ages may not reflect their reading or comprehension skills.
Where age doesn’t matter is when it comes to treating the material and the players with respect. Try to stay away from art or language that talks down to kids, and always assume that they’re smarter and more creative than you are (they probably are). Respect every player fully for who they are, no matter whether they’re 4, 14, or 41.
This was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me when I was a young player, and it’s something I try to carry over into both GMing and game design now that I’m an adult. I think a great game should be designed to make players of all ages feel smart, creative, and cool. And one of the ways a game can do that is to give them all the tools they need, and then assume that they will use those tools in brilliant, unexpected ways.
Continue on to Part 2, where I explore two more ideas: Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 (coming soon) will look at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.