Teaching Accessible Design Through Critical Making and Board Games

Adam Strantz, Miami University


Stemming from DIY, craft, and makerspaces, making is a concept that has seen a recent surge in exploration in composition studies and rhetoric. Making is rooted in materiality and the idea that the practice of designing, building, and examining made objects can help users study concepts through that process of creation. In his Computers and Composition article, “Why Making?” Chet Breaux (2018) traces the lineage of the term “making” and its intersection with craft, DIY, and the field of computers and writing. He specifically highlights the inclusive nature of the term “maker” (p. 27) and its broad application to the many types of creative endeavors that humans participate in using technology—from writing to knitting to making food. By offering a big tent for makers, Breaux sees making as having a democratizing effect (p. 33) that allows many types of skilled labor to be recognized and valued as part of making. This expansive view of what is valued in labor and production has clear connections to early work in computers and writing that argued for the value of computer code, digital composing, and computers themselves in the writing process. Making may use computers, or yarn, or food, but the act of making allows for examination of both what is made and the work that went into its creation.

Building off makers and making, Helen J. Burgess and Roger Whitson (2019) further define the term “critical making” as a lens allowing for “the ability to focus on various kinds of executable processes and their critical frameworks” (para. 4). Here “executable” points to both the often computational-adjacent process of making through computers, 3D-printers, and the like, but also to the importance of the finished “thing” in making that can be critically examined. If the object needs to function in a certain way, studying its use or the foundations of how it functions can lead users to reflect on and examine the making process. This reflection could help users refine their own process of creation (Faris et al, 2018, Sheridan, 2010) glitch/remix the object’s use (Belojevic, 2019), or critique issues in the design process (Shivers-McNair, 2017). In each of these cases, examining the process of making allows for an uncovering of the labor and perspectives that went into the creation of the finished object. And this notion could be extended to examine the way these objects then allow others to make with them further, as in Safiya Umoja Noble’s (2018) study of algorithms perpetuating bias through the way technologies are developed upon problematic foundations. Through studying the making process, and who and what went into the creation of made objects, users can critically reflect on and examine the labor, perspectives, or even biases that went into the creation of that object.

With an emphasis on both the process and the product, I see critical making as a useful lens for studying the materiality of designed objects, and specifically the ones that we often task students with creating in our writing classrooms. And I am particularly interested in the use of critical making as a lens for those of us at the intersections of game studies, writing, and design to use in studying and teaching games. Games are complex, multimodal entities that likewise need to “execute” as a self-contained product in order to be considered working. For digital games that means the code must run and the 3D objects must render, but all games need to specify rules, boundaries, and procedures for the game to function whether its kids making up a game on the playground or a team of developers, artists, and programmers working for years to make the next AAA blockbuster. While scholars such as Ian Bogost (2010) have studied the ways games operate as games to persuade others, Mary Flanagan’s (2009) book Critical Play is useful here as she offers a view of games and play with an emphasis on the complex themes and ideas surrounding that play (p.6). Unlike Bogost’s view of persuasive games that argue strongly for a particular view or goal situated in the designer’s perspective, Flanagan takes a step back and asks readers to interrogate the contexts and perspectives that fed into the creation of that game. By seeding that contextual awareness into the game design process, her model of "Critical Play Game Design" offers multiple opportunities for designers to reflect on the way their values as designers may match or differ from the diverse players who will be engaging with the game (p. 256-257). Much like critical making for made objects, the "Critical Play" model seeks to identify the underlying contexts that border a game such as fundamental human notions of play and competition, to more direct connections such as mimicking warfare or reenacting specific historical events.

Other game studies scholars have also tackled the process of digital making from a game design standpoint, (Colby & Shultz Colby, 2019, Eyman, 2016, McDaniel & Daer, 2016, Moberly & Moeller, 2014, Shultz Colby & Colby, 2008) with a similar emphasis on the product or thing produced: the game itself. But one area I find under-examined, and which critical making could play a role, is discussions of who game designers are envisioning when they design games. By examining the process of craft and making in games, critical making can help game studies scholars and their students examine who is playing games and how. To that end, in this webtext I present an assignment I piloted in a recent design class focused on board games and designing for accessibility. Backed by literature from game studies, rhetoric and writing, and disability studies, my goal is to show critical making as a useful lens for guiding students through playing and making games that critically examine who is able to play and the unconscious biases that go into game creation. From reporting on the examples from my students’ work on re-designing board games for accessibility, I seek to answer the question: How can the materiality of games make us more user-centered, accessibility-focused writers and designers?

The webtext is divided into four following sections: Critical Making and Materiality, Accessibility in the Game Design Process, Student Examples from the Re-Design Project, and Analysis and Conclusion. In Critical Making and Materiality I examine the ways making and materiality intersect and the implications for games in particular. In Accessibility in the Game Design Process I highlight the ways game design scholarship has (and has not) incorporated accessibility into the design process as a fundamental tenet of good design. In the Student Examples section I include data from my introductory design course including the assignment prompt, the heuristic my students used to analyze their board games, and images of their work and redesigns. Finally, in the Analysis and Conclusion I will provide my analysis of the project and how this example of students studying accessible design through board games could be useful to readers looking to incorporate a similar project into their writing, rhetoric, and design classes.

Accessibility and this webtext

In keeping with the concept of enacting accessibility in material ways, this webtext strives to be as accessible as possible to its readers. The following aspects of this website are in compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines via Web AIM's checklist:
  1. Webtext design is fully responsive. Content aligns at mobile size and fonts can be magnified for greater readability.
  2. All images are correctly labeled with alt text and figcaptions. Images with relevant text are transcribed (see student example page modals).
  3. Modals are set at the bottom of the page and come with IDs in order to not interfere with screen reader use.
  4. Pages are navigable by keyboard alone and modals can be closed with the esc key using aria-labels.
  5. Hyperlinks are underlined and clickable buttons are labeled with icons so that color alone does not convey meaning.
  6. Breadcrumbs allow for the user to always know where they are in the hierarchy of the webtext
  7. Background color and text are checked for sufficient contrast. See results: contrast test from Web AIM showing a passing ratio
    Contrast ratio from Web AIM showing a passing grade for the site