Friday, December 29, 2006

Making Games More Accessible

When I was young, game players were generally happy to read through the rules to a game--often several times--before playing, and were not put off by lengthy rules. Even today, I would much rather read the rules than be taught how to play a game. But nowadays it's nearly impossible to get young people to read long non-fiction (many won't read fiction, even), and people want to try to play a game while learning the rules. Patience, you might say, is no longer a virtue.

So here I am as a designer, and a teacher mind you, trying to figure out what needs to be done to make game rules as accessible as possible to this new generation. Here's what seems to be needed.

First, every rules set should have a "rules often missed/misunderstood" section. All but the simplest rules have more-difficult parts.

I'm beginning to think a rules summary (no more than one page) is needed with every game as well. It's notable that (American edition) Settlers of Catan has what amounts to two rules sets, one less formal than the other, even though it is a quite simple game. Clearly, the manufacturers have found that even simple rules can confuse or thwart would-be players.

Examples in the rules have always been useful. Some publishers go a step further with a "play-through" included as a separate booklet. If the play-through isn't in the printed rules, it should be online. However, as a computer instructor I know that most people have difficulty with even the simplest tasks online, excepting e-mail and just plain "surfing", so the less they need to go online, the better. (Yes, readers here are the exception, not the rule.)

But how about more "modern" methods? If people want to learn a game from someone else, why not try to reproduce that, as much as possible? In other words, why not make a video as though you were teaching people in person how to play? The obvious limitation is that the learners cannot ask for clarification, but the video-maker can try to anticipate questions as much as possible.

A video of a play-through (perhaps an entire game, if the game is short enough) would be wonderful for many players who are unsure of their understanding of the rules.

Can you include videos with a game? I think a CD should be included in most games that includes video aids. But in my experience manufacturers don't want this added expense, and prefer the online approach. Once again, my experience of "average computer users" is that an auto-starting CD with video is much more likely to be used successfully than online video.

What about a podcast? This would be a way to publicize a game and might help those who are very busy, and want to listen to "how to play" while doing something else.

Videos and podcasts are not hard to produce if you have good equipment, if you aren't trying to achieve professional perfection. You don't get that when someone teaches you the game, though, so why look for it here? Yes, such things are time-consuming to make. But you have to change with the times.

I have heard of examples of videos, and watched the ones Peter Morrison produced for this game Viktory II. I've not heard of podcasts that try to teach the rules of a game. I'm sure Geekdom can specify more examples, which I'd like to hear about. I am presently working on both videos and a podcast for Britannia, and expect to produce similar material for all of my games as they're published.

Lew Pulsipher

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