Dr. Strangecolor or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ColorsOctober 12, 2015
In this edition of of Meeple Speak, Eric Handler talks about “Colorblindness” when it comes to board games.
Welcome to another edition of Meeple Speak. In this edition, our guest writer is Eric Handler, playertester extraordinaire . In this article he deals with board games when it comes to “colorblindness.”
Dr. Strangecolor or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Colors
by Eric Handler
What’s it like being a “Color-Blind” board game designer (or playtester)(or player) or What you need to know when you use the word “Colorblindness”?
I don’t even know where to start. I was asked to write this as a result of the following twitter conversation, and you can see how it went:
So, I think I’m going to write about my experiences as a player and Unpub playtester to try and help you all out?
Let’s start with some terminology and follow it up with some science. Colorblindness is an incomplete term, a remnant of a time gone by, like Daltonism before it. Dalton was the scientist who discovered colorblindness (John Dalton on Wikipedia). Anyway, colorblindness is an accepted term for a lot of people but it lacks the precision necessary for game designers. It’s a blanket term. I suffer from red/green color vision deficiency. Other kinds color vision problems included under the colorblindness moniker include monochromacy (still an oversimplification, check this out for more info: Achromatopsia), Anomalous trichromacy and more. After a science break, I’m going to write RGCVD for “red/green color vision deficiency” to talk about my experience as I can’t speak with any accuracy to life with other conditions or their relative frequency or what it is like being a board gamer with those challenges. I can only speak to my experiences.
*START SCIENCE BREAK*
Optics is complicated and I’m no expert, but lets try to take a quick look at how color vision works. The human eye has two types of cells that process light called cones and rods. For this article about color vision, rods don’t matter as that type of cell handles low light and peripheral vision. The cones in human eyes exist as three types, often referred to as Red, Green and Blue cones. Even this is a simplification because it turns out that the interaction between all three and how they react to the wavelengths of light is how a particular color is perceived. Each cone can be represented by a waveform that represents how much neural activity each cone will generate when exposed to a certain wavelength of light. Any variation in one of those cones will cause difficulties with all colors to some extent. I’ll wrap up by saying that this means that color vision problems can exist for all colors not simply the one in the common name of the diagnosis for color vision deficient individuals. I’ll wrap up the science break by reminding you that light bouncing off of objects is how we see.
*END SCIENCE BREAK*
As an RGCVD individual who likes games as a player, playtester and aspiring designer, red and green aren’t actually the colors that I often experience difficulties with while playing games. This is related to the most common location I’ve played games over the past 10 years. Dimly lit rooms, or at least not amazingly lit rooms. If a publisher tests the color in bright rooms, it might seem like the game is okay for playing with someone like me, but take away all that light bouncing off the pieces/meeples/boards and my eyes which struggle in normal scenarios may not be able to handle it. I love the games coming out from Dice Hate Me Games, but in the context of this conversation, I’ll throw Chris (lightly and with lots of love) under the bus. The VivaJava: TCG board is very very difficult for me, Black/Brown/Red/Green as a color set in low light is almost impossible for me to distinguish. The first time I played the game, I couldn’t figure out why rainbow was called rainbow as it didn’t seem to need 5 colors. The problem is compounded (see what I did there 😉 ) in this game by the blind drawing from the bag, as you can’t use my favorite solution, colored shapes, as that would ruin the aforementioned mechanic. I know of at least one BGG thread involving solutions involving repainting all the beans, marking the beans etc. I know it ruins the aesthetic and probably raises the costs tremendously, but double coding the beans and their respective colors on the board would have been great, if at all possible. This concept, having an identifiable symbol in addition to the color, is the solution to almost every problem. The green in VivaJava isn’t really the problem, more the brown and red. In all honesty, if the average gamer learned that when someone says they have “red green colorblindness” it doesn’t mean that identifying red and green is difficult, it would be a vast improvement as a gamer with RGCVD. Identifying red and brown, red and orange, brown and black can be as difficult as outsmarting opponents. I should mention that is in turn based games. I’ll leave games like Set and Ghost Blitz for the next time we are in the same room together, it’s more fun to rant when I can get loud 😀
For Designers, Publishers and Playtesters: What can you do?
If you don’t want to alienate players, don’t design games that rely on colors, plan from the beginning to avoid this concern. If you need colors, make sure to double code. I’d love it if designers and publishers started double coding player pieces, but I understand the costs associated with that may be prohibitive. There are plenty of game icons out there that can help with games from prototype through to published games. All I can really ask as an RGCVD individual is to understand that this is a fairly common disadvantage that you should keep in mind throughout the whole design process. Nothing sucks more as a playtester, at an Unpub event, to provide feedback on color usage in a game and hear, and I’m paraphrasing, “This isn’t final design, I’m going to leave that to the publisher.” If the designer doesn’t care about color problems, most publishers will be too late to solve problems that were introduced during the process. Publishers, I don’t care about apps that say they let you see how a CVD person does. They only show you one snapshot of how colors appear to each type of CVD that the developers chose to include. There is variance in which colors are problematic even with the same diagnosis.
I don’t agree with everything in this TEDx talk, but the program the gentleman has developed is really interesting. If the industry standardized around something, maybe not this guy’s solution, it would be super helpful to people like myself. To me, this takes double coding to a logical conclusion, all colors have a symbol that has been standardized and can be printed on all relevant pieces. This would mean I don’t have to say no when someone wants to play Race for the Galaxy, Set, or some game that hasn’t been published yet because a designer or publisher didn’t want to take time to reinvent the wheel (can’t blame them, but the tools are out there, use them please).
As a player, what I hope you take from this is that sometimes when someone says no they don’t want to play X, it isn’t really true. It’s that we can’t play it, or at least not in our current setting. Usually this sucks for us and we don’t want to drag you down. Designers, I hope you now spend a few minutes trying to figure out how to help out players, even with prototypes, I’m sure your publisher and playtesters will appreciate it. Publishers, take the time to double code everything you publish if possible. Hopefully this post provides some insight. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to have a conversation about this topic. Find me on Twitter as @reldnahcire or @cvdcardboard.