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[Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Shanna Germain on Accessibility and Visibility


Shanna Germain is many things…

First and foremost, she is a leximaven of the highest order, exploring her love of the written word through a multitude of formats and styles. Shanna (pronounced like ‘Shaun’ with a sigh of pleasure at the end or like ‘fauna’ with a shh in the front) also claims the titles of: girl, gamer geek, wanderluster, flower picker, tire kicker, knife licker, she-devil, vorpal blonde and Schrödinger’s brat.

She is noted for her work as an outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, GLBTQ rights, positive sexuality, and the rights of people of all genders, sexualities, abilities, races, beliefs, and walks of life.

With a whole lot of writing years under her belt (or her collar, depending on the day), Shanna’s poems, essays, short stories, novellas, articles and more have found homes in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books and websites.

An Associate Fellow at the Attic Institute in Portland, OR, she has taught classes in writing, publishing, media and photography at a wide variety of places. She’s even garnered an award here and there, including a Pushcart nomination, the Rauxa Prize for Erotic Poetry and the C. Hamilton Bailey Poetry Fellowship. She keeps her ego in a tiny glass jar and feeds it drops of sea water and baby crickets so that it will never outgrow its cage. You can learn more about her on her website.

Accessibility and Visibility: Designing No Thank You, Evil!

by Shanna Germain

“My child is on the autism spectrum, and we’re so excited that there’s a game that includes him.”

“My daughter is eight and her father and I are pretty sure she’s going to come out as transgender. We don’t know what we’re doing, but thank you for making a game that allows her to be herself, whatever choices she makes.”

“I’m a smart princess! With a pony!”

In my career as a writer and game designer, I’ve had a lot of lovely thank you letters from readers and gamers, but the ones from the game that I’m currently working on resonate with me on a whole new level. No Thank You, Evil! is a game of make-believe for families that is designed to be inclusive, and the letters are from parents (and the occasional excited child) who are so excited and grateful for our attempts to create a game that speaks to their family. Often, their letters make me cry—not just because they’re heartfelt and beautiful, but also because it’s so clear that even today there is so little out there for them. I want to change that.

When we started designing No Thank You, Evil! we knew we wanted to create a game that helped as many kids as possible feel like they could be heroes. So inclusion and acceptance were an important part of the game’s design right from the start. We tackled this in two main ways: accessibility and visibility.



Accessibility means designing a game to be accessible to the widest possible variety of players. There are a number of hurdles that keep children from jumping into roleplaying games, and we wanted to decrease, or even eliminate, those whenever possible. 

Physical accessibility: Some of the biggest impediments to gaming are physical concerns like vision Lochtopus(color-blindness, blindness), hearing (hard-of-hearing, deafness), speech (speed impairments, language differences), as well as mobility and motor functions. For No Thank You, Evil! we are designing the game with all of these in mind. We’re using colors, shapes, and fonts that are easier for players with impaired vision to perceive, designing tactile elements like dice and cards to be large and easy to handle, and creating PDFs that will work well with read-a-loud programs. We’re also looking into creating braille supplements and an ASL how-to-play the game video.

Cognitive accessibility: The experience of gaming can be especially beneficial to

children with learning and reasoning concerns such as dyslexia, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome. We wanted to make sure that we knocked down those hurtles as much possible. Of course, we quickly learned there was no simple answer for doing that—each child is different, and their needs can’t be drilled down into something as simple as a diagnosis.

Even the things that we thought would be easy—such as finding the perfect font for players with dyslexia—turned out to be difficult. Studies showed that readability results varied widely, and even some of the fonts designed specifically for dyslexia scored poorly among readers. What we learned was that there is no perfect answer. Instead the goal is to take away as many impediments as possible. We’re staying away from ornate and italic fonts, complex backgrounds, and all-cap elements, while incorporating good letter sizing and spacing.

Not surprisingly, there’s no single right answer for making a game accessible for players on the autism spectrum, either. In fact, the best answer seems to be: build more options for players right into the rules. Because many autistic players struggle with verbal communication, the rules encourage them to act out or draw what their character does instead of speak. Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the other hand, are often more verbally focused, so they can speak in a robot voice or repeat a favorite phrase, which allows them to use their verbal skills within the context of the game. Essentially, players are rewarded for tackling a problem in their own best way.

Cultural and Class accessibility: Roleplaying games are traditionally steeped in a particular culture, and that can be daunting to children (and parents) outside of that culture. As creators, we’re often not even aware that we’re using language or images or myths that don’t extend beyond our own culture. So as part of our playtesting process, we are including players from other parts of the world, including England, Australia, Thailand, and India. We’re also striving to make the game world open-ended enough that there is room for players to add their own culture and myths to the game.



Visibility is the second half of the inclusion equation. To me, it means that players can see themselves and others in the game – both literally and figuratively. If a child can point to an image of a superhero and say, PrincessCharacter“Hey, that looks like me!” then suddenly they understand that they can be a superhero. If a child can point to an image of a princess and say, “That person doesn’t look anything like me! I wonder who they are?” then they’re developing a sense of curiosity and human empathy.

It’s important that players can see—and then become—any kind of character that they can imagine, whether that’s someone exactly like themselves or someone vastly, wildly different. So we’re working closely with our artists to create images that depict a wide representation of genders, races, body types, and abilities, and we are echoing that in the game text as well. So if you want to be a princess, you can be a flowery princess in a grand ballgown, a tomboy princess with her hunting catbird, or a gender-neutral princess who does science experiments (or any combination of the above). You can play a smart superhero whose wheelchair blasts flames at the bad guys, and or a spy whose artificial limb lets him be extra sneaky. You can play anyone at all—including yourself—and be a hero.

Both accessibility and visibility are important first steps toward inclusion but of course, they’re only small steps and there’s so much still to be learned. The more we can do today to make games accessible to everyone, the more likely those young players will be to grow up to love and work on games (or other creative products) themselves. And they, in turn, can use their experiences to make games that are inclusive for an even wider group of young players.

1 Comment on [Guest Post] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Shanna Germain on Accessibility and Visibility

  1. ptaylor // July 6, 2015 at 10:11 am //

    Thank you for writing this. diversity and inclusiveness have become buzz words, and it is nice to see someone break down not just why it is important, but how much thought and work it takes to get it right.

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