This post is the third in a series about increasing accessibility for those with dyslexia. Today, I want to cover how people with dyslexia process information differently. I'll introduce the tasks that can be harder for people with dyslexia, then apply it to game design in a practical way.
Since information processing affects many parts of gaming, this post covers the widest range of examples and topics. Think of it as an introduction to thinking with a dyslexic brain, with just a few illustrations of how that affects gaming.
Procedural Learning: Not so natural
There is evidence that those with dyslexia have a harder time with "procedural learning", i.e. learning by doing or observing. This is also called implicit learning.
A classic experiment illustrates the process of implicit learning. Scientists let a mouse wander around a maze several times with no rewards or incentive. Then they put the mouse in the same maze with food at the exit. The mouse that had explored previously found the exit much faster than a mouse that had never been in the maze before. Even though the mouse hadn't been taught to find the exit previously, it had "implicitly learned" the layout of the maze during its previous wanderings.
As humans, we rely heavily on procedural learning. We teach through observation followed by practice. This is summed up in the medical strategy: See one, do one, teach one.
Many people with dyslexia demonstrate a limited ability to learn through practice. Watching and even practicing an activity leads to limited improvement. Instead, many people with dyslexia require explicit learning, i.e. being told, "First do this, then do this, then do this, etc." People with dyslexia often need to build up a mental map of explicit rules and processes to understand how to complete a task.
For myself, I can only survive the extensive writing in my job because I created templates for documentation that explicitly state: write this here, then this here, then this here. Any novel writing tasks outside of this explicit structure tend to overwhelm my brain and take much longer. Similarly, I have never been able to learn a foreign language through immersion. Instead, the classical method of learning languages with charts and grammar rules is much easier for me.
How does this relate to game design?
I see two main ways it can be relevant.
1. Many people point to actual plays as a way for people with reading disorders to learn the rules. But learning from actual plays requires procedural learning. Instead, it would be more helpful to watch a video of someone explicitly explaining how the rules works. Geek & Sundry's Tabletop series is a good example of explicit explanations woven into an actual play. If a designer wants to create audio/visual content as an alternative way of learning the rules, explicit teaching is more helpful than making an actual play. (Actual plays are useful in other ways for designers, but will not really increase accessibility for those with dyslexia).
2. Make reference sheets or "cheat sheets" summarizing the most important procedures for your game. Due to this limited ability to learn by doing, someone with dyslexia can play the same game for months and still struggle with remembering how specific rules work. If you provide a clear, concise procedure list for important rules, people can refer to it as they play, and internalize the explicit procedure.
Blades in the Dark is a great example of explicit procedures. It broke down the action roll into a series of numbered steps. It said explicitly, "Do this, then this, then this." Because the text it brief, someone with dyslexia can process the words as they play, and eventually the explicit nature of the procedure can make it easier to internalize. From bladesinthedark.com:
To make an action roll, we go through six steps. In play, they flow together somewhat, but let’s break each one down here for clarity.
This might seem like a simple summary to include, but I encourage you to notice how many rulebooks actually include a clear, explicit procedure like this, and how many don't. This explicit step-by-step instruction is part of why I found Blades simpler to play than many games, despite the fact each roll has several steps.
Seeing Big Pictures
New research shows that people with dyslexia use parts of their brain differently and have fundamentally different brain structures than neurotypical people. If you're interested in the details, I recommend reading the Dyslexic Advantage. For now, I will stick to summarizing the two key points.
One, our brain is divided into a left-brain and a right-brain structure. Generally speaking, our left-brain is good at detail work. It notices the different components of an object, analyzes the different uses, and is good at being precise. In contrast, our right-brain is good at large-scale or big picture processing. It notices what ties things together or similarities, noticing patterns and connections. The right brain will see a forest; the left brain will see an oak, a pine, an apple tree, etc.
When we learn, it's natural to begin with right-brain learning: we grasp the big idea. Then we shift into the left-brain learning as our understanding increases to a detailed, granular level. Except, evidence suggests, it's harder for people with dyslexia to make that shift to left-brained, detailed learning. As a result, many people with dyslexia compensate by using their right-brain more than a neurotypical person.
How does relying on the right-brain affect language processing? When someone sees a word from a left-brain perspective, (as most people do), they will focus on the most common (often literal) meaning of the word, i.e. the most narrow definition.
This has two advantages. First, it makes it easier to produce language because the brain focuses on the narrow options. Second, it makes it easy to follow short, concrete directions or interpret very literal statements. This means neurotypical people are more efficient at producing and receiving language.
When someone sees a word from a right-brain perspective (as most people with dyslexia do), that word will trigger a broad network of related words and concepts, such as synonyms, antonyms, figures of speech, related themes, humorous interpretations, examples of how the word is used, symbols related to the word, etc. In many ways this activation is much richer—but it is also much slower. This network doesn't translate well to the narrow expression of language, so people with dyslexia may have this rich response, but struggle to communicate it to others. If a message is ambiguous—or could be open to interpretation—the right-brain is more likely to notice these gaps or alternative meanings.
This is part of why people with dyslexia traditionally need context more than neurotypical people. A statement void of context can either provide an overwhelming, even paralyzing, number of connections to someone with dyslexia, or provide absolutely zero connections, leaving it with little meaning. This is part of why people with dyslexia often do worse on short, multiple choice tests than reading passages, even though the reading passages involve more words. Context helps someone with dyslexia connect the words to a larger network of understanding, i.e. it allows them to compensate with their right-brain thinking.
This left-brain/right-brain tendency may be supported (or caused) by the fact people with dyslexia actually have a different brain structure. Neurons, which are responsible for information processing, seem to form differently in people with dyslexia. I won't go into the full neuroscience, but the functional impact is this: the structures seen in people with dyslexia support big-picture processing, and are worse at fine-detail processing. The neurons are arranged in such a way that they are more likely to make connections between things other people might not. This may be part of why many people with dyslexia are seen as "creative": they make unusual associations.
What does this big-picture processing mean for game design? Here are a few tips.
Summary before details: Many people with dyslexia will process information better if they start with the big picture. In other words, tell them what they are going to read before they read it. Provide a short summary at the start of each chapter (not just the end) to prepare them for what to expect. If they have that outline, they can organize the details that follow into this existing big-picture.
Explain with a diagram: People with dyslexia are often strong in visual reasoning. Summarizing a concept or several pages of text into a single diagram has another advantage: it literally allows them to see the big-picture. Here is one example, a diagram of the mechanical flow of Scum & Villainy, created by Peter Turrentine:
Design with Interconnected Systems: People with dyslexia often have a stronger than average ability to see how things are interconnected, which makes them better at pattern recognition. In terms of design, having mechanical subsystems that echo and interconnect may "resonate" more with someone with dyslexia.
Systems that are extremely different or disconnected may be especially hard to understand or remember correctly. For example, if you have one type of roll that requires someone to roll over an obstacle, and another type of roll that requires someone to roll under an obstacle, a person with dyslexia may have more trouble than an average person in remembering this detail.
This doesn't mean you need all of your rules to be the same, just for them to "fit" together in a conceptual way. For example, in Torchbearer you have a set inventory space based on slots and you write in a piece of gear to fill the slot. You also have a grind tracker which is a set of squares you mark off as rounds pass. When you pass a certain level of grind, you check of a condition box. You check off conditions in order.
All of these rules touch on different systems, but they all present and track in certain ways: square, physically filled, usually with a linear progression.
Even skill rolls in Torchbear have a similar rhythm: you see an obstacle, the GM follows a list of obstacle modifiers in a linear line until they reach the one you face, and that's your roll. Except for Conflicts, almost all the rules in Torchbearer have this similar linear, check-off rhythm that (as someone with high pattern recognition) made it actually much easier for me to understand than say, D&D, which has several different, quirky systems.
Narrative descriptions: Many people with dyslexia are especially strong in narrative reasoning. This means they can take scenes from their memory or imagination and construct a movie-like progression with it. If you want to give examples of a mechanic, frame it within a story with people, names, and an actual situation. These written examples are different from actual plays (and can avoid the procedural learning difficulties) because they can focus on illustrating one specific rule.
Ineffective example: "John wants to overcome the obstacle. Since it involves swimming in deep water (+1) and he is wearing armor (+2), he will need to roll 3 or more success dice to succeed."
Instead, write a brief but narrative example: "John's paladin Dimec needs to recover the skeleton key so he can unlock the prison door holding the rest of the party. He's followed the map to this black lake, and it looks like something white lies below the surface. He charges towards the lake and dives in without removing his armor. Since the water is deep (+1) and he didn't take time to remove his heavy armor (+2), he will need to roll 3 success to fetch the key and make it safely back to shore."
Overly long examples run the risk of creating verbal overload. But overly short and context-stripped examples don't tap into the narrative-based thinking that can improve memory. The key is to find a balance: create some narrative context, but keep the focus on 1 rule or 1 example.
These three blog posts are my attempt to introduce people to the ways games can become more accessible to people with dyslexia. Adapting to this style of information processing can affect everything from layout to organization to the way you provide examples to way you design your game.
To summarize the biggest points:
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.