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?
In the latest version of Karma in the Dark, I decided to add a "safety tool" to the core rulebook. After a little thought, I decided to put it first in the chapter called "core concepts." Part of me worried about leading with a mechanic that is controversial in some gaming circles, but upon reflection, this mechanic is probably the most foundational and important in the book. I want players to see it that way. If the idea of such a tool turns them off, I prefer that reaction to someone using my game in a way that traumatizes another person.
This topic has a lot of layers. In a series of three posts, I want to talk about the concept of safety tools, why one is required for Karma, and why I chose Brie Sheldon's "script change tool" out of all the possible options.
Part One: Why Safety Tools
Objection 1: Nothing during gaming is "unsafe", so why do you need a safety tool?
This is a common objection. I rarely like to pull my doctor card, but I've been working in trauma for more than a decade and specialize in treating trauma. So you can bet I have Thoughts on this subject.
One of the silver linings of being bed-ridden 70-80% of weekends for the past 5 months is being able to play video games guilt free. When you don't have the mental focus to do anything productive, and don't have the physical ability to do much of anything period, working your way through your Steam backlog feels like a solid option.
During this mass-play of games, two games lodged in my designer-mind for similar reasons: The Witness and Vampyr. While these two games are very different from each other, they share a common design flaw: design choices that distract from the game's core elements.
Two recent events made me think about the ways we react to feedback and how I was trained some 15+ years ago.
My first experience with feedback on creative projects was in an online, international poetry workshop. The workshop required you to read some basic rules about effective writing, required you to maintain a critiques-given to critiques-received ratio, tempered that with explicit guidelines on how to give effective feedback, and had guidelines about how to receive and incorporate critiques effectively.
One of the main rules was encapsulated in a FAQ question:
Q: What if the critique doesn't appreciate the art of my work and it hurt my feelings?
A: Thank them. Always.
(I am paraphrasing).
I learned the art of giving and receiving critique in that environment, and it permanently shaped how I respond to feedback. I am extremely grateful for that fact. It gave me the tools to navigate accepting criticism in all parts of my life.
This is going to be a different type of blog. This is why I play and want to design games.
I work as a trauma therapist and specialize in working with violence. I have worked with victims of violent crimes and perpetrators of violent crimes; survivors of war crimes and perpetrators of war crimes; refugees from war and soldiers from war. My research was on a condition known as perpetration induced traumatic stress, the little discussed reality that perpetrating violence is one of the biggest risk factors for developing PTSD. Even when people believe their cause is just, they remain at high risk for severe symptoms after harming others. Those who deny or avoid those symptoms often have the dysfunction come out in other (destructive) ways.
I have been doing this work for so much of my life I start to forget that what I've seen, listened to, and come to know about humanity is not normal, even for other psychologists. Yesterday I spent the first hour at work debriefing a difficult case with a professional who has specialized in extreme trauma for over 30 years. We started discussing the worst cases we've seen in our careers.
Needless to say, it put me on tilt for the rest of the day. There are some things I don't want to remember, and some things no matter how much time and processing and self-care I do, will always be dark and heavy. There are some things you can't make meaning of or process through, you just learn to carry better.
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.