Part 1: Layout Style
This post is the second in a series about increasing accessibility with game design for those with dyslexia. Today, I want to focus on how writing style can make it easier (or harder) for someone with dyslexia to process information. This topic has many layers, so I will break it into multiple posts.
Understanding Dyslexia: How Are Our Brains Different?
People often view dyslexia through the lens of the symptoms: difficulty reading and speaking.
To write in a dyslexia-friendly fashion, however, I think it's important to understand the root cause of these symptoms. That knowledge gives us more flexibility to adapt our writing styles around the core difficulty, rather than try and memorize a list of tips. Luckily, advances in brain imaging and neuroscience can help us understand the root causes better than ever before.
Difference #1: Phonological Processing a.k.a. Sound-Based Language
Language (for most people) is fundamentally sound based. When people speak, they communicate with sounds. When someone says the word "fish", most people hear the sound, process the sound, then respond in a similarly verbal way. Many people when they read, even if they read "silently" to themselves, are seeing a printed word, thinking of the sounds related to the word, and then perhaps coming up with an image attached to the word. Young readers can't hold as much information in their mind, which is why they often find it easier to read aloud.
You also see this with people new to learning a language. For example, I have seen Native English speakers says thing like, "Perro . . . perro is a dog. Okay, I want to say I have a cat . . . cat is gato. 'Tengo un gato.'"
This sound-based language system also influences our memory system. There is something called the "phonological loop" which is the basis for working memory. Working memory is the part of your memory that you use for current tasks, and it only lasts 10-15 seconds. If you've ever needed to remember a phone number while you walked across a room, you were trying to keep it in working memory. If you were like most people, you might have repeated the phone number over and over to yourself, effectively refreshing it to keep it in working memory. That trick of repeating the number was tapping into the phonological loop: the verbal/sound based system helps to refresh information in our working memory until we have finished processing, organizing, and using it.
Breakdown in Sound
People with dyslexia struggle with phonological processing. The impact on language is pretty clear: speaking and reading are based on sound. "Sounding out" a word can be impossible. Every word needs to be memorized rather than intuited. This means new words—or made up words—require significant mental resources.
But the impact goes beyond language:
"When auditory-verbal working memory is limited...the result is working memory overload, which causes symptoms like inaccurate language processing, slower language-based learning, problems with organization and task management, and the appearance of inattention during difficult work. Working memory overload resembles what happens when you try to run a memory-intensive software program on a computer with too little memory. At first the program runs more slowly; then it begins to flash error messages; and finally it jams completely...Importantly, working memory also plays a key role in other aspects of attention or 'executive function' like organization, planning, implementation, and oversight of tasks...often such students are diagnosed with inattentive ADHD." (The Dyslexic Advantage, Eide & Edie, pg. 24).
Adapting Writing Style
These difficulties can be mitigated through a few different strategies.
1. Limit novel words.
TTRPGs will sometimes introduce novel or unusual words for "flavor" or to capture a certain attitude. Understand that doing this in your game is effectively asking someone with dyslexia to learn a foreign language to play your game. Due to the sound breakdown, even if the word is technically in their native language, if it is used in a novel way, or is an unusual word, it will take as much effort as any nonsensical word to memorize.
Imagine if I decided to pepper Cherokee into my game rules. I would tell you there is a class of characters who follow the way of e-ga-te-ga-wi. They use a resource called a-tsi-la. Anytime you try to use their powers, you need to track how much a-tsi-la is spent, and it can only be refreshed by spending e-lo-hi.
A significant group of people would become confused and overloaded by the need to memorize foreign terms.
I love the Burning Wheel as a game. I don't find its actual rules that overwhelming, perhaps because I played Torchbearer and Mouseguard first. That said, I strongly wanted to throw the rulebook across the living room as I tried to read through its core rules and character creation process. In the most basic rules I was presented with: traitors (for failed dice rolls), exponents (not what exponents usually means), level of potential, shade, open a skill, FoRKs, roots, artha, fate, aristeia (I give deeds and persona a pass because they are close enough to the real meaning), and a novel nomenclature.
This sentence made as much sense to me as Ancient Greek, which is to say I understand about 50% of it on a first pass: "With a B4 Agility, I open a Sword skill after six Beginner's Luck tests. The skill opens at half of the root stat. That's a B2 sword for my character." (The Burning Wheel, Crane, pg 50).
Burning Wheel also introduced terms that made sense, because the meaning matches common language. For example, resources, (social) circles, and beginner's luck all made sense; no foreign language learning required.
In contrast, Blades in the Dark does an excellent job of introducing novel game mechanics with common language. In a review of its core rules, the only unusual terms (i.e. meaning or effect were not clearly in line with the typical use of the word) were stress, push yourself, and hold. The mechanics of position and effect may seem new to first-time players, but the language is extremely accessible. Progress clocks as a term, literally describes what the mechanic does: it tracks progress on a circular, clock-like form.
But Cass: Isn't this a problem regardless of language disorder? Sure, novel terms require learning for everyone. But let's look at the example Burning Wheel sentence. If you have typical sound processing skills, you can read that sentence even if you don't understand it. I can't. So effectively I read:
"With a XXXX Agility, I XXXX Sword skill after six Beginner's Luck tests. The skills XXX at half of the XXX stat."
It feels like trying to listen to an audio recording where words are periodically muffled, and you have to rewind and slowly re-listen...over and over and over again. It gets exhausting.
2. Chunk information
You can make working memory more efficient (and decrease the potential for overload) by grouping information. Let me give an example. Back in the day, people had to memorize phone numbers. In the U.S. that takes the form of ###-###-####, i.e. 3-digit area code, 3-digit group, 4-digit group. When people were asked to memorize number strings, most people found the 10-digit test easier than the 8, 9, or 11 digit test. Seems odd a shorter string of numbers would be easier to remember, doesn't it? But people, used to memorizing phone numbers, automatically chunked the ten digit string in 3-digits, 3-digits, 4-digits. By grouping the number into three different "chunks" it was easier for the working memory to hold onto it.
You can chunk information in your rulebook by grouping information into different sections. You can have "sections" or "parts" in your rulebook, broken down into chapters, broken down under level 1 headings, broken down under level 2 headings, broken down into subsections, and if needed, broken down into groups of bulleted lists. By organizing text into sections and different heading levels, you are effectively chunking your rules in a way that takes a load off working memory. This will help people with dyslexia, ADHD, or other cognitive problems. It also helps people find specific rules they need faster, because they can skim headings rather than feel overwhelmed by a wall of text.
This becomes especially effective if you use these different heading levels to signal importance. Information at the heading 1 level, for example, could cover core mechanics, while information at the heading 2 level could provide extra detail, and at the heading 3 level could provide examples. Effectively, you are signalling priority through your organization. If someone is feeling overloaded, they can skip the heading 2 or 3 content without missing the main ideas.
Chunking only works if you limit the content at each level to a digestible levels. Let's look back at memorizing digits. If someone gives me a 20-digit number to memorize, breaking it into two chunks of 10-digits won't help; those 10 digits will overwhelm my working memory. Instead, breaking it into 4 groups of 5 digits will give me a better chance of remembering all of the numbers since each chunk is more manageable.
When I wrote the current version of Karma in the Dark, I put a lot of time and energy into organizing the rulebook in a way that made more sense than the last version. It is broken into 5 parts, organized by when you would need each part during the play. The Introduction is before you start playing, the Creation part is for session 0 and GM prep, the Action is for during play sessions, Detailing the World is for outside-of-session learning, and the Appendix is for quick referencing.
To break it down further, each part includes specific chapters. For example, the Introduction includes three chapters: overview; core concepts; and essential actions. If we look at the Core Concepts chapter, I made sure to use heading to break the rules into small chunks:
Using the Tools
Narrating Goals & Obstacles
Rolling the Dice
Obstacle Complexity & Progress Clocks
Progress Clock Types
In contrast, while there are many things I like about Blades in the Dark, it's stucture/heading levels doesn't help. The first chapter "The Basics" covers about 20% of the entire rules, representing a huge chunk of the total mechanics. Within that chapter, the subsections are clearly marked (core system, actions & attributes, stress & trauma, progress clocks, action roll, effect, etc.) but beyond that, the organization breaks down, with death and racing progress clocks being highlighted to the same degree. As someone with limited capacity to read and a working memory easily overwhelmed by organizational tasks, I would look at the 50 pages of rules and have no idea where I should start or what I should prioritize...and all of this before I'm even supposed to make a character.
Because I was feeling overwhelmed trying to organize my own rules, I actually copied Blades organizational style in a previous version of Karma in the Dark, and it consistently came up in the top 3 complaints from play testers.
Breaking down your rules by priority and level of needed detail, then clearly signalling that through your heading levels, will benefit a wide range of people with language, attention, and memory difficulties.
To Be Continued
There are two more primary differences in the dyslexic brain: difficulty with procedural learning and left vs. right brain dominance. I'll cover those differences, practical impact, and how to adapt writing styles to accommodate for them in future posts.
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.