21 Jan

Writing rules the web page way

Clash of Culture rules - a list using graphics

Clash of Cultures Amazon rules – a list using graphics

You get a new game. You tear off the shrink, gently pry open the lid, inhale that beautiful new-game-chemicals stench, grab the rules and work your way through them, cover-to-cover, word-by-word, underlining and making little notes in the margins.

Or not. If you’re anything like the average gamer you’ll fiddle with the bits first. Then you’ll enjoy the pictures on the covers for a little while. Then you scan the rules, maybe looking for what a particular bit does. Only then you’ll read the rules.

Except that you won’t read the rules. You’ll scan them, skimming as much as you can while still retaining the information. When you hit a snag you’ll backtrack, looking for a clarification.

Are you really reading?No, likely you’re doing what Ginny Redish calls “holding a functional conversation” with the rules. You’re asking questions like “how do I?”, “what does this do?”, “am I allowed to…?” (No, you most certainly are not, you rule lawyer, you!) If you belong to the minority of gamers who start out by reading the rules cover to cover (possibly even before punching out the bits), you’re still going to be holding a functional conversation every time you need to refer back to them.

Pirates vs. Dinosaur rules - a list that doesn't look like a list.

Pirates vs. Dinosaurs Amazon rules – a list that doesn’t look like a list.

In that way you’re like a visitor to a web site. You come to the rules with a purpose, some form of question(s). You search for the answer and then you leave.

Web guru Jacob Nielsen states that 76% of all web visitors read less than 25% of the words on a page. I’m willing to wager that those numbers apply to rule readers as well – once we open the rules we scan for the answers to our questions. So if you want to make good rules you have to make them scanable.

3 rules for improved scanability

1. Write short (concise text).
2. Scanable layout.
3. Objective language.

Writing concisely is an art. Children are great at it but then they realize that they get better grades if they use lots of complex words. You’ll need to find your inner child. Use easy words and shorter sentences with one clear main idea and at most one additional idea per sentence. Use precise wordings and make sure that they’re consistent (no using two terms for the same thing or the same term for two different things – come up with two distinct terms). Write short. And do vary your sentence length.

Layout in a way that’s easy to scan. Use lists and bullet points where you can. Use good, illustrative, short headings and if applicable format them like sets of list so make them scanable (note that you don’t need to format headings vertically, just make sure that they and their contents are separated into chunks that don’t blend into each other). Put examples into a column of their own. Make columns slim, but not too slim (aim for 50-70 characters/line, less or more is harder to read). Use a legible sans-serif font. If you use bold or underlined text, use it sparingly and consistently – and check if you can’t get the same result by breaking up paragraphs and using precisely worded headings.

Objective language; that’s the same as “separate your rules from your fluff”. Fluff is fine, but plant it in a huge chunk up front or way down back. Or separate it graphically, treating fluff as you would art.

Following those rules improves web page usability by 124% (according to Nielsen). Maybe it will make an impact on game rules as well.

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