Why I’m Cool with Phones During Games

A lot of people hate on phones at the game table, and to some degree I get that. But every time I hear someone talk about how they ban phones during their game, I sigh and either try to explain the following or find someone else to talk to.

Here’s an incomplete list of perfectly valid reasons people will pull out their phones during your game:

They’re trying to keep up on something timely, like a message from work calling them in when they’re on-call, a family member who is likely to send an update about something or ask a question, or whatever other reason that is unlikely any of your business.

They’re engaging in your game by celebrating cool moments and sharing joy. AKA “livetweeting the game.” This is basically giving fan mail from Primetime Adventures. Whenever someone does this, I have hella appreciated their archiving because I got to also relive cool moments.

They’re dealing with social anxiety by creating a brief space to re-center themselves. Not everyone can be full-contact engaged for hours on end.

They’re checking up on friends in a potentially problematic environment. Turns out woman and non-binary folks have reason to be on guard at public places, and phones allow for a support network. Respect that.

They’re looking something up before saying something, maybe a rules thing or some fact about the world. They might not want to appear wrong, or may be hung up on a curiosity and sating that will help them get back to engagement.

Other people are boring them. Maybe they’re legit not engaged, and maybe that’s not even their fault. Instead of getting pissed at their engagement, consider that disengagement could be warranted. Roleplaying is a medium of mutual entertainment, and no one is good at executing that all the time.

Again, this isn’t comprehensive.

How to Seek Re-engagement

First off, assume their reason for going to their phone is valid. That’s just a good assumption overall.

Then when the game flows to needing their input, softly prompt them while not acknowledging they’re looking at their phone. “Alright, let’s get a scene with Kevin and Jamie. Where would we find Kevin and Jamie hanging out?”

If they’re too distracted to respond to that, then acknowledge the situation and ask if they’re still good to play. Maybe they actually need to disengage in the game entirely, but don’t have the social tools or perceived social currency to actually get up and walk away. Again, no judgment.

“But I like being judgmental against people I don’t understand.”

That’s how I hear most arguments against what I just said, though they tend to be worded like “I don’t care, I hate phones.” or other flatly non-empathetic statements. If you’re not gonna bother attempting empathy and understanding with people of different habits, at least wear a name tag that lets people know you’re a dick. It’ll save everyone headache.


3 Responses to Why I’m Cool with Phones During Games

  1. Kit says:

    Agreed. One person is always on but when we need her to engaged, she’s engaged. I had to get over myself feeling slighted and understand that maybe I’m not as wondrously entertaining as I thought I was.

  2. Greg Sanders says:

    As someone that largely doesn’t do convention games, this is an easier challenge for me, as I’m generally dealing with known quantities who I think I have a fairly easy time empathizing with or at least am aware of the challenges in question.

    With that said, one of the big reasons I’d generally discourage phones at the table is that I find my phone addictive and distracting in a wide variety of circumstances. Thus, while I think there are good reasons to avoid a flat ban, I can also respect a norm that discourages phone use but that understands that there are a range of exceptions.

    So I guess my point is that I think it could be a healthy dynamic for a table to decide on restrictions on phone usage, and keep in mind some logical exceptions. This won’t work for all tables, and may be more appropriate for environments where people already know each other. But I can see the point in banning them with exceptions not just because I think other people’s usage is a problem at times, but because I fear mine own could be.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      “With exception” is a fantastic way to create a shame situation where people have to justify themselves to you. So yeah, I’m the opposite of enthused by that mentality.